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Goldstone on Israeli War Crimes: “Never Mind”

Be honest — did you see this one coming?

Richard Goldstone has pulled back from the accusations contained in the UN’s Goldstone report that Israel committed war crimes and intentionally targeted civilians during Operation Cast Lead. “The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion,” he writes in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, thus confirming that as far as the UN was concerned, in the absence of evidence, the Israelis were guilty.

The damage caused by the Goldstone Report to Israel’s reputation was severe, and there is indignant talk here this morning about the insufficient level of contrition contained in Goldstone’s mea culpa. I suggest we focus instead on the attention his editorial has brought to Hamas’s contemptuous flouting of international law (since its contemptuous flouting of the value of Israeli lives tends to provoke yawns rather than outrage). Goldstone points out that “the laws of armed conflict apply no less to non-state actors such as Hamas than they do to national armies” — an obvious point, perhaps, but obscure to the august thinkers who populate the UN Human Rights Council. They don’t listen to us, but they might listen to Goldstone.

A pipe dream, you say? Could be. But this public declaration of the accountability of Hamas sets what might turn out to be a useful precedent. Goldstone not only retreated from the report’s accusation that Israel targeted civilians but stated that Hamas did do so, and continues to do so — and added that it is the obligation of the Human Rights Council to address Hamas’s ongoing assault on Israeli civilians. “That comparatively few Israelis have been killed by the unlawful rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in no way minimizes the criminality,” he writes. “The U.N. Human Rights Council should condemn these heinous acts in the strongest terms.”

Aluf Benn, writing in Haaretz, makes the point that Goldstone’s editorial might reap other benefits too. “Goldstone’s op-ed provides Turkey and Israel the opportunity to rehabilitate their relations, which soured over Cast Lead,” he writes. “If Israel’s explanations [of Cast Lead] are worthy of consideration, it may mean its explanations about the flotilla are, too.”

It would be nice if, as Netanyahu has proposed, the Goldstone Report is shelved once and for all, but that’s unlikely. A rewrite would be nice. But an admission by the jurist at the head of the report that it was fundamentally flawed is significant in and of itself. Goldstone’s retraction is unlikely to reverse the tide of Israel’s delegitimization to any great extent, but it’s surely to be celebrated that every once in a while, truth gets a toehold. Especially when it happens at the UN.