On Friday, the Washington Post published Judge Richard Goldstone’s retraction of most of the Goldstone Report. Just two days earlier, the Post published Israeli military maps — apparently supplied by the Israeli army — of Hezbollah’s underground bunkers, arms caches, and command centers in southern Lebanon.
The two events’ proximity is a coincidence. Yet — despite the fact that the Goldstone Report dealt with Hamas in Gaza, not Hezbollah in Lebanon — it has a certain inadvertent logic.
The notorious Goldstone Report was published in September 2009, eight months after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and charged Israel with a deliberate, systematic attack on civilians while whitewashing Hamas. In his op-ed on Friday, Goldstone reversed himself by admitting that “civilians were not intentionally targeted [by Israel] as a matter of policy.” He also implied that statistics furnished by Israel soon after the war — showing it had killed far more combatants than civilians — were accurate.
The fact remains that a significant number — about 300 — of Palestinian civilians were killed in the operation. At the time, Israel stressed that despite the best efforts of an army with high moral standards, this was largely unavoidable because of Hamas’s strategy of using the civilian population as human shields. The Goldstone Report contemptuously dismissed that claim despite extensive evidence, including graphic evidence, for it (here, here, and here, for instance).
This is where the IDF’s maps of Hezbollah’s underground facilities come in. They show an extensive network of these in populated areas, including some adjacent to schools and hospitals in the village of El-Khiam. As Jerusalem Post military analyst Yaakov Katz notes:
Israel is revealing the information as part of a public diplomacy campaign aimed at preparing the world for the widespread devastation that will likely occur in Lebanon if there should be a new Israeli war with Hezbollah, due to Hezbollah’s decision to station its assets inside populated villages.
In other words, Israel’s enemies — particularly the two terrorist outfits encamped on its borders, Hezbollah and Hamas — have learned their lessons well. As Israeli columnist Assaf Wohl pointed out this week in an open letter to Goldstone,
Hamas also probed your report in depth and is using it effectively. The group’s leaders realize that the report you drafted will tie Israel’s hands and prevent it from utilizing its full force against terrorists.
Like Hezbollah, Hamas knows that’s because the human-shields strategy works so well. Setting Israel up to inflict civilian casualties, then flashing these across the TV screens of the world, is a more effective weapon even than rockets and missiles because it can subject Israel to such fierce worldwide pressure as to stop its military efforts altogether.
Goldstone’s Washington Post retraction has stirred much excitement in Israel, despite awareness that it’s gotten little play elsewhere. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has asked the foreign, defense, and justice ministries to formulate plans to, as he put it, “reverse and minimize the great damage” the report has caused.
That damage is thought to include a heavy blow to Israel’s already-battered image, furthering the worldwide delegitimization campaign against it, and a boost to anti-Israeli “lawfare,” or attempts by Palestinian groups and others to get Israeli officials tried for “war crimes” abroad. There is indeed some optimism that Goldstone’s retraction significantly takes the wind out of those lawfare attempts.
The real test, though, is whether it will do anything to reverse a situation where Israel’s ability to defend itself against aggression is increasingly in doubt. The extent and nature of Hezbollah’s buildup, and Hamas’s recent heating up of its border with Israel, suggest confidence that despite Israel’s military campaigns against both organizations in recent years, they (with their Iranian and Syrian backers) ultimately have the upper hand.
Essential to restoring that upper hand to Israel is the recognition — which is exactly what the Goldstone Report denied — of the difference between a democratic country defending itself and terrorist organizations using the most cynical means imaginable in fighting it. Whether Israel can now expect more sympathy is something that, according to one veteran Israeli analyst, we may soon find out. Count me pessimistic.