Allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity capped a five-month investigation by the United Nations into the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces during their incursion into Gaza last winter. The report, released on Sept. 15 and named after its lead investigator, the international jurist Richard J. Goldstone, also condemns the indiscriminate missile attacks by Hamas into southern Israel that provoked the bloody conflict, but it reserves its harshest assessment for the I.D.F.’s brutal conduct of the war.
Judge Goldstone, a South African, was the chief prosecutor for the U.N.’s international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. His credentials are impeccable and his reputation previously unassailable. Now he is the target of character assassination in Israel, where the report has been received with outrage. In the United States the report has been described as “unfair” by the Obama administration, which appears to be laying the political foundation for dismissing it.
That would be regrettable. The report’s findings offer a depressing collection of cautionary tales that deserve a hearing in the United States as it pursues Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world. According to the investigation, the behavior of the I.D.F. in Gaza was objectionable in a distressing number of incidents: missile attacks on Gaza police that began the operation; artillery attacks on U.N. compounds and schools; the use of white phosphorus ordnance over civilian targets; and far too lax rules of engagement, which led to the killing of many Gazans who were doing nothing worse than running for shelter or seeking food or clean water for their families during the brutal three-week campaign.
By the end of Operation Cast Lead, 1,400 Palestinians had been killed and 5,500 wounded. According to a report from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, 773 of the Palestinians killed in the assault did not take part in the hostilities, including 320 minors and 109 women over the age of 18. During the period of the conflict, Hamas rockets and fighters killed nine Israelis, including three civilians, and four I.D.F. soldiers were killed by friendly fire.
It is hard to believe that the Israeli strategy, as the report notes, did not reflect a deliberate if unspoken intention among Israeli hardliners to inflict collective punishment on the entrapped Gazan community in retribution for its support of Hamas. Subsequently, Israeli public opinion appears to be drifting toward a disheartening acceptance of collective punishment as a legitimate means for diminishing or even liquidating Hamas. It is therefore crucial now for the government of Israel to acknowledge its obligations under international law to protect noncombatants in combat zones.
The U.S. public likewise has rights and responsibilities in this region. Our ongoing military and economic support for Israel makes the United States complicit in Israel’s strategic decisions. The welfare of the Palestinian people, owing to their unique and vulnerable status, remains the responsibility of the international community. If collective punishment is to be the ongoing policy of the Israeli government, officially or otherwise, the U.S. public should understand the implications of such a position and press for an appropriate adjustment of U.S. foreign policy.
It is possible in this instance both to agree that Israel has the right to defend itself against such attacks and to insist that this right does not give a green light to unlimited use of force. The I.D.F. faces a difficult fight with an elusive opponent, but it also confronts a civilian population in no position to defend itself from the I.D.F. and its American-made hardware and no practical way to escape from its ferocious path. Even in the heat of battle, the I.D.F. cannot escape its responsibility to distinguish between civilians and militants.
Israel’s own traditions require it to do better. As the Mishneh Torah’s Laws of Kings and Their Wars (6:7) puts it: “When a city is under siege, the blockade should not include all four sides. One side should be left open to allow the inhabitants to flee for their lives.” In Gaza last winter, no such quarter was offered the unfortunate inhabitants.
Israel has a long history of ignoring U.N. resolutions, and the I.D.F. has a similarly poor history of investigating the excesses of its troops. Nine Israeli human rights organizations are calling for a thorough investigation of the Goldstone Report’s charges. The Obama administration, which will be under extreme pressure to neutralize the report at the United Nations, should instead join them in insisting that a truly independent body revisit the bloodletting in Gaza. If Israel refuses, the United States should support the report’s recommendation to bring the matter before the International Criminal Court. A good friend stands by his friend; a really good friend knows when to stand up to him as well.