What Exactly Did Goldstone 'Retract' From His Report on Gaza?

Richard Goldstone's strange op-ed, in which he backtracked on his report claiming Israel targeted civilians, does not seem to be grounded in the UN's final report on Cast Lead.

Akiva Eldar
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Akiva Eldar

The president of Israel has asked the United Nations to shelve it, the prime minister has thrown it in the trash bin of history and the Im Tirtzu movement has turned it into an indictment against the New Israel Fund.

All of them are celebrating Judge Richard Goldstone's "repentant" op-ed in The Washington Post and especially the sentence: "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document."

In this June 3, 2009, photo, UN investigator Richard Goldstone visits the destroyed house where members of the Samouni family were killed during the Gaza war. Credit: AP

The South African Jewish judge headed the UN Human Rights Council's fact-finding mission on the events of Operation Cast Lead - which issued a report accusing Israel of war crimes. He is now basing his mea culpa on the final report of an independent United Nations panel of experts.

The findings of the committee headed by New York Judge Mary McGowan Davis, which tracked the implementation of the recommendations in the Goldstone report, were published last month. According to Goldstone, the McGowan Davis report findings indicate that Israel did not have an explicit policy of causing intentional harm to civilians. This is the "retraction" everyone is rejoicing over.

However, reading the final UN report reveals that the committee didn't come anywhere near that conclusion. On the contrary. The committee states repeatedly that according to the information presented to it, "Israel does not appear to have conducted a general review of doctrine regarding military targets" (i.e. Israel did not discuss at all on which targets it is legitimate to open fire and on which it is not ).

Goldstone's op-ed seems to imply that the committee of experts, as opposed to his commission, was afforded the cooperation of the Israeli authorities. It turns out this is untrue. The American judge was not treated any differently by Israel and she even complains of this in the report. She notes that because of this she had to rely solely on public government reports, which relied on human rights organizations.

She also stresses that the committee did not succeed in ascertaining whether Israel has indeed investigated all 36 of the incidents discussed in the Goldstone report. This, she says, exemplifies the vagueness of the information put at her disposal. And as if this were not enough, the report also points to flaws in a series of investigations concerning civilian deaths, among them women and children.

In the best case, those who are rejoicing over Goldstone's op-ed have not bothered to read the UN reports. In the worst case, they have read the reports and have chosen to keep them out of the public eye. Both UN reports state that despite 36 Israel Defense Forces investigations of the grave incidents mentioned in the Goldstone report, only one indictment has been filed. Moreover, both reports reach the conclusion that "given the seriousness of the allegations, the military investigations thus far appear to have produced very little."

Thus, for example, the UN team of experts expresses special concern with regard to an incident of using Palestinian children for purposes of checking suspicious objects. Overall, states the committee with regret, the investigations have gone on very slowly and without transparency for two years, which "could seriously impair their effectiveness and, therefore, the prospects of ultimately achieving accountability and justice." No mention of this in Goldstone's op-ed.

The committee of experts also notes it has no information indicating Israel has undertaken any investigations in the wake of the Goldstone conclusions concerning serious incidents in the West Bank (which is also discussed in the initial report ). Therefore, Israel has not fulfilled its obligation under the UN Convention Against Torture to investigate those complaints.

In the report from this March, which Goldstone has chosen to rely on for some reason, the committee declares the investigations of the policy makers must be carried out by an independent investigation commission and not by Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit.

The report states that according to Mendelblit's testimony, his dual role as both chief prosecutor and legal advisor to the army makes it impossible for him to investigate those who shaped, planned, commanded and supervised Operation Cast Lead.

The committee notes that even now, over two years after the operation in Gaza - it is not in possession of new information enabling it to change its opinion that Israel has not examined its doctrine concerning the question of what constitutes a military target.

I asked Goldstone to help point out even a single word in the two reports that could justify his vague statement about the non-existence of the policy on harming civilians - while both reports repeatedly criticize Israel for not having investigated this issue at all.

Apologizing politely, the South African freedom fighter said he had imposed media silence on himself.

A pity. I had hoped I would be able to ask him if the op-ed was connected to unbearable pressures applied to him since the publication of the report. He himself, after all, told me less than a year ago about the attempt to ban him from his grandson's bar mitzvah at a synagogue in Johannesburg.

Perhaps his strange op-ed is a bid by him to secure a place of honor at the Passover seder table.

Still waiting in Silwan

It will soon be a year since a statement was made to the Jerusalem District Court on behalf of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein that "regrettably," concerning the order to evacuate and seal Beit Yehonatan in East Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood, "there has been improper interference on the part of political elements on the local committee, who acted without authority to delay its implementation."

Another year has gone by and the seven-story building illegally erected eight years ago has been neither evacuated nor sealed. According to the Justice Ministry spokesman, "Recently the attorney general has acceded to requests from the government to delay implementation of court orders in East Jerusalem because there exists a public interest in this."

The spokesman nevertheless promised that "the attorney general has acted in the past and is continuing to act to bring about implementation of the order soon." We won't forget.