Israel and Hamas respond to the Goldstone report with the same logic and language

Israeli President Shimon Peres issued a statement in response to the UN commission of inquiry into the war in Gaza which found that both Israel and Hamas had violated the laws of war in their conduct and which recommends further inquiries and possible criminal investigations.

Peres’ logic is crystal clear: "War itself is a crime. The aggressor is the criminal. The side exercising self-defense has no other alternative." Then follows a list of largely true specific accusations against Hamas about its use of violence and its extremism. The statement allows no possibility that Israeli forces might be nonetheless subject to the laws of war, that its soldiers might nonetheless have committed war crimes with or without political or superior authorization, or that, given his logic, Israel is bound to respect the laws of war in its response to "aggression." All of these are preposterous notions, even if one were to accept his fundamental proposition that Hamas is simply an aggressor and Israel is simply a victim acting in self-defense. It is extraordinary, and every reader should take note that there is not a word in Pres. Peres’ statement that acknowledges that in acting in what he claims is simply self-defense, there are any limits to Israel’s actions or any need for accountability whatsoever.

Of course, Israel’s posture in the occupied territories, and there is no question legally and factually that Gaza remains under occupation, cannot in any sense be described as self-defensive, with hundreds of thousands of settlers and thousands of heavily armed forces operating outside of its borders in violation of Security Council resolutions and the Geneva Convention. Under no formulation can that posture be framed as "defensive." And obviously, whether a party believes it is acting in self-defense or not (and almost no one ever goes to war without believing or claiming that they are acting in self-defense), all are still bound by the laws of war and Judge Goldstone’s report holds both Israel and Hamas properly to account, within the limited means at its disposal, for their abuses.

But what is even more disturbing about Pres. Peres’ miserable response to the measured and balanced findings of Judge Goldstone and his colleagues, in spite of a complete lack of official Israeli cooperation with his necessary and appropriate inquiry, is that its logic is fundamentally indistinguishable from that employed by the most extreme elements in Hamas, at least in terms of the logic of conflict. Is it not readily imaginable to picture Mishaal, Zahar, or any leader of the Izzedin Al-Qassem Brigades thundering into a microphone on television that, "War itself is a crime. The aggressor is the criminal. The side exercising self-defense has no other alternative," and then following up with a bill of particulars against Israel no less shocking and no less accurate than Pres. Peres’ self-serving indictment of Hamas? Indeed, is this not the logic, and its implicit corollary that under such circumstances those acting in self-defense are no longer accountable for their behavior, that underlies and rationalizes the most extreme actions by Palestinian militants including suicide bombings and rocket attacks?

It is noteworthy and extremely significant that the leaders of Hamas and the so-called "Islamic Jihad" organization have rejected the report as vehemently and angrily as Israel’s leaders. According to the Jerusalem Post, "a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip expressed astonishment because the report had failed to distinguish between the ‘aggressor and the victim,’" while Pres. Peres’ statement, in indistinguishable language, complains that the report, "fails to distinguish between the aggressor and a state exercising its right for self defense." Both Israel and Hamas apparently feel that they are acting simply in self-defense, and that as such they are not accountable for their actions and are not obliged to obey the laws of war. Obviously, both parties are wrong, and Judge Goldstone and his colleagues are right.

My colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine warned repeatedly and in writing, in March and June of 2008, that both Israel and Hamas were heading towards a disaster, and that if those firing rockets from Gaza into Israel persisted, Israeli leaders would find themselves unable to resist a wide-ranging military assault on Gaza which would primarily kill and devastatingly affect Palestinian civilians, be entirely counterproductive to both Israel’s and Hamas’ interests, and prove disastrous for the people of Gaza. It has given us no satisfaction whatsoever to have been proven right on all these counts.