I’m a little late with it, but I hope people will take the time to read this excellent piece by Moshe Halbertal in The New Republic examining in detail (aside from him, how many have actually read the whole thing?) the UN-sponsored Goldstone report on the Israeli military operation Cast Lead in Gaza last winter.
The first sentence is (or ought to be) telling:
In 2000, I was asked by the Israel Defense Forces to join a group of philosophers, lawyers, and generals for the purpose of drafting the army’s ethics code.
Think about that. How many of the world’s armies– especially those engaged in all-too-frequent combat– are concerned enough about ethics to develop such a code, and to include philosophers in the process?
Now of course Israel’s enemies will claim it is all just for show– a PR stunt. Such people lack the most fundamental understanding of Israeli society. The difficult matter of balancing Israel’s security with the objective of minimizing harm to non-combatants is one that most Israelis take very seriously. It is the subject of a great deal of debate in the country. The matter becomes even more difficult when one side in the fighting deliberately places itself among the civilian population.
Halbertal agrees with those who consider the Goldstone report fundamentally flawed and biased against Israel. But he doesn’t let Israel off the hook.
For example he writes:
Israel’s goal in its struggle with Hamas and Hezbollah is to reverse their attempt to strengthen themselves politically by means of their morally bankrupt strategy. Rather than being drawn into a war of all against all and everywhere, Israel has sought to isolate the militants from their environment: to mark them and “clothe” them with a uniform, and to force them to a definite front. The moral restraints in this case are of great strategic value. I am convinced, for this reason, that targeted killing, especially of the militants’ leadership, is an effective and legitimate endeavor. It is for this same reason that I believe that Israel’s siege of Gaza, and its harsh effect upon general civilian life, is morally problematic and strategically counterproductive.
Then there is the anguishing question of putting Israeli soldiers’ lives at risk to protect civilians in a combat area.
As far as I know, such an expectation is not demanded in international law–but it is demanded in Israel’s military code, and this has always been its tradition. In Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, for example, Israeli army units faced a tough battle in the Jenin refugee camp. The army refused to opt for the easy military solution–aerial bombardment of the camp–because it would have resulted in many civilian deaths, and it elected instead to engage in house-to-house combat, losing 23 soldiers in the battle. This norm of taking risks with soldiers’ lives in order to avoid civilian deaths came under criticism in Israel, but I believe that it is right. Innocent civilian lives are important enough to obligate such risks. And, if commanders are told that they do not have to assume such risk, then they will shoot at any suspicious person, which will result in widespread killing.
It is my impression that the Israeli army in Gaza did not provide clear guidance on the matter of whether soldiers have to assume risk. Some units took risks in the Gaza in order to avoid the collateral killing of civilians, while some units accepted the policy of no risk to soldiers. This does not amount to a war crime, but it is a wrong policy…
These are not simple issues. They are also not political issues. They are the occasions of deep moral struggle, because they are matters of life and death. If you are looking for an understanding of these issues, or for guidance about them, in the Goldstone Report, you will not find it.
Again refuting Goldstone, Halbertal writes:
[T]here is a huge moral difference between the accusation that Israel did not do enough to minimize collateral civilian death and the claim that Israel targeted civilians intentionally. It might well be that Israel should have done more than it did to minimize collateral deaths–it is a harsh enough claim, and it deserves a thorough examination. But the claim that Israel intentionally targeted civilians as a policy of war is false and slanderous.
The Goldstone Report as a whole is a terrible document. It is biased and unfair. It offers no help in sorting out the real issues. What methods can Israel–and other countries in similar situations–legitimately apply in the defense of their citizens?
This is a question that reflexive Israel bashers never seem to want to deal with.
But he concludes:
A mere denunciation of the report will not suffice. Israel must establish an independent investigation into the concrete allegations that the report makes. By clearing up these issues, by refuting what can be refuted, and by admitting wrongs when wrongs were done, Israel can establish the legitimacy of its self-defense in the next round, as well as honestly deal with its own failures.