Not so fast

Goldstone backed away from the controversial charge that Israel targeted civilians as a matter of policy, but the allegations of serious laws-of-war violations remain.

The Israeli government claims that Justice Richard Goldstone’s recent Washington Post op-ed exonerates the country from the Goldstone Report’s charge that IDF forces committed war crimes during the 2008-09 Gaza conflict. Not so fast. Goldstone backed away from a particularly controversial charge in the report – one that Human Rights Watch, for example, never made.
But the allegations of serious laws-ofwar violations remain and have yet to see the credible domestic investigations that they require.
Goldstone’s shift focuses on his allegation that Israel had an apparent policy to target civilians.
He now says that information from Israeli investigations “indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”
Human Rights Watch investigated some – but far from all – the cases addressed in the Goldstone Report. We examined, among others, instances in which Israeli troops fired at and killed 11 Palestinian civilians who had been waving white flags, and cases in which Israeli drone operators fired on and killed 29 people from the same family, including five children playing on rooftops, even though drone technology offers the capacity and time to determine whether the targets were combatants.
These cases were too isolated for us to conclude that they reflected a policy decision to target civilians – a position with which Goldstone now agrees.
But Goldstone has not retreated from the report’s many documented allegations of serious laws-of-war violations by IDF forces – violations that cost many civilian lives. These include Israel’s indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and white phosphorous in densely populated areas and its massive and deliberate destruction of civilian buildings and infrastructure without a lawful military reason. This conduct was so widespread and systematic that it clearly reflected Israeli policy.
GOLDSTONE’S COMMENTS about Israeli investigations were similarly nuanced and limited. First, he wrote, the investigations “established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers.”
In other words, Israeli investigations have not disproved the Report’s allegations of apparent war crimes by particular soldiers. Second, Goldstone shares the concerns of the recent UN experts’ report that Israel has concluded few inquiries and that its proceedings lacked transparency.
In fact, Israel’s investigations look good only by comparison with Hamas, which has done nothing to investigate its war crimes. As the recent UN experts’ report notes, the IDF has investigated the conduct of individual soldiers in some 400 alleged cases of operational misconduct in Gaza. But the UN report raised serious doubts about the thoroughness of these investigations. To date, Israeli military prosecutors have indicted only four soldiers and convicted three. Only one soldier has served jail time (7.5 months) for stealing a credit card.
Human Rights Watch has also documented the IDF’s failure to investigate many serious allegations of abuses. In some cases closed by military prosecutors, Human Rights Watch found evidence that strongly suggests violations of the laws of war.
Most important, Israel has failed to investigate adequately the policy-level decisions that apparently resulted in wide-scale attacks in Gaza. Those decisions are obviously the most sensitive because they involve senior officials.
Moreover, as the UN report points out, the impartiality of the Military Advocate General in charge of investigations must be questioned because he would be expected to have taken part in those policy decisions. Israeli human rights organizations have repeatedly called for independent, non-military investigations into the IDF’s conduct during Operation Cast Lead, but the government has refused.
The government is neglecting these crucial details in its effort to bury the Goldstone Report. Even after Goldstone’s op-ed, many of the report’s serious allegations remain unaddressed. Will the Israeli government live up to its duty to credibly investigate these charges and hold violators to account?
The writer is executive director of Human Rights Watch.