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October 23, 2009

Were War Crimes Committed in Gaza?

(Photo by Robin Holland)

This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with Justice Richard Goldstone, a respected figure in international law who headed the controversial UN Human Rights Council investigation into Israel and Hamas’ actions during military operations in Gaza that began last December.

While the resulting ‘Goldstone Report’ concluded that both sides had committed war crimes and, potentially, crimes against humanity, it was especially harsh in its condemnation of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for their actions in Gaza, saying that they were “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to the UN in which he argued that the report was unfair and morally misguided. The released text of the speech says:

“For eight long years, Hamas fired from Gaza thousands of missiles, mortars, and rockets on nearby Israeli cities. Year after year, as these missiles were deliberately hurled at our civilians, not a single UN resolution was passed condemning those criminal attacks. We heard nothing, absolutely nothing, from the UN Human Rights Council, a misnamed institution if ever there was one... Faced with an enemy committing a double war crime of firing on civilians while hiding behind civilians, Israel sought to conduct surgical strikes against the rocket launchers. That was no easy task because the terrorists were firing missiles from homes and schools, using mosques as weapons depots and ferrying explosives in ambulances. Israel, by contrast, tried to minimize casualties by urging Palestinian civilians to vacate the targeted areas... Never has a country gone to such extraordinary lengths to remove the enemy’s civilian population from harm’s way. Yet faced with such a clear case of aggressor and victim, who did the UN Human Rights Council decide to condemn? Israel. A democracy legitimately defending itself from terror is morally hanged, drawn and quartered, and given an unfair trial to boot. By these twisted standards, the UN Human Rights Council would have dragged Roosevelt and Churchill to the dock as war criminals. What a perversion of truth, what a perversion of justice.”

On the JOURNAL, Justice Goldstone addressed critics of the report and described his experience conducting the investigation in Gaza:

“I would like to see [critics’] response to the substance [of the report], particularly the attack on the infrastructure of Gaza, which seems to me to be absolutely unjustifiable... I saw the destruction of the only flour-producing factory in Gaza. I saw fields plowed up by Israeli tank bulldozers... I had to have the very emotional and difficult interviews with fathers whose little daughters were killed, whose families were killed... It was a very difficult investigation which will give me nightmares for the rest of my life.”

Bill Moyers then asked Goldstone why he considers Israel’s actions to have been war crimes. Goldstone said:

"[In] humanitarian law, really fundamental is what’s known as the principle of distinction. It requires commanders, troops, all people involved in war to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and then there’s a question of proportionality. One can, in war, target a military target, and there can be what’s euphemistically referred to as ‘collateral damage,’ but the collateral damage must be proportionate to the military aim. If you can take out a munitions factory in an urban area with a loss of 100 lives, or you can use a bomb twice at large and take out the same factory and kill 2000 people, the latter would be a war crime. The former wouldn’t... We found that [Hamas’] firing of many thousands of rockets and mortars at a civilian population to constitute a serious war crime, and we said possibly crimes against humanity... It’s difficult to deal equally with a state party with the sort of sophisticated army Israel has, with an air force and a navy and the most sophisticated weapons [and] with Hamas using really improvised, imprecise armaments. It’s difficult to equate their power.”

Click here to review the Goldstone report and some of the voices responding to it.

What do you think?

  • Do you believe that war crimes were committed in Gaza? If so, by whom?

  • Considering Israel’s tactical and technological advantage, would you weigh the IDF and Hamas differently when considering possible war crimes? Explain.

  • Are the conclusions of the Goldstone report fair? Why or why not?

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