Goldstone's Gaza Report: A Failure of Intelligence,Part One / Richard Landes

The first part of this two-part article explores the pervasive flaws that mar the UNHRC's "Gaza Fact-Finding Mission Report." It focuses on an interlocking combination of problems: 1) its failure to investigate seriously the problem of Hamas embedding its war effort in the midst of civilians in order to draw Israeli fire and then accuse Israel of war crimes; 2) its astonishing credulity concerning all Palestinian claims, contrasted with a corresponding skepticism of all Israeli claims; 3) its harsh judgments on Israelis for war crimes (i.e., deliberate targeting of civilians), contrasted with its resolute agnosticism concerning Hamas intentions. The result is that Goldstone actually participates in Hamas' strategy and encourages the sacrificing of their own civilians.


In response to the Israeli attack on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead (December 27-January 18, 2009), several major NGOs and public figures called for an investigation. On April 3, 2009, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed a “Fact-Finding Mission.” The mission was made up of four members, including Hina Jilani, Desmond Travers, Christine Chinkin, and at its head, Richard Goldstone, former member of the South African Supreme Court and distinguished international jurist. On the basis of the animus of the founding organization (UNHRC) and the pervasive bias of the members of the team, Israel refused to cooperate with what some observers called “a kangaroo court.”[2] In May 2009, the mission met in Geneva. It later made two visits to Gaza (from June 1-5, 2009 and June 26-July 1, 2009), held further hearings in Geneva (in early July 2009), and eventually presented its findings to the UNHRC (first draft, 575 pages, September 15, 2009; final draft, 430 pages, September 25, 2009).

The report found both Israel and unspecified “Palestinian armed forces” guilty of “war crimes” and “possibly crimes against humanity.” It focused primarily on Israel, concluding that Israel had deliberately targeted civilians and sought to destroy the viable infrastructure of Gazan life, providing numerous detailed and specific cases of these crimes. The Goldstone Report constitutes the most high-level, extensive international indictment of Israel to date, and may play a significant role in the attempt to pursue Israel before various international judicial venues such as the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

The report met with instantaneous hostility from Israeli sources--even those normally quite critical of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) behavior[3]--and with almost instantaneous approval from Palestinian sources, including Hamas.[4] It then became the focus of both UN and diplomatic struggles that involved the larger dynamics of peacemaking in the Middle East.[5] Goldstone has given numerous media interviews (Amanpour, Zakaria, al-Jazeera, Tikkun, and Moyers),[6] engaged in one quasi-debate (with Dore Gold at Brandeis University),[7] and visibly ducked another (with Alan Dershowitz at Fordham University, where Goldstone is a visiting professor).[8] On the one hand, critics have laid to bare the extensive flaws and emphasized the unintended negative consequences,[9] while on the other, supporters have hailed it as a major victory in the campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel in the world of public opinion and as a major source of diplomatic leverage.[10] “The Goldstone Report,” noted one pro-Palestinian writer, “represents the highest and most prestigious leverage of the Palestinian initiative throughout their 60 years of oppression…”[11]

There is perhaps no subject that embodies and sheds light on so many of the issues that torment the early twenty-first century, more than the Goldstone Report and its controversies. The report’s many and complex facets detail the dysfunctions of global public discourse, from the themes it explicitly addresses (universal human rights, international law of war, terrorism, asymmetrical warfare, the Arab-Israeli conflict), to its framework (politics of the UN Human Rights Council, reporting of the mainstream news media, the role of NGO research), to the dynamics of its reception in public discourse (critique, Israeli and Palestinian ambivalences, Western and UN politics, and Goldstone’s public appearances). Indeed, a close analysis of the report’s method and conclusions raises some of the fundamental cognitive issues of our time: religious and cultural discontinuities, scapegoating, cognitive egocentrism, post-modern epistemology, jihadi mentalities, antisemitism, and Jewish self-criticism. Anyone who understands the Goldstone report and its devastating ironies of content and impact gains a basic insight into how and why the very nations that have inaugurated modernity and globalization are losing a cognitive war with pre-modern forces.


It is difficult to specify what is wrong with the Goldstone Report since its failures are so pervasive. This article will highlight four fundamental errors of this report, all of which compounded each other and literally inverted the understanding of its readers as to what happened during Operation Cast Lead.[12] These include:
Failure to investigate Hamas’s use of civilian shields
Credulity of Palestinian sources
Systematic attribution of malevolent intention to Israeli forces and studied agnosticism about Palestinian intentions
Exceptionally judgmental conclusions for admittedly inadequate evidence.

After going over each of these items, the article reviews some of the reasons for these pervasive failures, both in terms of the previous research on what happened during Operation Cast Lead (journalism, NGO reports) and in terms of the cognitive failures that underlie this style of reporting.

This essay is not intended to question the fact that Gazans suffered from the war. What this essay does challenge is the Goldstone Report’s presentation of the cause of that suffering and the diagnosis for dealing with it.

Failure to Investigate Hamas (Civilian Shields, Suppression of Dissent, Provocation)

The first and most critical failure of the Goldstone Report comes from what it did not do: investigate Hamas. Despite Goldstone’s insistence that he investigated both sides, where Hamas is concerned, he focused on two fairly obvious issues and ignored the most problematic and consequential. On the one hand, the report looks into the rocketing of Israeli civilians and calls that a war crime, possibly a crime against humanity, and it looks at Hamas treatment of Fatah during the conflict, which it condemns for its brutality. Yet the commission falls silent on the subject of how armed factions (including Hamas) treated their own civilians.

The significance of such an approach will become apparent throughout the discussion of the mission’s procedures and rulings. Yet the failure itself deserves attention. The Israelis contended that Hamas deliberately provoked Israeli retaliation from the midst of civilian populations and that these civilians were the unfortunate hostages of a ruthless organization bent on destroying Israel at any cost, even the victimization of its own people. Lorenzo Cremonesi, the first journalist to make it independently into Gaza quotes 42-year-old Abu Issa and his cousin Um Abdallah, age 48, residents of the Tel Awa neighborhood: “The Hamas militants looked for good places to provoke the Israelis. They were usually youths, 16 or 17 years old, armed with submachine guns. They couldn’t do anything against a tank or jet. They knew they were much weaker. But they wanted the [Israelis] to shoot at the [the civilians’] houses so they could accuse them of more war crimes [emphasis added].”[13]

More recently, Bassam Zakarneh, head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Workers’ Union made some remarks on PA TV suggesting that knowledge of Hamas’ behavior is widespread in Palestinian circles: “…Hamas leaders… used these [1,400] martyrs as sandbags, while they hid in tunnels. They would place a missile, cover it with a tent, amid buildings with 200 children and old people, and they would launch the missile and hide.”[14]

The Israeli government published a paper, which it submitted to the Goldstone Mission via UN Watch, enumerating with multiple notes and links the extensive ways that Hamas embedded itself in the population, used civilian sites to launch military operations, disguised themselves as civilians, used ambulances and schools, and exploited children for war purposes.[15]

In other words, if Hamas used human shields as a central strategy, then by ignoring this aspect of the conflict, Goldstone’s mission played directly into the hands of a militia that actually targeted their own civilians.[16] Far from protecting innocent Palestinian civilians then, the mission may have confirmed the tactics of those who deliberately sacrificed them for the sake of a public relations victory against their enemy, a PR victory that the mission then inscribed in law.[17]

Although the mission members ran across repeated hints that such activity went on,[18] they did not investigate it directly and in more than a dozen passages, pointedly insisted that they found “no evidence” of such activity:[19]

¶35. The Mission found no evidence [emphasis added], however, to suggest that Palestinian armed groups either directed civilians to areas where attacks were being launched or that they forced civilians to remain within the vicinity of the attacks.

¶36. The Mission did not find any evidence [emphasis added] to support the allegations that hospital facilities were used by the Gaza authorities or by Palestinian armed groups to shield military activities or that ambulances were used to transport combatants or for other military purposes.

The use of the expressions “no evidence” and “not any evidence” are curious here. As will be shown, there is extensive evidence for such actions, which even the report itself offers the attentive reader. What the report really means here is that they did not hear any testimony to the effect that Hamas acted in this fashion. Of course, as any lawyer could explain, there are two possible reasons for a lack of testimony: 1) there is nothing to talk about and 2) the witnesses are intimidated.

Notes Cremonesi significantly: “It was difficult to get these testimonials. In general, fear of Hamas prevails and ideological taboos, fed by this century of wars with the “Zionist enemy,” reign. Anyone who tells a different version than the story imposed by the Muhamawa (resistance), is automatically an Amil (collaborator), and risks his life.”[20]

The mission itself acknowledged this problem (see below), but it repeatedly ignored its significance. Just before concluding that there was no evidence that Hamas behaved in the fashion described above (¶35), the mission noted: “The Mission was faced with a certain reluctance by the persons it interviewed in Gaza to discuss the activities of the armed groups.” Such an observation, however, had no impact on their analysis or their concluding denial on the subject of evidence.

On the contrary, the mission seemed to go out of its way to avoid considering evidence, most egregiously in two particular cases...


*Prof. Richard Landes was trained as a medievalist, teaching history at Boston University. His work on both forgeries and on the role of intimidation in affecting narrative in medieval history led him to switch fields to the way the media (and academia) represent the Arab-Israeli conflict in the twenty-first century. He maintains four sites, The Center for Millennial Studies (quiescent), The Second Draft, Understanding the Goldstone Report, and he blogs at The Augean Stables. His book on millennialism: Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (Oxford University Press) will be out in December of 2010. He is also currently writing a book entitled, They're so Smart.


(GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University.
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