Sunday, December 13, 2009

Open Letter: Goldstone, I too am a war criminal

In a world that hasn't had surgery to have its Goldstones removed, to be moral is to submit to evil without resistance.

Goldstone, I too am a war criminal

By David Chinitz

I moved to Israel from the United States in December 1981. It was the same day that the Israeli government officially annexed the Golan Heights. Hearing about it literally as me, my wife and our three month old daughter - now a lawyer in Tel Aviv - were about to board the plane, I mentally processed the issues: Is such a unilateral move legal? Is it wise? Is it just? To be honest, I pretty much just shrugged and got on the plane.

Over the last 28 years I have come to appreciate the shrug as the signature gesture of Israeli children. When an Israeli child has doubts about something on offer from an adult, the shrug is her way of signaling: "Sorry, that doesn't work for me." While the physical shrug disappears with age, the Israeli manner of shrugging things off is at one and the same endearing and off -putting. But given the environment of endless hostility in which Israelis live, their shrug is not the kind that reflects callousness but reconciliation to the fact that life in this part of the world is really messy, both morally and practically. There's not much choice but to carry on.

Consider the Golan Heights. Before 1967 the Syrians constantly shelled Israeli agricultural settlements that lay below the Heights, and not much else was going on there. Since Israel conquered the Golan in response to Syrian aggression in 1967, it has flourished under Israeli rule, providing a burgeoning tourist industry to Jews, Arabs and Druze who live there. Israelis cultivate Golan vineyards that have produced world class wines that even left wing Israelis enjoy. To be sure, some Golan inhabitants, in particular in certain Druze villages, still express a preference for Syria. In exchange for normal relations with Syria, I might be willing, subject to continued access and water sharing arrangements, to return the Golan to Syria. But I don't feel any moral compunction about vacationing there. Shrug.

I live on land in Jerusalem that was empty when I arrived, but who knows who owned it before 1948. Many of my friends live in Arab houses that were definitely owned by Palestinians in the past, and some have even looked them up to ascertain that the previous owners have no desire to make a claim. I have watched as Palestinians from the territories conquered in 1967 benefited from improvements in their quality of life that came from Israeli health and social services, all the while chafing, and often reacting with barbaric disproportionate violence including suicide bombings to what they call "occupation." I detest the minority of obnoxious, ethnocentric Arab-baiting Israeli settlers who place their obsession with physically living in certain areas of Jewish historical significance above any other consideration, including the rule of law.

But I don't feel any moral doubts about the main blocks of settlements inhabited by law-abiding hard-working citizens. Between the extremists on both sides who have acted persistently to thwart any accommodation, I judge the Palestinians as worse. Because even when Israel has made concessions and given up territory, the Palestinian extremists have responded with stepped-up violence to the detriment of both Israelis and Palestinians. So I shrug and take the position that as long as the Palestinians seem more interested in eliminating the Jewish state than in achieving a compromise, I'm off the moral hook.

And now I am confronted with the Goldstone Report, according to which Israeli military personnel committed war crimes during Operation Cast Lead, Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip last year, aimed at silencing constant shelling of Israeli cities. In the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished department, Hamas seems to feel such shelling is the most appropriate response to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. I don't know, and it's not clear anybody knows, from where Goldstone got his version of events.

I, on the other hand, have listened to stories of soldiers who served in the operation who told me it's not always possible to know when an approaching figure is a combatant, a suicide bomber, or a harmless civilian, especially when the enemy fights from among concentrations of civilians. It can't be pleasant to have Israeli, or for that matter any, troops occupy your house while they're trying to clean out nests of terrorists in the next house. But there's a big difference between unpleasant and committing war crimes. I have heard the reports of hundreds of Palestinian civilian casualties and seen photos of the massive destruction caused by Israeli shelling. I'm very sorry about this, but don't feel guilty. Apparently, Hamas, the responsible party, doesn't feel too guilty about it either. Shrug.

Israeli military and political analysts now caution that due to Goldstone, Israel will have to put ground forces at increased risk in responding when Hezbollah and Hamas resume their shelling of Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with the new and improved arsenals they have accumulated in violation of UN resolutions that have not been enforced, with the sole intention of killing as many Israeli civilians as possible.

Shrug. If Goldstone is right, then I am a war criminal, because Operation Cast Lead was carried out with my acquiescence. And if he's right, than I am morally culpable when I say that it is not right to risk Israeli soldiers' lives to avoid civilian casualties caused by Hamas and Hezbollah fighting from the midst of and hiding behind civilians. I don't want my army to feel hamstrung in taking out the tens of thousand of missiles that Hezbollah has stockpiled, in clear violation of international law. I don't feel guilty of imposing collective punishment on Lebanese or Gazans, because Hezbollah and Hamas have put innocent civilians on both sides at risk, and they, and only they, are the ones who are guilty of war crimes.

So when told by Goldstone that I'm a war criminal, the best I can come up with is a shrug. That is the best one can do in the Goldstone world in which the crimes of Hamas and the reactions of Israel, and by extension, myself, are seen as morally equivalent. In a world that hasn't had surgery to have its Goldstones removed, to be moral is to submit to evil without resistance. Sorry, Mr. Goldstone, that doesn't work for me. Shrug

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