Goldstone caves

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Richard Goldstone recanted a portion of his report condemning Israel for war crimes in the Cast Lead operation, writing,

We know a lot more today about what happened in the Gaza war of 2008-09 than we did when I chaired the fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council that produced what has come to be known as the Goldstone Report. If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.[1]

But the United Nations Council is in no hurry to retract the report. Apparently, “the ‘Committee of Experts’ followup report on the Goldstone Report [which Goldstone cited as showing Israel had not intentionally targeted civilians] was actually much more critical of Israel than implied by Goldstone’s op-ed.”[2] Apparently also, “Goldstone would have to submit a formal request to the Geneva-based body, which he has not done.”[3] And even to the extent that the “Committee of Experts” report exculpates Israel, its credibility is undermined by its author: the Israeli military, which apparently regarded the claim as “blood libel,” which is hardly reassuring as to the report’s impartiality. And the Christian Science Monitor observes that four out of five principal allegations against Israel are unaffected by Goldstone’s latest revelation.[4] All of which leaves Ilan Pappe, Professor of History and Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, rather unimpressed:

That this mea culpa has nothing to do with new facts is clear when one examines the “evidence” brought by Goldstone to explain his retraction. To be honest, one should say that one did not have to be the world expert on international law to know that Israel committed war crimes in Gaza in 2009. The reports of bodies such as Breaking the Silence and the UN representatives on the ground attested to it, before and after the Goldstone report. It was also not the only evidence.[5]

From what I can see, Pappe is right. Goldstone exonerates Israel’s military from a purposeful degree of culpability. But there are other degrees of culpability, which though less severe, remain criminal, as Jeffrey Reiman explains:

Here’s an example to help understand the legally recognized degrees of culpability: Suppose a construction worker digs a trench in a neighborhood where children regularly play, and leaves the trench uncovered. One rainy day, children are killed while playing the trench when its walls cave in on them. If the construction worker dug the trench and left it uncovered in order to kill the children, then their deaths were caused purposely. But suppose that the trench was dug and left uncovered not in order to harm the children, but knowing that children played in the area. Then, their deaths were brought about knowingly. If digging the ditch and leaving it uncovered was done without knowledge that children played in the area, but without making sure that they did not, then their deaths were brought about recklessly. Finally, if the trench was dug and left uncovered without knowledge that children played in the area and some, but inadequate, precautions were taken to make sure no children were there, then their deaths were brought about negligently.[6]

In Reiman’s example, many states in the United States would regard the deaths caused even by extreme recklessness as murder.[7] Goldstone’s claim to exonerate Israel of war crimes, therefore, can only be explained if the standards for culpability are different in international law.

But contrary to a claim in the Goldstone report, international law requires combatants to take all necessary precautions to protect non-combatant civilians.[8] By any standard of culpability, Israel’s actions constitute war crimes because the mere existence of a civilian death toll indicates the inadequacy of any precautions that were taken. The use of white phosphorus over a United Nations compound in Gaza City,[9] for example, was extremely reckless at the very least.

Both the Associated Press and Pappe note that Goldstone, a Jewish South African jurist, came under intense personal attack following publication of his report in 2009.[10] I am reluctant to invoke Albert Memmi’s description of Jewish community as central to Jewish identity,[11] and which Goldstone may have felt ostracized from, because the Jewish community is not monolithic and not unanimous in its support for Israel’s policies in Palestinian territory. But the evidence supporting Goldstone’s new conclusion appears thin.

  1. [1]Richard Goldstone, “Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and war crimes,” Washington Post, April 1, 2011,
  2. [2]Saed Bannoura, “UN Council: Will Not Retract Goldstone Report Due To Op-ed By Chief Investigator,” International Middle East Media Center, April 5, 2011,
  3. [3]Associated Press, “UN official: Goldstone must request repeal of Gaza war crimes report before it can be canceled,” Washington Post, April 4, 2011,
  4. [4]Ariel Zirulnick, “Goldstone Report: Reexamining 5 key findings,” Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2011,
  5. [5]Ilan Pappe, “Goldstone’s shameful U-turn,” Electronic Intifada, April 4, 2011,
  6. [6]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2004), 69.
  7. [7]Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.
  8. [8]United Nations, “The International Human Rights System 11/11” [2004],
  9. [9]Zirulnick, “Goldstone Report: Reexamining 5 key findings.”
  10. [10]Associated Press, “UN official: Goldstone must request repeal;” and Pappe, “Goldstone’s shameful U-turn.”
  11. [11]Albert Memmi, Portrait of a Jew (New York: Viking, 1971).

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