Stephen Scheinberg is an emeritus professor of history at Montreal’s Concordia University and co-chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now. This is the text of one of his periodic broadcasts on Montreal’s Radio Shalom:
I wish it was easy for me to sort out the issues raised by the recently released UN report on alleged war crimes in Gaza. Judge Richard Goldstone, a Jew, a Zionist, a respected South African jurist who prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, headed the UN investigation into crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. He insisted that the crimes of Hamas must also be investigated but, as some critics have noted, this was not incorporated into the original terms of reference, meaning that the infamous UN Human Rights Committee presently headed by Libya may choose to ignore all criticisms of Hamas in the report.
The Goldstone report has been released and it condemned both Hamas for its indiscriminate missile attacks on Israel which created a climate of fear and psychological trauma, as well as the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, and condemned the IDF for its use of white phosphorus and attacks on innocent civilians. The expected reactions have come in from both sides: Haroon Siddiqui in the Toronto Star (Sept. 20) used the report solely to bash Israel and to let Hamas totally off the hook, not a very credible approach. On the other extreme, Frank Dimant, B’nai Brith-Canada’s head, labeled the report a “whitewash” of “Islamist terrorism,” of course discounting any criticism of Israel.
It is so easy to fit the report into a ready-made matrix instead of giving it some thought. The problem for those who believe that Israel can do no wrong, is that Goldstone’s critique follows on the heels of at least three other reports from, in my opinion, respectable sources – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the testimony of IDF soldiers represented by Breaking the Silence. The Israeli response has been to shoot the messengers by attacking these respected groups. Amnesty is supposedly leftist dominated, HRW raised some funds in Saudi Arabia, Breaking the Silence gets financial support from European nations, and a member of Goldstone’s commission had previously signed a letter critical of Israel’s conduct of Operation Cast Lead. Going on the attack is an old technique, which Israel has used successfully in the past, but it absolutely lacks credibility when applied to each and every critic of the IDF.
The IDF’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi defends his troops as the most ethical army in the world. We know that even the ethical armies of democratic nations have committed war crimes and that these nations are all the better, for having faced up to them. During the Vietnam War, the United States had to deal with the massacre at My Lai and more recently with the torture at Abu Ghraib. Canada had to dissolve its airborne regiment after its 1993 crimes in Somalia were made public. A democratic nation is strengthened when it faces up to the crimes committed under its own banner.
The disparity in Israeli and Palestinian fatalities makes me think that there was something inherently wrong in an action in which only nine Israeli soldiers lost their lives, four of those by friendly fire, and three Israeli civilians were killed in the south by Hamas rockets. On the other side the estimated fatalities range from about 1200 to 1450 of these perhaps 774 were civilians including 320 minors.
The disparity is too great for us to be complacent. On the first day of Israel’s attack, General Yoav Galant, commander of the Southern Front, declared that the objective was to “send Gaza decades into the past,” and to achieve “the maximum number of enemy casualties,” while “keeping Israel Defense Forces casualties at a minimum.” Professor Zeev Sternhell sharply criticized this new moral doctrine, which he attributed to Prof. Asa Kasher and General Amos Yadlin as “Zero casualties for our troops,” and a “license to kill” Palestinian civilians. If this is indeed the case, then the issue of war crimes goes far beyond the particular orders of some captains or lieutenants in the field and on up to the very top of the IDF.
It follows then, that while the particular war crimes accusations made by Goldstone as well as others should be thoroughly investigated, by Israel itself, the major issue relating to the deaths of Palestinian civilians is the moral doctrine of the IDF. Judge Goldstone cannot be of help here. There is an on-going debate in the pages of the New York Review of Books that began last May with an important article by Professors Avishai Margalit and Michael Walzer, in which they take vigorous exception to an ethical doctrine which places too high a value on the security of the troops vis a vis the lives of innocent civilians.
The United States in Afghanistan is also reexamining its position on civilian deaths, or to use that awful euphemism, collateral damage. The new American command has ordered that air attacks which endanger civilian lives must be halted. This is not only, a new ethical standard. It is a practical recognition that the needless killing of Afghan civilians is the surest means of losing a conflict. Similarly, every Palestinian civilian death breeds more hatred and more resistance.
Israel and her defenders ought to carefully study the Goldstone report, rethink current Israeli military doctrine, which places the greatest emphasis on preserving its own soldier’s lives and even consider the possible guilt of members and officers of the IDF. Yes, Israel and a narrowing circle of die hard supporters can circle the wagons and withstand another barrage of criticism, but it is much more important that they open their eyes and their minds when a long-time friend like Richard Goldstone offers criticism of their actions.