Why Goldstone’s ‘Edit’ Won’t Ease Pressure on Israel

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Judge Richard Goldstone’s Sunday op ed in the Washington Post reconsidering the allegation in his 2009 UN report that Israel had deliberately targeted Palestinian civilians in its 2008/9 Gaza war was greeted with premature euphoria in Israeli circles. Goldstone himself made clear, Wednesday, that he has no intention of withdrawing any part of his report, but had simply sought to correct its claim that the civilian casualties caused by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead had been the result of an intentional policy to target non-combatants.

“As appears from the Washington Post article, information subsequent to publication of the report did meet with the view that one correction should be made with regard to intentionality on the part of Israel,” the South African jurist told the AP. “Further information as a result of domestic investigations could lead to further reconsideration, but as presently advised I have no reason to believe any part of the report needs to be reconsidered at this time.”

But Goldstone is almost incidental to the diplomatic crisis Israel faces right now: Earlier this week, it was reported that Israel’s diplomatic security chief, Brig. Gen. Amos Gilad, had warned in a closed-door briefing that the country’s diplomatic isolation would likely to deepen and grow more perilous in the coming months — because of the paralysis in the peace process with the Palestinians. Defense Minister Ehud Barak had previously warned that Israel faces a “diplomatic tsunami” because the international community was no longer willing to accept the stalemate in the peace process — a stalemate for which the international consensus holds Netanyahu primarily responsible.

Suggestions that a new Israeli Gaza operation may become more likely as a result of Goldstone’s op-ed somehow removing restraints on their actions also miss the wider diplomatic context: For the international community, the key question is not what tactics are permissible by Israel and Hamas in a future Gaza war, but rather how to avoid such a war by transforming the inherently unstable stalemate that followed Israel’s Operation Cast Lead into a formal cease-fire, as part of a rapid movement towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

Goldstone’s op ed withdraws the charge of “intentionality” over the civilian casualties inflicted by Israel’s operation in light of the findings of Israeli inquiries conducted subsequent to the report’s release — inquiries which, Israeli journalist Aluf Benn argues,  would not have been undertaken were it not for stir created by Goldstone’s original accusations. Goldstone wrote that despite some incidents of civilians being killed by Israeli soldiers, “civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.” Even to some of the harshest critics of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead,the charge that it had targeted civilians as a matter of policy always seemed somewhat far-fetched, even demonic — given the weaponry at Israel’s disposal it’s safe to say that had Israel’s policy been to deliberately and systematically target civilians, the  Palestinian casualty count would have been many times higher.  But, at the same time, there’s no doubt that the conduct of a military campaign of the type that Israel waged in an area as densely populated as Gaza would inevitably involve high levels of civilian casualties. Goldstone has not withdrawn his report’s charges of serious violations of the laws of war in Israel’s campaign, even if he’s dropping the charge of premeditated murder of civilians.

He has also reiterated and amplified his demand that the force of international law also be brought to bear against Hamas for indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians with its mortar and rocket fire out Gaza, and condemned the organization for failing to respond to his report’s call for internal inquiry on the matter.

The last Gaza war occurred in the context of a crippling economic blockade and an undeclared cease-fire that both sides accused the other of violating.  Despite its brutal toll, the war ended inconclusively, with the blockade still in place, another unspoken truce, and both sides speaking and acting on the assumption that another round of fighting was inevitable. But even though tensions are again escalating along the Israel-Gaza boundary, in the current climate of international humanitarian intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast, and growing international impatience with Israel over the paralysis in the peace process, there’s unlikely to be much international tolerance for another  war in which hundreds of Palestinians are killed in a high-tech pounding of one of the world’s most densely populated urban complexes. Nothing would do more to ensure an anti-American turn in the Arab rebellion.

There is, of course, unchanged international sympathy for Israel’s complaint that rocket and mortar fire from Gaza on its towns and cities is intolerable. Hamas has largely maintained the informal cease-fire over the past two years, but its efforts to restrain rival smaller factions from firing at Israel have frayed recently, and the organization’s militants have fired a number of volleys of their own, in retaliation, they say, for Israeli assassinations of their members. Those fusillades bring more air strikes, and the familiar cycle escalates dangerously. But even as pressure grows within the ranks of Hamas’ armed wing for an escalation and for removing the restraints on action by other factions, there’s unlikely to be much support among its Gaza public for another bruising confrontation with the Israelis. Even some Hamas leaders have publicly questioned the wisdom of firing rockets into Israel.

The Hamas speaker of the Palestinian legislature, Aziz Abu Dweik, for example, last year told the Wall Street Journal that “When we use violence, we help Israel win international support. The Gaza flotilla [the activist aid shipments sent to challenge the blockade, which Israel intercepted, killing nine people in a clash aboard one of the vessels] has done more for Gaza than 10,000 rockets.” That was a stunning repudiation of the movement’s military efforts by one of its top leaders. But there are clearly still many in Hamas committed to  using violence to challenge Israel.

Still, while the international community will likely seek to use the sort of consensus it achieved over Libya to avoid another flare up in Gaza — the cooperation of Qatar on Libya bodes well, given its good offices with Hamas leadership — it is also giving notice that the present condition in Gaza, and indeed, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, are untenable. Avoiding violence in Gaza, and possibly in the West Bank, also, ultimately requires a political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And on that front, as Gen. Gilad warned, Israel is in the hot seat.