Ethan Bronner writes a N.Y. Times report on a new propaganda offensive by the IDF against the Goldstone Report. It seems Israel has finally decided to engage with the document’s claims that Israel may have committed war crimes during last year’s Gaza war. Of course, it could’ve done so by testifying to the UN investigative body so that Israel’s perspective could’ve been incorporated into the finished document. At the time, Israel evidently judged it could filibuster and disparage this effort, as they have so many previous international attempts to hold Israel accountable for its actions concerning the Palestinians. But for some reason, Goldstone has developed much more staying power than other similar past efforts.
Bronner highlights several particular findings of the UN report with which the IDF takes issue. But in each of the two cases it appears to me that Israel is doing precisely what it did during the war–saying events did not happen as the victims claim but without providing any convincing evidence:
One concerned the destruction of Gaza’s sole flour mill. The Goldstone report asserts that the Bader flour mill “was hit by an airstrike, possibly by an F-16.” The Israeli investigators say they have photographic proof that this is false, that the mill was accidentally hit by artillery in the course of a firefight with Hamas militiamen.
The dispute is significant since the United Nations report asserts that “the destruction of the mill was carried out for the purpose of denying sustenance to the civilian population,” an explicit war crime.
A second finding concerned the destruction of a wastewater plant, leading to an enormous outflow of raw sewage. The Goldstone report contended that it was hit by a powerful Israeli missile in a strike that was “deliberate and premeditated.” The Israelis say they had nothing to do with that plant’s collapse and suggest that it may have been the result of Hamas explosives.
One of the things I find discouraging about Bronner’s reporting is his credulousness in the face of Israeli claims. Note Israeli investigators SAY they have photographs to prove their point. And in the second case Israel doesn’t even claim to have evidence but states bald-facedly that it had nothing to do with the sewage plant’s destruction. It doesn’t provide any evidence of its suggestion that Hamas MAY have been the cause.
We’ll await the actual Israeli report to see if it is any more persuasive than the jaundiced peek that Bronner provides. It’s doubtful, given Israeli denials of culpability beginning during the war itself and persisting to the present day. I also note Bronner didn’t mention other even more dramatic incidents in which Goldstone accused Israel of the killings of large groups of civilians in multiple incidents.
Bronner also notes the IDF rebuttal will include the tired old argument that international standards of war need to be revised to incorporate new types of asymmetric warfare in which nation states are at a disadvantage when they strike at insurgents who fight from within a civilian population. This is a non-starter. It doesn’t resonate with any serious analyst of the laws of war I’ve heard discuss the issue. It’s merely yet another Israeli attempt to throw arguments against the wall to see if any will stick. In the process, it hopes that merely by paying attention to its arguments the world may be that much more distracted from the real crimes committed.
There is one passage from Bronner that really brought me up short. It is a flagrantly overstated distortion of real Israeli opinion about the Gaza war and must be rebutted by Israeli NGOs and peace activists:
…Virtually no one in Israel, including the leaders of Breaking the Silence and the human rights group B’Tselem, thinks that the Goldstone accusation of an assault on civilians is correct.
In all the critiques I’ve written about Ethan Bronner’s compromised reporting from Israel, this is one of his most glaring distortions. Let’s just take this passage summarizing a statement from seven Israeli human rights NGOs presented to the Goldstone team during their investigation:
The report presents the Goldstone Committee with detailed findings concerning violations of the laws of war that the Israel military allegedly committed during its attack on the Gaza Strip…referring mainly to policies of collective punishment used against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. The report details Israeli military offensives that failed to discriminate between combatants and civilians, damage to civilian government buildings for political objectives, attacks on medical rescue teams, damage to public infrastructure, holding detainees in conditions that violate Israeli and international law, and collective punishment.
And I haven’t even gotten into the full report which you may read here. And the Israeli Committee Against Torture released its own report critiquing the IDF’s war strategy in Gaza as a violation of the laws of war BECAUSE it inordinately targeted civilians:
The Israeli government’s claims that the IDF made every effort to avoid harm to Palestinian civilians, and that the damage caused was reasonable given the circumstances, are at odds with the actual operation and its results. Not only do the events in the field attest to this, but so do the very statements made at the time by the same Israeli authorities who today proclaim their innocence.
Bronner here risks making himself and the Times a laughingstock of willful hasbarism. I’m not claiming that Bronner is doing this intentionally. But it doesn’t matter whether he’s aware of the ideological assumptions of his reporting or not. The fact is that as one of the world’s most prominent Israel correspondents, he is carrying water for the IDF and government, and distorting the real picture of Israeli opposition to the Gaza war.
I can deal with this when it comes from an avowed Israel advocate like Dershowitz. At least you know what you’re getting. But Bronner and the Times have the imprimatur of journalistic gravitas and don’t deserve it in this case.
On a final note, I was also astonished that B’Tselem allowed itself to become part of Bronner’s case that Israelis universally condemn Goldstone’s claim of a deliberate Israeli plan to destroy civilian infrastructure:
“I do not accept the Goldstone conclusion of a systematic attack on civilian infrastructure,” said Yael Stein, research director of B’Tselem. “It is not convincing.
This is too much to bear. Anyone who has visited Gaza or lives there can see with their own eyes that this is simply wrong. The schools, mosques, parliament, civilian ministries, factories, UNWRA food warehouse, everything it takes to make a society–virtually all of it was systematically destroyed. And Israeli generals during the war essentially conceded this point by claiming that every Gazan was presumed either a combatant or supporter of Hamas, and therefore a likely combatant. Israel soldiers themselves reported Gaza was a virtual free fire zone in which anything that moved whether civilian or not was considered a target. 1,100 of the 1,400 Gazans killed by the IDF were civilians, which further underscores either a willful campaign to target civilians or a strategy that accepted the decimation of the civilian population as a corollary of the approach.
I generally admire B’Tselem’s human rights work. But in this they have fallen down hard and deserve criticism.
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