Critic eases stance on Israel conduct

Israel launched a vigorous diplomatic offensive Sunday after revelations by South African jurist Richard Goldstone that he now harbors doubts about one of the central findings of his controversial report examining the conduct of Israel and Hamas during fighting in the Gaza Strip two years ago.

In an editorial published Friday in the Washington Post, Goldstone wrote that new evidence provided by Israel indicated that "civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy" by its military.

Goldstone added, "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone report would have been a different document."

The 575-page Goldstone report examined the conduct of Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, during a 22-day clash that ended in January 2009. The report, which infuriated many Israelis and led to widespread international condemnation of their country, concluded that both Israel and Hamas should be investigated for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.

In the carefully worded essay, Goldstone did not specifically exonerate Israel of killing any civilians or disavow the report's other criticisms that Israel used excessive force and collective punishment against Gaza's residents. He noted that subsequent investigations by Israel's own military have proven the validity of many of the report's findings.

"The Israeli evidence that has emerged since publication of our report doesn't negate the tragic loss of civilian life," he wrote, saying that as a result of the report, Israel adopted new practices for protecting civilians in conflicts and for limiting the use of white phosphorus in civilian areas.

Palestinians say 1,400 people were killed during the offensive, known as Operation Cast Lead. Israelis now estimate 1,160 were killed, including 295 civilians.

But Goldstone's newly expressed doubts about one of the inquiry's most serious claims -- that Israel targeted civilians -- were likely to seriously undermine the report, which at a minimum will now carry a permanent footnote questioning its credibility.

It was not immediately clear what motivated Goldstone to write the article.

For Israel's government, Goldstone's surprise admission offered a much-needed international public relations coup. Israel is facing growing international isolation over stalled peace talks with Palestinians.

'Fight back'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last year blamed the "Goldstone effect" for what he has called a global "de-legitimization" campaign against Israel, said the entire Goldstone report should be thrown into the "dustbin of history."

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu said his government would ask the United Nations to formally retract the report. The Foreign Ministry began circulating copies of Goldstone's article to foreign diplomats around the world, particularly those from countries that criticized Israel when the report was released in September 2009.

Netanyahu ordered his national security advisor to form a committee to look for other ways of "minimizing the damage caused" by the report.

"There are very few incidents in which false accusations are taken back, and this is the case with the Goldstone report," Netanyahu told ministers.

"We should fight back to clear Israel of these kinds of allegations," said Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon.

Some were skeptical about whether such a campaign would be effective. "I fear very little of significance will come in terms of healing the toxic damage to Israel's good name," said Jerusalem Post Editor David Horovitz.

In Gaza, Hamas leaders dismissed Goldstone's article, accusing him of buckling under pressure from pro-Israel groups. In his article, Goldstone was harshly critical of Hamas for failing to investigate its members for firing rockets at Israeli civilians, noting: "That the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying -- its rockets were purposely and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets."

"This gives Israel a green light to start a new genocidal war against Gaza," Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri said of Goldstone's article. "We can see signs of a new aggression." He said Goldstone's reconsideration does not invalidate the report.

Goldstone also faulted Israel for boycotting his 2009 inquiry and refusing to provide evidence or witness testimony.

"I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes," he wrote.

Some cautioned against reading too much into Goldstone's statement. "He didn't say he's taking it all back," said Israeli author and historian Tom Segev. "And even if the report is not accurate, he deserves credit for pushing Israel to investigate, which it would have never done. Now it doesn't matter what he might have gotten wrong. It's what Netanyahu makes of all this. The report is dead."

Israel's own military prosecutors have validated some of Goldstone's allegations. Israeli prosecutors have filed charges in at least seven cases highlighted in the report, including manslaughter charges against a sniper who Israel says "deliberately targeted" civilians, and a conviction of soldiers who used a 9-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield. The soldiers in the latter case were demoted and received 3-month suspended sentences.

Reactions mixed

Sari Bashi, head of Gisha, an Israeli organization focused on Palestinian rights, said Israel's military has failed to adequately investigate its senior commanders for their role in permitting the conditions that allowed individual misconduct.

"Israel should not just be blaming the foot soldiers," she said, adding that she hoped Goldstone's latest opinion would not discourage further scrutiny. "It would be a shame if the important lessons that should have been learned from the war -- including the need for transparency and independent investigations -- would be undermined."

Military officials said Goldstone's essay validated their position. "We said all along that we do everything we can to operate as clean as possible, and that allegations of war crimes are unfounded," said military spokesman Capt. Barak Raz. "In the fog of war, unfortunate things happen. But we investigate them."

Reaction to Goldstone's essay was mixed. American law professor Alan Dershowitz, who once called Goldstone a "traitor" to the Jewish people, urged forgiveness, saying "Jews must always accept those who repent back into the fold and this is the case here."

Israeli President Shimon Peres called for Goldstone to formally apologize. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who presided over the Gaza offensive, called the retired jurist's article "too little, too late."

Maariv newspaper columnist Ben Caspit wrote Sunday that Goldstone was "undeserving of either forgiveness or mercy. ...You, Richard Goldstone, horribly undermined the ability of the only Jewish state in the world to defend itself and fight for its survival."

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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