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Guest: Anti-Israel report does nothing to advance peace

BY GERALD SOROKIN - GUEST OPINION | NOVEMBER 30, 2009 7:20 AM

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The report of the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission into Israel’s incursion into Gaza has generated controversy among critics of Israel, critics of Hamas, and critics of the United Nations. Its report, which contains serious accusations of Israeli war crimes, is one-sided in focus, relies extensively on poorly documented testimony, and applies shifting standards of international law to assess human-rights violations. Not only is it not an accurate examination of the Gaza war itself, its implications will exacerbate the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The Obama administration was correct to vote against its adoption.

Far from proving that Israel engaged in a campaign of aggression against a defenseless target, in which its soldiers repeatedly committed war crimes, the Goldstone Report offers unsubstantiated anecdotes as proof of Israel’s malicious intent and murderous behavior. Members of the commission went into the investigation with their minds already made up. It wasn’t a fact-finding mission; it was an opinion-confirming mission. And that opinion held that Israel was responsible and Hamas was blameless.

Like many supporters of Israel, I was convinced that a military retaliation to the continued shelling of Israeli population centers was not only justified but necessary last winter. In the years after Israel withdrew from Gaza, thousands of rockets had been launched with the aim of killing, injuring, and otherwise terrorizing the population of Israeli towns. Economic isolation and purely defensive measures were clearly not succeeding. Diplomatic negotiations with Hamas, which refuses to accept the legitimacy of Israel’s existence, were not realistic. A direct military response was called for and undertaken.

The results, as with most military operations, were mixed: While some of Israel’s military goals were met, the cost in Palestinian civilian casualties and damaged property was tragically high. Critics of Israel questioned the proportionality of Israel’s actions, arguing that because the number of Palestinians killed by the Israel Defense Force dwarfed that of Israelis killed by Hamas, Israel had overreacted. More troubling, rumors began circulating of deliberate Israeli actions — carried out by Israeli soldiers either acting on their own or, worse still, at the behest of their commanders — that targeted civilians in their homes, mosques, and shops. War crimes. Genocide.

Because of limited media access during the incursion and ambiguity about who qualifies as a civilian in an area controlled by Hamas, many of these rumors gained traction. Far from acknowledging Israel’s restraint in issuing detailed warnings to Gaza civilians as Israeli soldiers sought out weapons caches and military hideouts, much of the “analysis” of the conflict focused purely on the numbers.

That Hamas placed its fighters in residential neighborhoods, effectively using civilians as human shields, was underplayed in the Goldstone Report. If that’s not a human-rights violation, what is?
More generally, the Goldstone Report does not do an effective job of evaluating the extent to which Israeli officers upheld generally accepted principles of wartime ethics, including necessity, distinction, and proportionality (for an excellent discussion, see “The Goldstone Illusion,” which was printed earlier this month in The New Republic). These concepts have specific meanings in international law; whether Israel violated them a little, a lot, or not at all is not clear from the report. It may be necessary for Israel to uncover and acknowledge mistakes, take punitive action, and establish better standards for future military actions. But the Goldstone Report is no help.

Gerald Sorokin is the director of the Hillel.


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