Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Shamelessness of the New York Times

I suppose one can never be surprised at the disingenuous coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the New York Times in general, and that by Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner in particular.  Still, today's lead story--lead story, mind you--on the apparent political reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas baldly asserts that "The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority has negotiated for a two-state solution with Israel, whereas Hamas says Israel has no right to exist and continues to fire rockets at Israeli towns."

       First, the implied suggestion that Hamas, out of the blue, fires rockets at Israeli towns, apparently for no other reason than to deny Israel's right to exist, is the usual distortion of a much more complex and even murky situation.  By contrast, here's how the military correspondents of Haaretz covered the story:

March 23, 2011

"A small war is starting along Gaza border," by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff

"Israeli communities near the border are receiving a daily dose of mortars and rockets, and the Israel Air Force has been attacking Gaza. What began as a local escalation is steadily transforming into a broader conflict that the sides will apparently have difficulty stopping....The current tensions began exactly a week ago when Israel launched an air attack on a Hamas base in the ruins of the settlement of Netzarim, killing two Hamas men. That attack came in response to a Qassam fired from Gaza that landed in an open area. Hamas then responded with a barrage of 50 mortars on communities south of the Gaza Strip. But on Monday evening Israel launched a series of air attacks in which a number of Hamas militants were wounded." (emphasis added)


Subsequent Haaretz news stories suggested that many of the rockets may have been fired by Islamic Jihad, not Hamas--and while Hamas has tight control over Gaza, it is not absolute--in the past Islamic Jihad has defied Hamas policies.

But far worse is the statement that "Hamas says Israel has no right to exist."  At best, that is a child's version of reality; at worst, it amounts to a deliberate distortion of a far more complex, or if you prefer, ambiguous situation.  Actually, what I really believe is that it amounts to a lie, since there can be no doubt that Bronner and Kershner know that "Hamas says" much more than "Israel has no right to exist."

If I may cite myself, here's what I have written on the issue, in the context of discussing what alternatives Israel had to its "Cast Lead" attack on Gaza at the end of 2008.

"The best way for Israel to have ended the rocket attacks would have been to negotiate a political settlement with Hamas. The record leaves no doubt that Israel made no attempt at such negotiations before it attacked Gaza, despite a number of indications that Hamas was becoming increasingly amenable to a reasonable political settlement.

Well before the Israeli attack, there were reasons to believe that Hamas might be about to follow in the footsteps of Yasir Arafat’s PLO, as well as of many other radical movements that became much more moderate when they had countries to run. To be sure, prior to the Israeli attack on Gaza, there were no guarantees that Hamas would duplicate the evolution of the PLO, for it had not repudiated its anti-Semitic founding ideology and 1988 charter, which explicitly states that it is a religious obligation to eliminate Israel and the Jews from the Islamic holy land. Nonetheless, there had been a number of indications that Hamas was moving towards a pragmatic, if reluctant, acceptance of the realities of Israeli power and was becoming increasingly amenable to a de facto if not de jure two-state political settlement.

* In January 2006 Hamas published its official platform for the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary election; it included no language calling for the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state in all of Palestine..... Shortly after Hamas won the election Ismael Haniyeh, the new Gazan prime minister, sent a written message to George Bush, offering a truce for many years in exchange for a compromise political settlement; the Bush administration did not reply to this and additional overtures.

*Soon afterwards, Hamas began to go public with its new position. For example, in May 2006 Haniyeh told Haaretz that the Hamas government would agree to a long-term truce with Israel if it withdrew to the 1967 lines, and a few months later he told an American scholar that “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.” In the same year, Khaled Meshal, one of the most militant Hamas leaders, said that Hamas could not oppose the unified Arab stance, expressed in an Arab League summit conference, which offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for a full Israel withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem.

*Of particular importance was a May 2006 joint statement of senior Hamas and Fatah members who were imprisoned in Israel. The prestigious “Prisoner’s Declaration” went much further than the earlier Hamas overtures: abandoning the previous ambiguities, it called for the establishment of a Palestinian state “in all the lands occupied in 1967,” and reserved the use of armed resistance only in those territories.

*In yet another significant indication that Hamas was moving towards the moderate position of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, in March 2007 Hamas and the PA formed a national unity government to negotiate with Israel; Hamas officials stated at the time that they agreed that Abbas should play the leading role in any negotiations.

*Throughout 2008 Hamas’ political position continued to evolve, including that of its hardliners. In particular, in April 2008 Meshal publicly announced his support of a ten-year truce if Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders.

Israel and its U.S. ally ignored all these overtures or contemptuously termed them “tricks.” It is undeniable that prior to the Israeli attack the Hamas position still contained ambiguities and inconsistencies. Yet, well before the Israeli attack on Gaza, the general direction was clear, and in historic terms the evolution had been rapid, as indeed was acknowledged by some former high-level Israeli government officials. For example, in late 2006 Yossi Alpher, a former deputy head of the Mossad and a pillar of the Israeli establishment, wrote: “Hamas’ conditions for a long-term hudna or ceasefire…are almost too good to be true. Refugees and right of return and Jerusalem can wait for some other process; Hamas will suffice with the 1967 borders, more or less, and in return will guarantee peace and quiet for ten, 25 or 30 years of good neighborly relations and confidence-building.”

Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, and Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad and the national security adviser in Ariel Sharon’s 2002-03 government, also argued strongly for negotiations with Hamas. In particular, shortly before the Israeli attack Halevy argued that Hamas militants “have recognized…[their] ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future.” Instead, “they are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967…[and] they know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their cooperation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals.” Halevy concluded, dryly, that “Israel, for reasons of its own, did not want to turn the ceasefire into the start of a diplomatic process with Hamas.”

Since Cast Lead, there is no evidence that Hamas has abandoned its probable pragmatic willingness to settle for a two-state settlement, though it can scarcely be expected to announce it daily, faced with the utter rejectionism of Netanyahu and the no-bottom political cowardice/fatuity (choose your own characterization) of the Obama administration.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Goldstone Retraction

(Some of the material and language in this post has appeared in my previous writings, on this blog and elsewhere.  Also, my program is continuing to make mistakes, in this case insisting that the publication date is March 31, rather than April 12.)

In September 2009 the Goldstone Commission--the UN investigation of the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008-09 ("Operation Cast Lead)"--concluded that Israel had engaged in "systematically reckless" and "deliberately disproportionate" attacks on densely populated areas, which "amounted to collective punishment intentionally inflicted on the people of Gaza." Therefore, the Commission concluded, under international law the Israeli actions were "war crimes," some of which could even lead "a competent court" to conclude that the attack was "a crime against humanity."

After the Goldstone Commission reported its findings to the UN, a new fact-finding commission was appointed, headed by former New York State supreme court justice Mary McGowan Davis. After the Davis Committee reported its findings, Richard Goldstone essentially retracted the findings of his own Commission in an April 2 Washington Post oped, revealingly entitled "Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and War Crimes."

While Goldstone's call for a "reconsideration" did not explicitly repudiate the Commission's findings that Israel committed a number of war crimes in Cast Lead, his oped came perilously close to doing so, as is clear not only from its title but from its opening paragraph: "We know a lot more today about what happened...than we did [before]....If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document....the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report [the Davis Committee].... indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy." (emphasis added)

Some have argued that it is wrong to call Goldstone's call for a "reconsideration" a "retraction," especially because four days later he told a reporter he had no plans to seek a nullification of the Goldstone Commission report. Nonetheless, whatever Goldstone's later "clarification," which is clearly a reaction to the firestorm of criticism that followed the oped, it does not change what he wrote nor the damage that it has done; for this reason, I will continue to label the oped as a retraction.

In any case, even if Goldstone wanted to seek a nullification, he would not succeed. Aside from Goldstone himself, there were three other members: Christine Chinken, Professor of International Law at the London School of Economics, Hina Jilani, a prominent Pakistani human rights lawyer, and Desmond Travers, a former Irish army colonel and a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations. Jilani and Travers have been interviewed and have refused to back away from the original report; according to John Dugard (the former UN Special Rapporteur in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories), who has written a scathing article on Goldstone's retraction, Chinkin also supports the original report.

In the over a year and half since its publication, none of the Goldstone Report's major factual findings or the conclusions it drew from them have been refuted--and certainly not by the Davis Committee, which made no such claim. On the contrary, even during the attack major newspapers--including the New York Times, Haaretz, Israel's most important newspaper, and a number of leading European newspapers--made it evident that Israel's massive attack on Gaza was indiscriminate and aimed at a wide range of non-military targets. Since then, the Goldstone Report's major findings have been confirmed by a number of investigations and reports of international and even Israeli human rights groups--among them several UN agencies, the Red Cross, CARE, Oxfam, Israeli Physicians for Human Rights, and Breaking the Silence )an Israeli military veterans organization formed after the attack on Gaza)--all of which not only confirmed but often added new details to the Goldstone Report's factual findings.

In addition, the two most important and prestigious international human rights ngos, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, conducted extensive investigations of Cast Lead and issued long and highly detailed reports that were at least as damning as those of the Goldstone Commission:

Amnesty International: "Israeli forces committed war crimes and other serious breaches of international law in Operation Cast Lead....Among other things, they carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against civilians....Much of Gaza was razed to the ground, leaving vital infrastructure destroyed, the economy in ruins and thousands of Palestinians homeless."

Human Rights Watch: In a 110 page report on Cast Lead, HRW concluded that Israel's "wanton destruction" of civilian infrastructure was unlawful and "can be prosecuted as a war crime."

To my knowledge, Amnesty International has not commented on the Goldstone retraction, but Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, has done so: in an April 5 letter to the New York Times, Roth wrote that "Mr. Goldstone has not repudiated his panel’s findings that Israel committed numerous serious violations of the laws of war," including "conduct so widespread and systematic that it must have reflected policy"; Roth also pointedly noted, contrary to Goldstone, that "Israel has yet to investigate the policies behind the indiscriminate attacks that caused so much civilian harm."

Even Jessica Montell, the Executive Director of B'tselem, who had been critical of the Goldstone Commission's finding that Israel had intentionally targeted civilians as a matter of policy, wrote that the Goldstone oped "by no means absolves Israel of all the grave allegations regarding its conduct, as official spokespeople rush to conclude. In the operation, according to rigorous research by B’Tselem, Israel killed at least 758 Palestinian civilians who did not take part in the hostilities; 318 of them were minors. More than 5,300 Palestinians were injured, over 350 of them seriously. More than 3,500 houses were destroyed, and electricity, water and sewage infrastructure was severely damaged. In many ways, the Gaza Strip has yet to recover from the unprecedented destruction this operation wrought."

Was the Goldstone Report Unfair to Israel?

The problem with the Goldstone Report was not that it was too hard on Israel, but rather that it was considerably too soft, and ducked some contentious but highly important issues.

First, while the report condemned the Israeli methods of warfare, it accepted that the purpose of Cast Lead was legitimate: Israel, it said, had a right to "defend itself" against Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks aimed at Israeli towns and villages. In his oped, Goldstone reiterated this argument: "I have always been clear that Israel, like any other sovereign nation, has the right and obligation to defend itself and its citizens against attacks from abroad and within."

For several reasons, the argument is wholly unpersuasive. To begin with, it is based on the false premise that the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Gaza in 2005 ended the Israeli occupation there, and that therefore the subsequent attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad could not be considered as resistance to occupation. However, there is a wealth of evidence--much of it from candid statements of high Israel officials--that the real purpose of the withdrawal of the Jewish settlements was to consolidate Israel's continued occupation and ever-expanding settlements in the much more important West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In any event, even in Gaza there was no true Israeli withdrawal, for Israel retained control over Gaza's borders, coastline, and airspace; refused to allow Gaza a functioning airport or seaport; continued to control Gaza's electricity, water, and telecommunications networks; and launched a number of highly destructive military attacks. As the Goldstone Commission put it--notwithstanding the obvious contradiction with its assertion that Hamas attacks on Israel gave that country the right of "self-defense"--Gaza continued to be "effectively occupied" by Israel and was so regarded by the international community.

Consequently, the highly limited Israeli "withdrawal" from Gaza did not end the right of Palestinian resistance, for it hardly met the right of the Palestinian people as a whole for a viable and independent state of their own. The Palestinians living in Gaza are not a separate nation from those living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; to believe otherwise is the equivalent of believing that if in the 1770s the British had withdrawn from New Jersey but continued to occupy the remaining colonies, the residents of New Jersey would no longer have the right to take up arms in support of American independence.

What about the Hamas methods of resistance? It is true that the rocket attacks aimed at Israeli civilians constituted terrorism, and were therefore correctly considered by the Goldstone Commission as constituting war crimes. Nonetheless the argument that Israel had the right to use overwhelming force in self-defense is false, for Israel's obvious alternative was to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinian people and negotiate a settlement with the Palestinian leadership, including Hamas. Put differently, there can be no right of self-defense when illegitimate and violent repression engenders resistance--and that holds true even when the form of resistance, terrorism, is itself morally wrong.

In short, Cast Lead--and all Israel's other economic and military methods of warfare against Gaza--was not designed to defend "itself," but rather to crush resistance to its ongoing and in some ways escalating occupation and repression of the Palestinian people as a whole. In that light, the Israeli attack was a war crime in and of itself--the crime of aggression--even if its methods of warfare had not also been war crimes.

Goldstone's Distortions

That aside, Goldstone strongly distorts the essential findings of the Davis Committee. Adam Horowitz and Yaniv Reich have done a fine job of pointing to the differences between what the Davis Commission said and how Goldstone chose to interpret it, but I do want to add to their comments.

If anything the Davis Committee report should be read as reaching the opposite conclusions of the Goldstone retraction, both on the process of the Israeli military investigations and on their outcomes. The Committee begins by observing that while the Israeli Military Advocate General (MAG) had opened 52 criminal investigations, thus far only three had been submitted to prosecution, resulting in two convictions, one of them of a soldier who stole a credit card.

Further, the Committee pointedly noted that the Israeli government's "refusal to allow the Committee access to Israel and Gaza significantly constrained the Committee's ability to engage with key interlocutors." As a result, the Committee was unable to carry out an on-the-ground investigation of a number of significant "incidents," as it put it, including the Israeli killings and attacks on hospitals referred to in the Goldstone Commission report. Denied access to Gaza and even to reports of any Israeli investigations, the Committee concluded that it "remains unable to determine whether any investigation has been carried out in relation to those incidents."

Moreover, the Committee repeatedly expresses great skepticism about the quality and seriousness of whatever Israeli investigations that were conducted. For example, the Committee clearly questioned whether the Israeli military is capable of investigating itself. As its report put it: "notwithstanding the built-in structural guarantees to ensure the MAG's [Military Advocate General) independence, his dual responsibilities as legal advisor to the Chief of Staff and other military authorities, and his role as supervisor of criminal investigations within the military, raise concerns in the present context."

The specific cases discussed by the Davis Committee in no way support Goldstone's satisfaction with the Israeli military investigations. For example, in the case of one of the most serious Cast Lead "incidents," the deliberate bombing of the home of Wail Samouni that killed 21 Samouni family members and wounded 19 others, the Committee expresses obvious skepticism about Israeli military contentions that the planners of the strike were not aware of the presence of over 100 civilians in the Samouni home. While the Samouni case is supposedly being investigated by the Israeli army, the Committee pointedly noted that it was "considerably concerned" because it "does not have sufficient information to establish the current status of the Israeli investigation."

In addition to the Samouni case, the Goldstone Commission report singled out for condemnation the Israeli bombing of a flour mill, a chicken farm, a cement company, and water and sewage installations. The Davis Committee dryly noted that while the Israeli military investigations supposedly examined these cases, in every one of them it found that there had been "no violation" warranting prosecution.

In another case cited by the Davis report--one of the only two cases that have been investigated by the Israeli military and resulted in a conviction, two soldiers who had forced a nine-year old boy to search bags suspected of being booby traps--a "human shields" violation if there ever was one--received demotions and suspended sentences of three months. And in the only case that resulted in an imprisonment, an Israeli soldier went to jail for seven months--for stealing a credit card.

The Davis Committee commented on the two cases:

"The Committee does not have sufficient information to comment definitively on this judgment [the suspended sentences], although it is hard to square the apparent finding [of the Israeli investigation] that soldiers 'did not seek to degrade or humiliate the boy' with evidence that they intended to put him directly in harm's way at grave risk to his life. The Committee is likewise mindful of other judicial decisions, such as the case of the soldier who was sentenced to a prison term of seven and a half months for stealing a credit card during the operation in Gaza, where a harsher penalty was imposed for acts that did not entail danger to the life of...a civilian, much less to a nine year old child."

The overall conclusions of the Davis report are particularly striking. To begin with, the report raises questions about the transparency of the Israeli investigations, the delay of over two years in initiating them, and the fact that many of the incidents examined by the Goldstone Commission have not been investigated at all. This is how the Committee report put it:

"That situation raises serious concern as to whether the existing mechanisms are capable of insuring that investigations are conducted in a prompt manner. The promptness of an investigation is closely linked to the notion of effectiveness. An effective investigation is one in which all the relevant evidence is identified and collected, is analyzed, and leads to conclusions establishing the cause of the alleged violation and identifying those responsible. In that respect, the Committee is concerned about the fact that duration of the ongoing investigations into the allegations [in the Goldstone Commission Report]---over two years since the end of the Gaza operation--may seriously impair their effectiveness and, therefore, the prospects of achieving accountability and justice."

Finally (as Horowitz and others have pointed out), the Davis Committee sharply took note of the fact--as was openly acknowledged to the Committee by the Israeli MAG--that the Israeli investigations did not examine the overall policies of either the political or military leadership. Consequently, the Committee concluded its report with this observation: "The Committee reiterates the conclusion of its previous report that there is no indication that Israel has opened investigations into the actions of those who designed, planned, ordered and oversaw Operation Cast Lead." (emphasis added)

Civilian Destruction in Cast Lead: Indiscriminate, or Deliberate?

Because there has been considerable confusion over whether Israel deliberately attacked civilians or did so merely "indiscriminately," it is necessary to define and sort out the relevant concepts and terminology.

Just War moral theory, on which the international laws governing warfare are largely based, distinguishes between the principles of discrimination and noncombatant immunity. The principle of discrimination requires combatants to make every effort to distinguish between military and civilian targets and to refrain from attacking the military targets if the foreseeable consequences to civilians are unacceptably high.

While the principle of noncombatant immunity goes even further, prohibiting intentional attacks on civilians under any circumstances, it is crucial to note that the finding of war crimes does not require demonstrating that deliberate attacks on civilians have occurred, only that the attacks were indiscriminate. While some of the language of the Goldstone Commission's conclusions is ambiguous, the main emphasis is on the indiscriminate nature of the Israeli attack, rather than on whether Israel had, as a matter of policy, deliberately attacked civilians.

The concept of "indiscriminate" military attacks was developed long before the advent of "smart" weapons--bombs and missiles that can be guided directly on to their intended targets. The moral and legal prohibitions on indiscriminate attacks were designed to prevent massive and inaccurate attacks even on legitimate military targets if those military targets were in densely populated urban regions: for example, the kind of high attitude bombings that characterized WWII. Understood in that manner, some of the Israeli attacks in Cast Lead were clearly indiscriminate--for example, artillery or mortar attacks on Hamas weapons, command posts, or groups of fighters in civilian neighborhoods.

Why was this done? One answer, of course, is that the attacking forces lose considerably fewer of their own soldiers when they don't directly engage their adversary. There is no doubt that this is part of the explanation for the Israeli methods, as the IDF forces had announced well before Cast Lead that they would employ massive firepower in "the next war" in order to minimize their own casualties: "We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction....efforts to hurt [rocket] launch capabilities are secondary."

Nor did such blunt threats emanate only from Israeli generals--prime minister Ehud Olmert said that "The Government's position was from the outset that if there is shooting at the residents of the south, there will be a harsh Israeli response that will be disproportionate." And that is how Israel fought the war. Said one officer: "We are very violent. We are not shying away from any method of preventing casualties among our troops." (emphasis added)

The key point is this: Even assuming that the only purpose of Israel's behavior was to minimize casualties to its military forces, which it wasn't, it would still constitute a war crime under just war morality and international law, making the perpetrators--that is, the top Israeli political and military leaders--subject to criminal prosecution.

Some defenders of the Israeli actions and critics of the Goldstone Report have sought to evade that conclusion, for example by arguing that Israel made efforts to warn civilians to leave areas about to be targeted. However, most of the time the warnings were meaningless, since the scale and intensity of the Israeli attack often ensured that civilians had no place to flee. Worse, as a UN report observed, Israel closed its borders with Gaza and refused to allow the civilian population of Gaza to leave the war zone during the attack.

In this light, it's not just that the Israeli forces should have tried harder to avoid civilian casualties--even some critics of the Goldstone and other human rights organization reports have conceded that--but rather that in most cases it didn't try at all.

Perhaps Israel didn't try because it was simply indifferent to civilian casualties, but it is also possible--in my opinion, probable--that it didn't try harder because it believed that a certain amount of civilian suffering added to Israel's "deterrence," a euphemism for intimidating Palestinian resistance. That is the subject to which I will now turn.

The Goldstone Retraction and Civilian Destruction.

It is important to bear in mind that the Goldstone retraction referred only to the question of whether Israeli policy in Cast Lead was to deliberately attack civilians, rather than to the issue of whether it deliberately attacked civilian infrastructure, let alone to the question of whether there was any meaningful distinction between attacking civilians and attacking infrastructures.

It is hard to believe that Goldstone was unaware that by limiting the issue to that of deliberate attacks, his retraction would divert attention from the more important point, namely that indiscriminate attacks, in and of themselves, are war crimes. Even so, was he right that the Davis Committee report demonstrated that Israel had not engaged in deliberate attacks on civilians, thereby requiring him to withdraw that part of the Goldstone Commission's findings that strongly suggested that it had?

There is a wealth of evidence that there were a number of "incidents" in which Israeli soldiers deliberately killed civilians, face-to-face. This evidence is not limited to that gathered by the Goldstone Commission, but is included in the voluminous Breaking the Silence testimony of Israeli soldiers who personally witnessed such killings.

Nothing in the Davis Commission report challenges that evidence. In the only specific case that Goldstone points to in his retraction, the Samouni bombing, he claims that the Davis report shows that Israel is seriously investigating the attack, which leads him to be "confident that if the officer [who ordered the attack] is found to be negligent, Israel will respond accordingly." However, as I have already discussed, the Davis Commission not only reached no such conclusion, its language clearly expresses skepticism of the validity of the Israeli "investigation" and the unlikelihood that any one will be punished.

To be sure, the Samouni affair does not demonstrate that it was Israeli government or military policy to directly target civilians, for the war crime was probably only the responsibility of the individual military commander who ordered the attack, even after having been warned by fellow officers that civilians were likely present. The Goldstone Commission cited other cases in which some Israeli soldiers deliberately killed unarmed civilians. Nonetheless, individual atrocities of these kind happen in all wars, just and unjust ones, and by themselves do not prove policy intent.

That said, for at least three reasons the Israeli government is by no means off the hook. First, the long Israeli occupation and repression had created an atmosphere in which the Palestinian people could be dehumanized and dismissed as nothing more than "terrorists," subjecting them to summary execution by some trigger-happy soldiers. Second, individual atrocities and war crimes are supposed to be prosecuted by the armed forces or judicial systems of the states whose soldiers committed them: as the Davis Committee pointed out, in the two and a half years since Cast Lead there have been only two Israeli military convictions of soldiers charged with deliberate killings of innocent civilians, and no one has spent a day in prison for having done so.

Third, and by far most importantly, whether or not there was a policy to attack civilians directly, there cannot be the slightest doubt that there was a policy to systematically destroy much of the Gazan economy and civilian infrastructure, and to do so as a means of making it impossible for Hamas rule to succeed as well as to intimidate ("deter") the Gazan civilian population.

After Hamas's democratic victory in Gaza's 2006 parliamentary elections, Israel instituted a severe blockade of Gaza--widely termed a siege--which the Goldstone Commission described in this manner: "The Gaza Strip had been for almost three years under a severe regime of closures and restrictions on the movement of people, goods, and services ....[including] basic life necessities such as food and medical supplies, and products required for the ordinary conduct of daily life such as fuel, electricity, school items, and repair and construction material."

In addition, Israel radically cut Gazan trade and commerce with the outside world, refused to allow Gaza a functioning airport, seaport, or a commercial crossing on its border with Egypt, and placed severe restrictions on the importation of water for irrigation and drinking purposes. And if this radical economic warfare was not sufficient, even before Cast Lead Israel destroyed most of the Gazan electrical generating system and bombed and shelled Gazan roads, bridges, factories, farms, and olive orchards.

Consequently, as reported by a number of international economic studies, even before Cast Lead the Gazan economy was on the verge of collapse, unemployment ranged from 45-60%, 80% of Gazans were estimated to be below international poverty lines, and malnutrition was rampant. Outright starvation had been averted only by outside assistance and the minimal imports of food supplies allowed by Israel, which by its own admission had carefully calibrated its siege so as to avoid famine. (Wikileaks documents revealed that in late 2008, US Embassy officials told the State Department that "Israeli officials have confirmed that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.")

And all this, it bears repeating, occurred even before Cast Lead--in the course of which Israeli attacks destroyed government institutions and police stations, electrical generation plants, power lines, industrial facilities, fuel depots, sewage plants, water storage tanks, cement factories, and various agricultural and food production systems, including farms, orchards, greenhouses, fishing boats, chicken coops, and the last functioning flour factory--all, as the Goldstone Commission report put it, "for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance to the population of Gaza." And in case that's not sufficient to demonstrate the true nature of Israeli policy, hospitals, schools and (as B'tselem pointed out) even 3500 private homes were attacked, leaving approximately 20,000 persons homeless.

Was it Israeli Policy to Directly Kill Civilians?

In light of the nature and extent of the Israeli attacks, the distinction between infrastructure attacks and those directly on the civilian population is all but meaningless: the consequence of such attacks is that people suffer and die, even though it takes a little longer than when they are directly gunned down or bombed.

Even so, was that the intention of the Israeli government? The answer seems self-evident: in light of the systematic and extensive nature of the "infrastructure" attacks, what else could it be? Moreover, as the Goldstone Commission was able to quote, prior to Cast Lead leading Israeli political and military officials had publicly and repeatedly announced a revised military doctrine that "explicitly admits the intentional targeting of civilian targets." Israeli president Shimon Pere's chilling words were only one of a number: Israel's aim was "to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel."

In light of the evidence, there was every reason for the Goldstone Commission to conclude that Israel carried out "deliberately disproportionate" attacks which were "designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population." Nonetheless, that is the most controversial conclusion of the Goldstone Commission report--and the only one that Goldstone now comes close to repudiating.

The History of Israeli Attacks on Civilians

While not proving that the purpose of the Israeli attacks against Gaza was not only to strike a blow at Hamas but deliberately to sow death and destruction in the civilian population, the long history of Israeli warfare is relevant and instructive in judging its actions and intentions in Cast Lead.

The Goldstone Commission limited its discussion of the historical context of Cast Lead to the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon and the economic siege of Gaza. It should have carried out a more thorough review, for the full record leaves no reasonable doubt that Israel has repeatedly violated the rule of noncombatant immunity throughout its entire history, carrying out a number of deliberate, direct, and systematic attacks not only against Palestinian but also Jordanian, Egyptian, and Lebanese civilians. Indeed, these attacks on civilians—designed as revenge or punishment for their supposed or actual support of Israel’s enemies and, especially, to intimidate them into turning against their own governments or internal militant organizations—have been so prevalent since the 1940s that they can be said to constitute the Israeli way of war.

Here are the most important examples (full discussions and citations can be found here)

*During the 1930s, Zionist organizations like the Irgun and the Stern Gang (led, respectively, by future Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir) sought to terrorize the Palestinians by planting bombs in buses, market places, movie theaters, and other public places.

*During the 1947-48 period Israeli forces often deliberately attacked Arab civilians--sometimes committing outright massacres, such as those at Deir Yassin--in order to drive large numbers of them out of areas claimed by Israel.

* In the early 1950s, a special secret unit was created in the Israeli army; led by the young Ariel Sharon, it carried out a number of cross-border raids against Jordanian and Palestinian civilians in the Jordanian-held West Bank. As an Israeli centrist historian wrote, "the purpose of these raids was to create the greatest confusion and terror in the area in order to persuade the Jordanian authorities and the Palestinian population that it was not in their interest to participate in, or offer support for, raids on the Israeli communities across the border." (Avner Yaniv, Dilemmas of Security, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 94)

In 1953 the unit attacked the Jordanian village of Qibyeh, following a guerrilla raid that killed three Israeli villagers; Sharon’s forces attacked civilian homes, killing sixty-nine Palestinian villagers, at least half of them women and children. These and other actions horrified Moshe Sharett, the Israeli foreign minister, who charged in a cabinet meeting that Israel had been “exposed…in front of the whole world as a gang of bloodsuckers, capable of massacres.”

*In 1968 Moshe Dayan warned that Israel might attack Egyptian cities in order to “strike terror into the hearts of the Arabs of the cities….[and] break the Arab will to fight.” And so it did: during the 1970-73 Suez Canal Israeli-Egyptian warfare, Israel responded to attacks against its armed forces along the Canal with massive artillery shelling and bombing of Egyptian towns and cities along the western banks of the Canal, deliberately intended to make life unlivable for the Egyptian population and so increase pressure against Nasser and later Sadat. David Shipler, at the time the New York Times correspondent in Israel, later wrote that Israeli bombardments of Egyptian villages “forced the evacuation of 750,000 civilians, destroyed 55,000 homes, and killed and wounded an untold number….It was a pressure tactic on the Egyptian authorities.” (Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, Penguin Press, 1986, p. 45.)

In early 2009, following Cast Lead, the Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev wrote: “There is a clear similarity between the justification that [Golda] Meir gave for destroying the towns of the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition in 1969-1970, and the reasons for attacking Gaza now.”

*Leading Israeli officials have sometimes acknowledged that Israel has used such “pressure tactics” as an instrument of policy. In 1978, for example, following the first of a number of major Israeli attacks on Lebanese population centers, General Mordechai Gur, then Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and later a leading Labor Party politician, responded to criticism of Israeli tactics in Lebanon in this way: “I’ve been in the army thirty years. Do you think I don’t know what we’ve been doing all those years? What did we do the entire length of the Suez Canal? A million and a half refugees!…Since when has the population of South Lebanon been so sacred? They know very well what the terrorists were doing…..I had four villages in South Lebanon bombarded…[as, he says, was done in Jordan].”

The Israeli interviewer then comments: “You maintain that the civilian population should be punished?” Gur responds: “And how….I have never doubted it, not for one moment….For thirty years from the War of Independence to this day we have been fighting against a population that lives in villages and towns…” (from the Israeli newspaper Al Hamishar, May 10 1978 )

As Ze’ev Schiff, a leading Israeli military journalist commented: “In South Lebanon we struck the civilian population consciously, because they deserved it….The importance of Gur’s remarks is the admission that the Israeli Army has always struck civilian populations, purposely and consciously…even when Israeli settlements had not been struck.” (Haaretz, May 15, 1978, emphasis added)

*Since 1978 there have been four major (and many smaller) Israeli air and ground force attacks against Lebanon: in 1978, 1982, 1996, and 2006. While Hezbollah or PLO forces based in Lebanon were the main target of the Israeli attacks, a wealth of evidence, including newspaper accounts, Israeli commentaries, and investigations by leading human rights organizations, leaves no doubt that in 1982 Israel deliberately visited widespread destruction on ordinary Lebanese civilians, killing at least 10,000 of them.

In 2006 Israel again attacked Lebanon, following the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. Prior to the Israeli attack, there were several open threats by Israeli generals about what would be done to Lebanese civilians; for example, “Senior officers in the IDF say that…if the kidnapped soldiers are not returned alive and well, the Lebanese civilian infrastructures will regress 20, or even 50 years.”

During the Israeli attack, over 1100 Lebanese civilians were killed, almost a third of them children, over 4000 were wounded, one million displaced, 130,000 houses were destroyed, and the country’s electricity network, thousands of small businesses, hundreds of roads and bridges, fuel depots, ports and airports, 300 factories, and dozens of schools and hospitals were destroyed or damaged.

Even in the midst of the war, many Israeli critics were outraged at the Israeli methods, openly charging that the Israeli government was deliberately causing mass civilian suffering in order to generate pressures against the Lebanese government and to deter future civilian support or toleration of Islamic militants. For example, after recounting the history of previous Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructures in earlier attacks on Lebanon, Zeev Maoz, a former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Israel's most important and prestigious mainstream security research institution, concluded that "this war is not a just war....Israel is using excessive force without distinguishing between civilian population and enemy." Avi Shlaim, one of Israel’s leading critical historians, went even further, writing that “the massacre of innocent civilians [is]a recurrent feature of Israeli military intervention.”

The emphasis of these and other Israeli critics was primarily a moral one. However, they were joined by several pillars of the Israeli security establishment, who tended to focus on the pragmatic consequences to Israel's national interests. For example, Yossi Alpher, a former deputy chief of Mossad, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, and senior advisor to Ehud Barak argued that the humanitarian suffering in both Gaza and Lebanon was “a deliberate act on Israel's part...intended to generate mass public pressure on the respective governments to force the Islamic militants to release the three IDF soldiers snatched from Israeli territory and end rocket attacks." He concluded: "it hasn’t worked.”

Even more remarkably, several years later Moshe Arens—a high Likud official and well-known hardline rightist, a former ambassador to the United States in the Menachem Begin government, the foreign minister in the Yitzhak Shamir government, and a three-time defense minister in Likud governments since the 1980s—wrote: “The ‘leverage’ theory—which holds that the destruction of enemy infrastructure and attacks on the enemy’s civilian population will produce pressure on decision makers to cease their attacks against Israeli civilians….did not work in Lebanon, and it certainly does not work in Gaza....Quite the contrary, it only increases the support that the terrorists receive from the civilian population. Cutting off fuel, cutting off electricity, preventing food from reaching them is both counterproductive and immoral.”(emphasis added)

After the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released the results of their on-the-ground investigations of the war. HRW concluded: “In critical respects, Israel conducted the war with reckless indifference to the fate of Lebanese civilians and violated the laws of war…[reflecting] Israeli policy and not just the behavior of individual IDF members [as] is evident from statements by Israeli government officials and military leaders that intentionally blurred the distinction between civilian and combatant….Israel conducted numerous attacks that were indiscriminate, disproportionate, and otherwise unjustified…..[ these attacks were] war crimes as defined by international humanitarian law.”

The Amnesty International investigation and report reached the same conclusions: “The evidence strongly suggests that [this] extensive destruction was deliberate and an integral part of the military strategy, rather than ‘collateral damage’….Statements by Israeli military officials seem to confirm that the destruction of the infrastructure was indeed a goal of the military campaign….Many of the violations examined in this report are war crimes…”

Goldstone's Retraction and Its Consequences

Operation Cast Lead was only the culmination of a three-year period in which Israel engaged in economic warfare as well as massive, systematic, and deliberately indiscriminate attacks on Gaza, thus making the distinction between attacks on civilian infrastructure and attacks on people essentially meaningless. Consequently, Israel's policies in Gaza constituted an intentional violation of the most important and widely accepted moral and legal principle that seeks to constrain the inevitable destructiveness of warfare: that innocent civilians may never be the intended object--direct or indirect--of military attack. When they are, we call it terrorism--or even worse, state terrorism.

Indeed, by accepting what might be called the liberal criticism of Cast Lead--that while its methods were dreadful, Israel did have the right to go to war against Gaza in order to defend itself--the Goldstone Commission failed to point out the true depths of the Israeli war crimes: the underlying purpose of Cast Lead was not "self-defense" but the destruction of all resistance to Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and its external control over Gaza by means of economic and military warfare, warfare that repeatedly provoked Palestinian resistance and retaliation.

For that reason, then, even if its methods had been pristine, Israel had committed the crime of international aggression. Indeed, in those circumstances it is not even necessary, in a sense, to examine Israel's methods: if you don't have a just cause, you are not morally or legally permitted to attack even the other side's soldiers, let alone its people.

Surely at some level Goldstone must have understood this, so why did he duck the issue of just cause, and then essentially retract his Commission's most important charge of unjust method? One can only speculate: stung by the hatred and rejection in Israel as well as the global Jewish community, especially in his native South Africa, Goldstone may simply have essentially capitulated.

At this point, it is hard to know how much damage the Goldstone retraction has done. On the one hand, except for a small and essentially powerless minority in Israel and the United States, no revelation about Israel's behavior ever seems to break through the psychological Iron Wall defenses of the majorities, so ultimately both the original report and the retraction of it may have little impact.

On the other hand, the Goldstone retraction could be disastrous, especially in light of the recent renewal of Hamas rocket attacks and disproportionate Israeli retaliations. Both Gideon Levy and Akiva Eldar, the great Haaretz columnists, have warned that Goldstone has unwittingly given a green light for Operation Cast Lead 2. Similarly, Jessica Montell of B'tselem quotes Gabriela Shalev, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN: "The one point of light is that if we have to defend ourselves against terror organizations again, we will be able to say there is no way to deal with this terror other than the same way we did in Cast Lead." As Montell concludes: "Shalev's words make chillingly clear that this debate is not only about the past but also about the future."

Friday, April 8, 2011

An (Uneasy) Defense of the Libyan Intervention

The article below was published on April 3 in the Sunday Viewpoints section of the Buffalo News.

Among specialists on war and foreign policy, the US/NATO military intervention in what is clearly a civil war in Libya has been greeted with greater ambivalence than in any other international conflict in the modern era. Even those who are most knowledgable about what is happening in Libya are having a hard time making up their minds about whether they support Obama’s decision to take military action, especially since the purpose of the intervention—despite the administration’s denials--is not merely to rescue the rebels and innocent civilians from Quaddafi’s wrath, but to overthrow his atrocious dictatorship.

In a sense, this ambivalence is perfectly justified, perhaps even inevitable, because there are powerful arguments both for and against the intervention, and also because the range of outcomes and consequences of the intervention is so wide and, above all, unknowable.

Most foreign policy actions—especially those that involve the use of force—are designed with two purposes in mind: to serve and protect the U.S. national interest and to do the morally right thing, typically in that order of priority. The easy cases are those in which national security issues and morality line up on the same side: World War II would be the classic example. Libya, however, is a devilishly difficult case, for there are plausible scenarios in which the military intervention could work or could fail, both in moral and national interest terms. It depends on outcomes and consequences that no one—literally no one, not Obama or his critics—can possibly know.

Granting all the uncertainties, on balance I think the case for intervention is stronger than that of nonintervention. Let me state the major arguments against intervention, and then discuss why they fail to persuade:

*Morality or humanitarianism has nothing to do with it: it’s all about oil. A common fallacy among those who regard themselves as hardheaded “realists” is to dismiss the role of morality in foreign policy decisions and claim it is all about narrow interests, especially economic interests, and most especially, oil interests. Such cynicism, however, is itself a kind of naivite, a reductionism unequal to the complexity of war-and-peace issues.

In the Libyan case, the argument that it’s all about oil is particularly unpersuasive. First, only a very small amount of our imported oil comes from Libya, and in any case for many years Quaddafi has been a reliable supplier, both to us and to our NATO allies. Moreover, in recent years, Quaddafi has played a valuable intelligence-gathering role in the war against terrorism, especially al-Qaeda. So if narrow self-interests really explained the US intervention, we should be fighting to save Quaddafi, not to overthrow him. In short, there is every reason to believe that genuine moral concerns were an important component—probably the most important component—in explaining the administration’s decision to intervene in Libya.

*Insofar as the intervention is designed to get rid of Quaddafi, it violates international law because it goes beyond the UN mandate, which limited the purpose of the authorized intervention to that of protecting civilians. There are two problems with this argument. First, it is hard to see how the intervention could save the Libyan people from Quaddafi’s wrath—he has openly stated his murderous intentions—without getting rid of him. Suppose the US and NATO refused to go beyond a literal interpretation of the UN resolution and simply stopped the Libyan military advance, established a ceasefire—and then left? What would prevent Quaddafi, with his billions of dollars in oil wealth, from rebuilding his military forces and resuming a vendetta against his opponents?

Moreover, the latest UN resolution is not the sole source of international law. In fact, for a number of years both the UN and other international bodies have been steadily moving towards legitimizing (in both the moral and legal sense) international intervention against particularly brutal dictatorships. In particular, since 2005 UN bodies have formalized an international “right to protect” peoples from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” including by military action when all other methods fail. Quaddafi is not committing genocide or ethnic cleansing, as those terms are generally defined, but he has certainly committed war crimes, and if he had not been stopped, he clearly intended to commit even worse atrocities that might well have reached the level of crimes against humanity. Just prior to Obama’s decision, Quaddafi proclaimed: “We are coming tonight. We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.”

*Humanitarian intervention is inconsistent, highly selective, and therefore morally hypocritical. There is no doubt that the United States, NATO, and the international community of states are highly selective in undertaking humanitarian military interventions. We intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo, and now in Libya—but not in Rwanda, Sudan, the Congo, and in a number of other states where the atrocities or crimes against humanity were even worse.

Furthermore, only small or militarily weak states are vulnerable to humanitarian interventions: no one proposed military intervention against China because of its ruthless suppression of the Tibetan uprising, or against Russia because of its brutality in the Chechnyan revolution. Indeed, even in perhaps worse cases, like North Korea and Iran, no sane political leaders would invite a major war, possibly even a nuclear war, by carrying out a humanitarian intervention.

What about cases much closer in terms of risks and feasibility to that of Libya? Neither the Obama administration or NATO is disposed to intervene against the military autocracies of Bahrain and Yemen, which have used force to crush popular uprisings. Western military intervention would be even less likely should similar events occur in Saudi Arabia. The reasons are obvious: we have high national security stakes in the pro-Western monarchies of the region, who provide us with military bases, intelligence cooperation, and, yes, in the presently hypothetical case of Saudi Arabia, oil. In such cases, national interest considerations clearly trump moral concerns—as maybe they should.

What doesn’t follow, however, is that if you can’t or don’t want to intervene everywhere where human rights are being trampled, you shouldn’t intervene anywhere. Every once in a while—such as in the case of Libya—the issues of national security, morality, and practical feasibility line up on the side of intervention, and when they do, the charge of hypocrisy or illegitimate “selectivity” is not a persuasive argument in favor of nonintervention.

*We can’t know the consequences of the intervention, but war always brings unintended and unforeseen consequences. There is no doubt that the anti-intervention argument is strongest when it focuses on consequences rather than state motivations and intentions. In terms of consequences, there are indeed a number of troubling issues. First, what happens if the currently limited military operations are insufficient to get rid of Quaddafi? Do we escalate the war, expand the bombing, or introduce ground troops—which could lead to a number of bad consequences, not least of which is that they would probably increase Libyan civilian casualties rather than prevent them?

The history of previous initially limited interventions that failed to work, thus forcing an unpalatable choice between major escalation or the acceptance of defeat, is not reassuring: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan leap to mind. For now, the evidence is that most Libyans are prepared to accept the consequences of the US/NATO intervention—indeed, they are overjoyed with it—but whether that will continue if the war drags on or escalates is another matter.

A second argument is that wars to impose democracy from the outside fail far more often than they succeed: there have been a number of serious studies that have reached pessimistic conclusions about such wars. However, the relevance of these findings for the Libyan situation is questionable, at least if we think of the war not as intended to bring about democracy but to protect an even more basic human right, the right to life.

Consider, for example, the Rwandan example. In 1994 the US and the international community failed to intervene in Rwanda to prevent the Hutu genocide that slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis, even though UN forces on the ground as well as outside experts believed that a small military intervention would have worked—Bill Clinton later said that his failure to intervene in Rwanda was the worst mistake of his administration. Suppose we had intervened and had prevented the genocide, but democracy later failed to take root in Rwanda? Would we then regard the humanitarian intervention that ended the mass slaughter as a failure, let alone a moral failure?

There is yet another possible--and certainly most serious-- unintended consequence of the Libyan intervention: Since no one proposes military intervention, for whatever reason, against states with nuclear weapons, the lessons of Libya for small states currently not possessing such weapons might be that they better get them as soon as possible. Indeed, as some analysts have pointed out, it is quite likely that Quaddafi today considers his greatest mistake was to have ended his nuclear program in 2003 in exchange for normalization of relations with the West.

If it should turn out to be the case that the Libyan intervention convinces a number of states that had previously declined to seek nuclear weapons to now do so, in retrospect the intervention would have been a mistake. But we can’t know that will be the outcome, both because regardless of the Libyan situation there are a number of factors militating against states trying to go nuclear and also, on the other hand, because there are a number of factors that may lead to further nuclear proliferation, even if there had been no Libyan intervention.

So, there are strong arguments both for and against the intervention and there are a number of possible outcomes, some of them desirable and some of them not. Consequently, the ultimate consequences of the Libyan intervention , both in moral and national interest terms, are quite unknowable. I’m afraid this leaves us little but gut feelings to go by: mine are that we simply could not stand by and do nothing when the Libyan rebels, and beyond them the ordinary Libyan people, were faced with imminent catastrophe at hands of a psychotic killer.

As in the past, in the future there are certain to be a internal state conflicts in which governments will kill and in other ways deny their people their basic human rights—and in most of them, we will do nothing effective, for practical reasons as well as reasons of state. Even so, it is hard to see why saving lives and protecting human rights in some countries is not better than protecting none. A more satisfactory resolution of these issues will have to await a radical change in the international state system—if not a transformation of human nature.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Infuriating Blog Program

Once again, the program has sent out, all on its own, erroneous messages about a "new" posts that are in fact old ones. It should have notified you of a short April 2 posting on the Lee Smith article in Tablet.

I will try to correct this extremely annoying problem. In the meantime, if you get a post of an article whose date is in the past, it probably means that I've just posted one that is genuinely new.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

More Atrocities from Lee Smith

Last summer Tablet published two quite incredible articles by the rightwing journalist, Lee Smith; I examined them in a long blog last August: "How Bad Can the Jewish Rightwing Get?"  (

Now, courtesy of Tablet, he's done it again.  It's too much of an effort to rebut him again, especially since his "argument" verges on insanity.  Here's the link:

There are bound to be people like Smith, who will say anything and who have no bottom, so long as it brings them a certain notoriety.  The real question is why a supposedly serious magazine, Tablet, publishes him.