Two questions face countries that have gone to war. Was the cause just? And, where possible, did the troops do their utmost to spare civilians? It was over the second of those questions that Israel found itself under a cloud on September 15th, when a United Nations mission accused it of having deliberately committed war crimes during its three-week attack on Gaza that ended in January. Yet this week’s report was deeply flawed. In a conflict where missed opportunities are as common as Qassam rockets, the risk is that both sides will now conclude the wrong thing: Arabs that Israel has just been found guilty; and Israel that it will never get a fair hearing in a hostile world.
From the very start, this report had to overcome the taint of prejudice. It was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, an anti-Israeli outfit notorious for having congratulated Sri Lanka’s government on brutal conduct that led to appalling loss of life among Tamil civilians. Israel refused co-operation. But the mission was headed by a respected international jurist, Richard Goldstone. A Jew himself, Mr Goldstone insisted on scrutinising the conduct of Hamas as well as Israel. There was hope that he might wrestle the inquiry into balance.
Yet the report takes the very thing it is investigating as its central organising premise. Israeli policy in Gaza, it argues, was deliberately and systematically to inflict suffering on civilians, rather than Hamas fighters (see article). Israel’s assertions that, in the difficult circumstances of densely populated Gaza, it planned its military operations carefully and with constant legal advice are taken by the report as evidence not of a concern to uphold international law but of a culpable determination to flout it. Israel’s attempts to drop warning leaflets, direct civilians out of danger zones and call daily humanitarian pauses may well have been inadequate, but the report counts them for nought. As many as 1,400 people died in the fighting. It is a grisly thought, but if Israel really had wanted to make Palestinian civilians suffer, the toll could have been vastly higher.
Israel has argued that Hamas fighters endangered civilians by basing themselves around schools, mosques and hospitals. The mission had Hamas’s co-operation, but its fact-finders could detect little or no evidence for this—despite plenty of reports in the public domain to support it. The report does criticise Hamas for firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel and for using the conflict as cover to settle scores with its Palestinian rivals. But its seemingly wilful blindness to other evidence makes that look like a dash for political cover.
To some, Israel’s Gaza war will always be in principle unjust: a disproportionate response to Hamas’s rockets. Indeed, the suffering in Gaza, from war and the economic blockade, has been grievous. They may be tempted to applaud Mr Goldstone’s report for that reason alone. Yet if the mere fact of Israel’s attack were enough to condemn it then Mr Goldstone’s report was pointless all along. And there is a danger of double standards. American and European forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo also caused thousands of civilian deaths, without attracting a Goldstone.
The pity is that the report frustrates the objective that Israel should be striving for: to hold its politicians and soldiers to the highest standards of Israeli and international law. After its costly war in Lebanon in 2006, Israel plainly chose to minimise its own casualties by using massive firepower in Gaza. It went too far. There have been credible allegations that individual soldiers broke rules banning the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields sent first into properties where fighters may be holed up; that civilians known not to pose any military threat were killed in cold blood and that Israeli forces used white phosphorous over built-up areas. Israel is pursuing 23 criminal investigations so far into the Gaza operations. It must finish the job. Unlike Syria, say, Israel is a democracy that claims to live by the rule of law. It needs to make its case by moral force as well as by force of arms.
The UN report has not come at a good moment. Barack Obama is trying to restart direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The peace process was never going to be easy. With its thimbleful of poison, the Goldstone report has made the job all the harder.