JERUSALEM — The head of a U.N.-appointed expert panel that investigated the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas in the winter of 2008-2009 said in a newspaper article that new accounts by Israel's military indicate that it did not deliberately target civilians, his report's central and most inflammatory accusation.
Israel's prime minister said the military was vindicated by Richard Goldstone's acknowledgment in an op-ed piece published Friday by The Washington Post that his conclusion appeared to have been wrong. The Goldstone Report's findings, released in September 2009, triggered outrage in Israel, which refused to cooperate with the investigation on the grounds that the panel he led was biased.
"We know a lot more today about what happened in the Gaza war," Goldstone wrote. "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document."
The Goldstone Report concluded both sides committed potential war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.
It accused Israel of using disproportionate force, deliberately targeting civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, and using people as human shields. It also accused Hamas of deliberately targeting civilians and trying to spread terror through its rocket attacks.
The report called on each side to conduct independent investigations into the allegations.
In Friday's article, the South African judge wrote that a follow-up report by a separate U.N. committee of independent experts found that Israel has carried out investigations into more than 400 allegations of misconduct in Gaza.
Those investigations, he said, indicate that "civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy," though they backed the validity of some cases involving individual soldiers. Hamas, by contrast, has not carried out any investigations, according to the follow-up committee.
In the article, Goldstone regretted the loss of civilian life in Gaza, even if it was not intentional. He also said "it goes without saying" that Hamas commits war crimes by aiming rockets at civilians and continues to do so.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Goldstone Report should be formally nullified.
"Everything we said has been proven to be true," Netanyahu said. "Israel does not purposely target civilians and its investigative institutions are competent, while Hamas intentionally fires at innocent civilians and doesn't investigate anything."
"The fact that Goldstone has backtracked means the report should be buried once and for all."
Israel launched its military offensive, known as "Operation Cast Lead," in December 2008 in response to years of almost daily rocket fire from the Gaza Strip at southern Israel. During the three-week campaign, some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including hundreds of civilians, drawing harsh international condemnations and the war crimes accusations in Goldstone's report.
Goldstone's team traveled to the Gaza Strip to collect evidence but Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation, accusing the panel of investigators of bias. Goldstone agreed in his op-ed that the U.N. Human Rights Council that set up the panel has a "history of bias against Israel."
In one example he cited of a new view of events, Goldstone recalled one of the most serious attacks his panel investigated, the killing of 29 members of the al-Simouni family by Israeli shelling that hit their Gaza home.
He wrote Friday that Israel's own investigation into the incident found the shelling was apparently the result of an Israeli commander's mistaken analysis of a drone image and that an Israeli officer who ordered the attack was under investigation.
"I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes," he wrote.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who also held the post at the time of the Gaza war, said Goldstone should "also publish his current findings before all the international forums where he showed the slanted and twisted report he authored."