In Israel, Goldstone's Gaza war retraction triggers 'earthquake' of vindication

South African Judge Richard Goldstone's recent retraction of accusations of Israeli war crimes during its war with Hamas in Gaza two years ago is still rippling throughout Israel.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting, Sunday. The head of a UN-appointed expert panel that investigated the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas with the alleged deliberately targeted civilians in the winter of 2008-2009, Richard Goldstone said in a newspaper article published in the Washington Post Friday, that new accounts by Israel's military indicate that his conclusions should have been different, and Netanyahu has called for the Goldstone Report to be formally nullified.

Israel has reacted with a sense of vindication since South African Judge Richard Goldstone retracted accusations of Israeli war crimes during its war with Hamas in Gaza two years ago.

Mr. Goldstone, who headed a panel of the United Nations Human Rights Council that made the accusations in more than 500 pages worth of reports in 2009, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece published Friday that Israeli inquires into the reports' allegations have made it clear that its army didn’t intentionally target Gaza civilians. He shifted criticism to the militant Islamist group Hamas for "heinous" acts of shooting rockets at Israeli cities and for refusing to investigate itself.

The Goldstone report was widely seen in Israel as unjust and aimed at isolating the Jewish state as a pariah while negating its right to defend itself from rocket attacks. And although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the United Nations to consign the report to the "dustbin of history," it isn’t likely to be forgotten any time soon.

Palestinians who had encouraged the UN to refer the report to its judicial arm accused Goldstone of caving in to pro-Israel pressure over the report. Israeli commentators, meanwhile, called the South African justice’s article a "PR coup" and an "earthquake."

"The most serious of accusation was that Israel deliberately killed Palestinian civilians," said Dore Gold, a former Israeli United Nations Ambassador who debated Goldstone in 2009. "It was like a blood libel for the Israel Defense Force, and contributed directly to the global effort to delegitimize the Jewish state. This is an important turning point."

Fresh Gaza incursion brewing?

Mr. Goldstone’s retraction comes at a time when rising violence in Gaza and southern Israel has prompted talk in Israel of a need to repeat Israel’s offensive against Hamas that was the focus of the report.

Two weeks ago, the sides traded attacks in the worst spate of violence since the 2008-2009 war, in which some 1,400 Gazans were killed. The March 22 killing of four civilians by an errant Israeli mortar shell showed that the narratives of the two-year-old war haven’t changed: the Palestinians accused Israel of targeting civilians while Israel accused militants of cynically using non-combatants as shields.

While Israeli officials rushed to claim victory on Sunday, analysts expressed doubt it would spur any greater sympathy for Israel by the international community in a future conflict.

"It’s more of a moral triumph than something that changes the relations between Israel and the UN or between Israel and the international community,’’ said Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli columnist for the Jerusalem Post. "The United Nations is a body with an instinctive tendency to investigate Israel and to blame Israel, and I don’t think that that tendency will be different because of [Goldstone's] change of heart."

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Sunday that the Palestinian Authority will still press for international efforts to prosecute war crimes from the Gaza war.

Despite Israel’s vilification of the Goldstone inquiry – it sees the UN Human Rights council as anti-Israel – its army has responded to criticism of its handling of non-combatants.

Newspaper commentators said the number of misconduct inquiries would not have been as large had it not been for international pressure. Combat units now have Arabic speaking officers to liaise with civilians and humanitarian agencies.

"We have learned lessons. The process of debriefings, inquiries, and investigations, ultimately lead to these things," says an Israeli security official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Did [the Goldstone report] contribute? I’m sure it has."

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