In its issue of May 26, the New York Review of Books, one of the few major US media outlets for articles seriously critical of Israel, published an article by David Shulman, “Goldstone and Gaza: What’s Still True.” Shulman is a professor of Humanities at Hebrew University, and has long been a critic of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, often writing for the New York Review, Harper’s, and other leading media.
In some important ways, the Shulman article is disappointing and puzzling. To be sure, Shulman is highly critical of Israel’s three-week attack on Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”) in 2008-09, as well as the overall Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the cruelties that accompany it, and he praises the Goldstone Report for the “unflinching gaze it directs at the occupation and the link it meticulously establishes between it and the Gaza war.” On the other hand, his criticism does not go nearly far enough, and three of his important arguments are misleading, problematic, or just plain wrong.
After the Shulman article was published I wrote a letter of criticism to the NY Review. Because I wanted to wait to see if the letter would be accepted, I have waited a month to publish my assessment here. It is now clear that my letter will not be published. However, in response to my query, Robert Silvers, the editor of the Review, confirmed to me that he sent my letter, along with others, to Shulman; in the June 23 issue, just out, Silvers prints a letter from Shulman, in which, “for the record and in the interests of precision,” in effect he responds to my criticisms, and perhaps of others.
There are three serious problems in Shulman’s article, and they are not remedied in his follow-up letter. First, Shulman wrote that “Goldstone’s revised statement rectifies the egregious failure of the Goldstone report to clearly condemn Hamas for its crimes.” That is wrong: the Goldstone report explicitly rejected Hamas’s argument that its rocket and mortar attacks in southern Israel were a legitimate response to the Israeli occupation and numerous military attacks on Gaza, and concluded that the attacks were “violations of international law” that were deliberately designed “to spread terror amongst the Israeli civilian population.” Consequently, the report concluded, the Hamas attacks “constitute[d] war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.” In that light (as I wrote in my letter to the NYR) what exactly was the report’s “egregious failure?”
In his June 23 letter, Shulman now writes this:
I’d like to make it clear that the Goldstone report…did note that the missile attacks by Hamas and related groups on Israeli cities prior to the Israeli operation “would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.” This statement, oddly hedged and couched in the subjunctive, is dwarfed by the overwhelming focus of the Goldstone report on Israel’s actions before and during the campaign….Goldstone’s reconsideration of his position…seems aimed, in part, at redressing this imbalance.
This “clarification,” however, does not strengthen Shulman’s argument; if anything, it compounds his errors. To begin, Shulman fails to notice that the Report also used carefully hedged language in its conclusions about Israeli war crimes: “some of the actions of the Government of Israel might justify a competent court finding that crimes against humanity have been committed.” More importantly, of course the Goldstone Report focused more heavily on Israeli war crimes than those of Hamas: that did not reflect any “imbalance” in the thinking of the Commission, for there were many more possible Israeli war crimes to be investigated than those of Hamas, and they needed to be analyzed in great detail for the strong conclusions of the Report to be credible. Furthermore, it is obvious that the Goldstone commissioners considered it to be relevant that it was Israel that was the occupier and the aggressor and that the Gazan people—who chose Hamas to represent them in democratic elections--were the occupied and the victims.
Finally, the consequences of the Israeli attacks on the Palestinian civilians were far worse than those of the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians--which consisted primarily of rocket and mortar attacks that rarely hit their targets and killed only a few Israelis. By contrast, the Israelis directly killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians and somewhat less directly, but no less criminally, were responsible for the death and suffering of thousands of others.
The second major problem in the Shulman article is that his statement that Hamas and its allies attacked Israel “before the war” is quite misleading, for it clearly implies that Hamas, not Israel, must bear the responsibility for the escalating hostilities that culminated in Cast Lead. However, even after Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005, it not only continued its devastating economic siege but launched a number of highly destructive military attacks against Gaza, in the course of which it killed over 1200 people, up to half of them civilians—even before Cast Lead. Of course, Israel claimed its actions were “retaliations” for Hamas attacks—which, to repeat, killed very few Israelis—but Hamas made the same claim, and more persuasively.
Moreover, in the two years preceding Cast Lead, Israel violated several ceasefires that had been negotiated with, or unilaterally proclaimed by, Hamas; it continued its “targeted assassinations” of Hamas leaders and other militants; and it steadily tightened the economic siege that was explicitly calibrated to cause great civilian suffering, though short of outright starvation. Yet, in his article Shulman essentially ignores these facts, or apparently considers them to be irrelevant.
Evidently Israeli General Shmuel Zakai, the former commander of the IDF’s Gaza division, does not agree. In a 22 December 2010 interview in Haaretz, Zakai bluntly stated that Israel had made a “central error” during the six month truce that preceded Cast Lead, because it failed “to take advantage of the calm to improve rather than markedly worsen the economic plight of the Palestinians.” Zakai goes on to clearly suggest that the continuation of the Israeli siege and its violations of various ceasefires made the resumption of Hamas rockets inevitable: “You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.”
In short, not only did Israel commit war crimes in its attack on Gaza, it was Israel that was primarily responsible for the cycle of violence that preceded Cast Lead. In his June 23 letter, Shulman now concedes that “Israel bears responsibility for breaking the ceasefire at crucial points in the period leading up to the campaign,” but he concludes his letter by reiterating that “there is no possible justification for Hamas’s deliberate targeting of innocent civilians.”
Is that persuasive? Yes and no. On the one hand, it is true that Hamas intended to kill many more Israeli civilians and its failure to do so does not lessen the fact that attacking innocents is terrorism and a war crime. On the other hand, in assessing the gravity of the crime of terrorism, results as well intentions do matter, especially when the disproportionalities are so great. Moreover, while all attacks on innocent civilians are evil, some are more so than others. That is, in my moral world—and, I suspect, in that of many others, even when they don’t wish to make it explicit--there are important moral distinctions between the terrorism and war crimes of a powerful state occupying and repressing another people, and those of its stateless and militarily impotent victims.
In short, terrorism is always morally wrong—even so, there are mitigating circumstances in the case of Hamas attacks on innocents but none in the case of the far more destructive Israeli attacks.
Shulman’s most important argument is this: “anyone who knows the Israeli army knows that, for all its faults and failings, it does not have a policy of deliberately attacking innocent civilians.” (emphasis in original) For two reasons, this is a highly problematic contention. First, it ignores the overwhelming evidence that from 1948 through at least 2006, the Israeli army—or, better said, the Israeli government—did have a policy of directly attacking civilians. As I have previously written in great detail, (here and here) it did so in 1947-48 in order to drive out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from areas claimed by Israel; it did so in the 1950s against Palestinian and even Jordanian villagers, in order to “persuade” them not to support raids on Israeli communities; it did so during the 1956 Israeli-Egyptian war, in which it has been recently revealed that on at least two occasions Israeli forces systematically massacred hundreds of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip; it did so when it shelled and bombed Egyptian towns and cities during the 1970-73 Suez Canal conflict with Egypt, making good on Moshe Dayan’s 1968 blunt warning that in the event of war with Egypt, 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 it has repeatedly done so in its attacks on Lebanon in 1978, 1982, 1996, and 2006.
2006: Not very long ago. Yet, Shulman appears to have forgotten about the massive Israeli attack on Lebanon and the similar ongoing attacks on Gaza, deliberately designed to force the Lebanese government to end Hezbollah attacks and the Palestinians to end Hamas attacks. No need to take my word that the Israeli actions clearly reflected high policy: In July 2006, Yossi Alpher, a former high Israeli intelligence official and centrist member of the Israeli security establishment, wrote that “Some of the humanitarian suffering in Gaza and Lebanon is a deliberate act on Israel’s part….It is intended to generate mass public pressure on the respective governments to force the Islamic militants to release three IDF soldiers snatched from Israeli territory and end rocket attacks.”
After the invasion, Alpher again denounced “the folly of collectively punishing 1.5 million Gazans for the sins of Hamas…starving masses of Palestinians is a counter-productive strategy.” And less than a year before Cast Lead, 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 following:
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….[Such measures are] counterproductive [and]….impermissible by our moral standards.
Whether or not Cast Lead continued previous Israeli policies of directly attacking civilians is still in dispute. What is not in dispute, however, is the fact that Israel engaged in systematic attacks on civilian infrastructures during its three-week attack. Thus, the third major problem in the Shulman article is that he fails to examine the policy implications of these attacks, his sole mention of the issue being a single throwaway sentence--in parentheses-- that the Goldstone report “suggested that Israel deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructures in Gaza on a wide scale.”
The Goldstone report, however, did not “suggest” that this was the case, but devoted 27 pages to highly detailed discussions of Israeli attacks on Gaza’s economic infrastructure. Its conclusion was that Israel had committed “war crimes,” for its attacks reflected “a deliberate and systematic policy…of denying [those targets] for their sustenance to the population of the Gaza Strip… indicat[ing] the intention to inflict collective punishment on the people of the Gaza Strip in violation of international humanitarian law.”
Subsequently, a number of investigations by international and Israeli human rights groups also found that Israel, as a matter of high policy, had deliberately attacked civilian infrastructure, and most agreed that the attacks constituted “war crimes.” In fact, the case is a prima facie one: even aside from the direct killings, from 2005 through Cast Lead, Israel attacked electrical generation plants, power lines, industrial facilities and cement factories, fuel depots, sewage plants, water storage tanks, and various agricultural and food production systems, including farms, orchards, greenhouses, fishing boats, chicken coops and a flour factory—and even some 3500 private homes. In that light, the distinction between attacks on “infrastructures” and those on “people” is essentially meaningless: the consequences of such attacks are that civilians suffer and die, even if it takes a little longer than when they are directly gunned down or bombed.
In his just-published letter, Shulman again ignores that argument (which was included in the letter I sent to the NY Review, and which he received). He is not alone: even B’tselem, the admirable and in other respects courageous Israeli human rights organization, objected to the Goldstone report’s conclusion that Israel engaged in “deliberately disproportionate” and “systematically reckless” attacks on densely populated areas of Gaza, in order to “punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.”
In some ways, the unwillingness or inability of the mainstream Israeli left and its supporters in the U.S. to accept demonstrable facts is even more depressing than the moral obtuseness of the Israeli right: if not from people like David Shulman, or from the liberal U.S. media, where else can Israelis and Americans learn the full truth, acknowledge its implications, and finally confront the long history and depths of Israeli criminality towards the Palestinians?