In "The Goldstone Illusion", Prof. Moshe Halbertal reserves his greatest ire for those sections of the Goldstone report that deal with the historical context of the Gaza operation, and a review of Israel's activities on the West Bank:
The commission that wrote the report could have performed a great service if it had concentrated on gathering the testimonies from Gaza and assessing them critically, while acknowledging (as it failed to do) that they are partial and incomplete. This would have forced Israel to investigate various matters, provide answers, and take appropriate measures. (I do not imagine Hamas engaging in such an investigation of its own crimes. This is yet another asymmetry.) But instead the commission opted to add to its findings three unnecessary elements: the context of the history that led to the war; its assessment of Israel's strategic goals; and long sections on Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Why should a committee with a mandate to inquire into the operation in Gaza deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large?
….The commission should not have dealt with the context leading to the war; it should have concentrated on its mandate, which concerned only the Gaza operation. By setting its findings about the Gaza war in a greatly distorted description of the larger historical context, it makes it difficult for Israelis--even of the left, where I include myself--to take its findings seriously.
Before responding to Prof. Halbertal's objection, let us put to rest two of his assumptions. The first is that had the Goldstone mission simply published testimonies from Gaza, Israel would have been "forced" to investigate. This is an absurd claim, and Prof. Halbertal knows it. When the Israeli NGO "Breaking the Silence" published IDF soldier testimonies from Gaza last summer, the government turned on the young veterans and refused to deal or even to respond to the testimonies. It reacted similarly when similar reports were published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. So why would the government treat the Goldstone report differently, especially after Israel had already refused to cooperate with the Mission?
As for the criticism that the Mission overstepped its mandate by discussing things that occurred outside of Gaza, here is the report's justification, which he does not mention:
As explained above in chapter I, the Mission believes that the reference in its mandate to violations "in the context" of the military operations in Gaza required it to go beyond the violations that occurred in and around Gaza. it also believes that violations within its mandate in terms of time, objectives and targets, include those that are linked to the December 2008 –January 2009 military operations, and include restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms related to the strategies and actions of Israel in the context of its military operations.
Developments in Gaza and the West Bank are closely interrelated, in the Mission's view, an analysis of both is necessary to reach an informed understanding of and to report on issues within the Mission's mandate. On the one hand, the events in Gaza have consequences in the West Bank, on the other, pre-existing problems in the West Bank have been exacerbated by the Gaza military operations. In its examination of the West Bank with respect to actions taken by Israel, the Mission focused on four key aspects in their linkage to the Israeli military operations in Gaza: (a) the sharp increase in the use of force by Israeli security forces, including the military, in the West Bank; (b) the tightening and entrenchment of the system of movement and access restrictions; (c) the issue of Palestinian detainees and especially the increase in child detainees during and after the military operations; and (d) the Gaza corollary of the detention of Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.702 While the treatment by the Gaza authorities of those opposing its policies is discussed in chapter XIX, similar issues with regard to the conduct of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank also called for investigation. Linkages with the Israeli operation in Gaza are elaborated in the respective chapters.
While it is understandable that Prof. Halbertal wishes to limit the Mission's investigation to events in "Hamastan," where it's all about a "war on terror", it is obvious that Israeli actions in Gaza were both related to, and full of repercussions for, its actions in areas outside of Gaza -- since Gaza is one of two parts of the territory allocated to the Palestinians, and there are strong connections between the two. In fact, there were arguably two "fronts" in the Gaza war, as can be seen from the relevant sections of the report. While the "Eastern Front" was relatively quiet, it certainly was affected.
One point I will grant Prof. Halbertal: the section on historical context generally favors the Palestinian and not the Israel narrative. The suicide bombings of the Oslo period are mentioned, as are the Kassam rockets, but only laconically. The Separation Wall is not connected with security but with land expansion. But why is it illegitimate to view much of Israel's strategy and motivation in the Gaza operation in the context of its forty-two year Occupation? And suppose that the historical context had included all the things that Israel doesn't like about Hamas, e.g., its anti-Semitic charter, its history of suicide bombings (briefly mentioned), its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist? Of what significance would that be to be to Israel's conduct of the war and considerations of jus in bello? Surely, Prof. Halbertal doesn't wish to suggest that Israel's operation in Gaza was motivated by a desire for revenge or to get even with Hamas for the bombings. In any event, the report's criticism focused not on the treatment of combatants but of civilians.
Prof. Halbertal is outraged at the report's accusation that the IDF deliberately targeted civilians: "…the claim that Israel intentionally targeted civilians as a policy of war is false and slanderous." Unfortunately, he neither produces any evidence on behalf of his own claim nor does he mention, much less attempt to refute, the evidence marshaled by the Mission in the report. Instead, he refers to the ratio of civilian deaths to militants deaths and concludes that this was reasonable, indeed better than other Western armies. This is a fallacy, since he infers, wrongly, that if the IDF had deliberately targeted civilians, then there would have been many more civilians dead than there were (or the ration of civilians to militants would have been greater.) But nowhere in the Goldstone report is Israel accused of mass murder, or of deliberately killing as many civilians as it could. Rather, it argues, on the basis of representative declarations by Israeli officials, the accuracy of Israeli artillery and air force, the vast destruction to property, and testimonies, that military necessity did not always play a decisive role in decisions to bomb. And this is correct. The goal of the Gaza operation was to reestablish deterrence perceived lost as a result of the Second Lebanese War and to punish (or at least scare the hell out of) the Gazans. Ba'al ha-bayit hishtage'a, 'The boss has gone bonkers'. Now whether a policy of relaxing the rules of engagement, of quick fingers on the trigger, etc., constitutes deliberate targeting of civilians is debatable. But it is not debatable that the numbers of civilians killed were not due to merely to carelessness, negligence, or regrettable accidents in urban warfare.
In fact, Halbertal's failure to grapple with the report's evidence raises the question whether he actually read it, or at least read it carefully. He makes several accusations which are simply false. For example, he writes that "Israel chose not to cooperate with the commission, and so the Israeli version of events is not here." But even the most superficial reading reveals that the Israeli version of events is on every page, culled from official reports, news reports, and even websites like the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs. What Halbertal and most Israelis find galling about the report is not that the Israeli version of events does not appear, but rather than it is consistently rejected as less credible than the Palestinian testimonies. There are reasons for this, too, as the report mentions in exhaustive detail, but Halbertal ignores this as well.
Here's another case where Halbertal does an injustice to the report, the bombing of the Police Academy.
Consider a painful issue that comes up in the Goldstone Report--the matter of the Gaza police force. In the first minutes of the war, Israel targeted Hamas police, killing dozens. There is no question that, in an ordinary war, a police force that is dedicated to keeping the civilian peace is not a military target. The report therefore blames Israel for an intentional targeting of noncombatants. But such a charge is only valid concerning a war against a state with a clear and defined military institution, one that therefore practices a clear division of labor between the police and the army. What happens in semi-states that do not have an institutionalized army, whose armed forces are a militia loyal to the movement or party that seized power? In such situations, the police force might be just a way of putting combatants on the payroll of the state, while basically assigning them clear military roles. Israeli intelligence claims that it has clear proof that this was the case in Gaza. This is certainly something that Israel will have to clarify. But it is clear to me that Goldstone's accusation that targeting of the police forces automatically constitutes an attack on noncombatants represents a gross misunderstanding of the nature of such a conflict.
Now contrast this reading, which attributes to Goldstone the "accusation" that "targeting of the police forces automatically constitutes an attack on noncombatants" with what the report actually says.
The Mission examined the attacks against six police facilities, four of them during the first minutes of the military operations on 27 December 2008, resulting in the death of 99 policemen and nine members of the public. The overall around 240 policemen killed by Israeli forces constitute more than one sixth of the Palestinian casualties. The circumstances of the attacks and the Government of Israel July 2009 report on the military operations clarify that the policemen were deliberately targeted and killed on the ground that the police as an institution, or a large part of the policemen individually, are in the Government of Israel's view part of the Palestinian military forces in Gaza.
To examine whether the attacks against the police were compatible with the principle of distinction between civilian and military objects and persons, the Mission analyzed the institutional development of the Gaza police since Hamas took complete control of Gaza in July 2007 and merged the Gaza police with the "Executive Force" it had created after its election victory. The Mission finds that, while a great number of the Gaza policemen were recruited among Hamas supporters or members of Palestinian armed groups, the Gaza police were a civilian law-enforcement agency. The Mission also concludes that the policemen killed on 27 December 2008 cannot be said to have been taking a direct part in hostilities and thus did not lose their civilian immunity from direct attack as civilians on this ground. The Mission accepts that there may be individual members of the Gaza police that were at the same time members of Palestinian armed groups and thus combatants. It concludes, however, that the attacks against the police facilities on the first day of the armed operations failed to strike an acceptable balance between the direct military advantage anticipated (i.e. the killing of those policemen who may have been members of Palestinian armed groups) and the loss of civilian life (i.e. the other policemen killed and members of the public who would inevitably have been present or in the vicinity), and therefore violated international humanitarian law.
Does the presentation above justify Halbertal's conclusion that according to Goldstone, "the targeting of the police forces automatically constitutes an attack on noncombatants." On the contrary, we have here at least an attempt to examine a) whether these particular policemen had the status of combatants or not b) if they were combatants, were they justly attacked, and c) if they were justly attacked, did the direct military advantage anticipated justify the collateral damage? We also have a reference to the Government of Israel's position. One may wish to argue with the Goldstone analysis, but Halbertal studiously avoids it.
And then comes the volte face in section four. Having thoroughly discredited the testimonies, and having made accusations about the fairness of its authors, Prof. Halbertal concludes his essay by claiming that the report's "sections devoted to the Gaza war do make claims and cite testimonies that no honest Israeli can ignore. They demand a thorough investigation.,,,"
Pardon me? What is it about these testimonies that Halbertal feels compelled to investigate? And why here and not elsewhere? Thus, he claims that it is worthy to investigate the bombing of a chicken farm, which, if the testimonies are correct, "was done to leave a brutal scar as proof of the Israeli presence, as immoral and illegal instruments of deterrence." Why is Halbertal willing to believe that the IDF deliberately wreaked destruction for the sake of "immoral and illegal" deterrence, but he is not willing to believe that the IDF had a policy of "shoot first and ask questions later" – also for the sake of deterrence?
Are we expected to accept his distinction between killing chickens and killing human beings as a matter of faith?