Defenders of Israel's Gaza onslaught of 2008-9 can barely contain their joy. In a Washington Post op-ed on Friday, Judge Richard Goldstone -- the famed South African jurist who headed that country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- offers some second thoughts about the Gaza war and softens his earlier criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza, which his U.N.-backed report described as "war crimes."
In fact, Goldstone alters only one of his original findings. He now says that he has concluded that the Israeli Defense Forces did not intentionally target civilians during attacks in which 1,400 Palestinians died, of whom half were civilians and more than 300 were children. Goldstone concludes they were collateral damage -- not the intended targets, but people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This "exoneration" of Israel's behavior has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and their defenders in Israel and the United States crazily dancing in the end zone. You see, they shout, Goldstone lied all along. We didn't kill all these people on purpose. Hooray for us.
These celebrations tell us infinitely more about the Israeli government and its cutouts here than Goldstone's column does about what happened in Gaza.
Imagine if the United States government were forced to admit that it killed hundreds of innocent people in a few days and that hundreds of that number were kids. Does anyone imagine that our government would pat itself on the back because the killings were deemed unintentional?
No doubt, many innocent people have been killed at American hands just as at Israel's in Gaza. But it is hard to recall American officials saying that the discovery that the deaths were unintentional exonerated us. As for victory laps such as those being taken by Netanyahu and Barak, they would be inconceivable here, especially by prominent officials in the government.
The only way Goldstone could really exonerate Israel would be to prove that the hundreds of non-combatant dead, including all those kids, were, in fact, not civilians at all. He would have to prove that they were fighters who were killed while engaging in battle with Israel. Not even the Israelis claim that.
The civilian dead were indeed civilians, and they are still dead. They are dead because the Israeli government decided that taking care not to kill innocents would put more Israeli soldiers in harm's way.
Elections were coming and the Israeli government felt that their public would not tolerate a war that took more than a few soldiers' lives. So the army would bombard targets from afar; if civilians were killed, so what?
The strategy worked. 1,400 Palestinians were killed, compared to about a dozen Israelis. That was a ratio -- almost unprecedented in the history of warfare -- that would not hurt any politican's political standing. (Actually, it suggests that Gaza was not a war at all, but rather an attack by a powerful army against powerless militants and unarmed civilians.)
The jubilation over Goldstone's minor edit is also misplaced because the strong opposition felt in most quarters to the Gaza onslaught had nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not the killings of civilians were intentional, but rather was over the fact that they took place at all.
Even if it could be proven that the United Nations school was destroyed by accident, what difference would it make? It was destroyed. Would Israel exonerate Hamas if it, by accident, hit an Israeli hospital when its target was a nearby army base? It is a distinction without a difference and only the morally bankrupt would point to it with pride.
Furthermore, opponents of the Gaza war were outraged by Israel's actions in Gaza right from the start, not following publication of the Goldstone report. The outrage came when it became clear that Israel was not exercising its legitimate right to defend itself against rocket fire from Gaza by targeting the people launching the missiles but by targeting everyone who lived in Gaza.
Additionally, the whole war was unnecessary. A cease-fire between Hamas and Israel had been in effect for the six months leading up to Israel's decision to invade. Why did it end?
The answer comes from U.S. News, a newsweekly owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, one of the Israeli government's leading defenders in the United States and the former president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Why now? Two reasons: the expiration of the Israeli-Gazan cease-fire on December 19 and the Israeli national election coming up on February 10. The six-month cease-fire started coming apart at the beginning of November after Israeli commandos killed a team of Hamas fighters during a raid on a tunnel they suspected was being dug for the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. That raid set off more Palestinian rocketing which prompted further Israeli attacks. All this prompted Hamas to declare that it wouldn't extend the cease-fire unless Israel lifted its punishing siege of the Gaza Strip, which was imposed after the militant group Hamas was elected to power nearly three years ago.
U.S. News has it exactly right. The cease-fire ended because Israel decided to end it. And then when the rockets started falling, Israel had the pretext it wanted to attack. None of this is surprising; Israeli leaders have never been shy about saying that their goal is not merely ending mortar attacks from Gaza but eliminating the Hamas government (elected, incidentally, in a democratic election forced on the Palestinians by the United States). If that could only be accomplished by mass slaughter in one of the most crowded spots on earth, so be it. The Israeli government is indifferent to the fate of Palestinians and its backers here share that indifference. And it does not matter whether a Palestinian is a terrorist or just a kid.
The bottom line is that Goldstone's edit doesn't matter except to those who defended and still defend this indefensible war. The damage done to Israel's reputation cannot be eradicated. But that is insignificant compared to the pain felt by all those still mourning loved ones killed in the monstrous and illegal Gaza war. So long as the concept of war crime exists, it will apply to the Gaza war of 2008-9, and nothing can change that.