Goldstone, Gaza and (Dis)Proportionality: Three Strikes

JURIST Guest Columnists Laurie Blank of Emory Law's International Humanitarian Law Clinic and Gregory Gordon of the University of North Dakota School of Law say that the most glaring failure of the controversial Goldstone Commission Report on the Gaza conflict has gone unnoticed....



The Goldstone Commission Report on the January 2009 Israel-Palestinian conflict in Gaza — which comes before the United Nations today, November 4, 2009 — has been accused of failure on various levels. Many commentators argue that the Report fails the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Some say it reflects a failure to understand the deeper historical realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still others say it fails the originally conceived purpose of the United Nations Human Rights Council and fails the search for objective truth. Its most glaring failure, though, has gone unnoticed. The Report fails the law.

It does so by striking out in applying the law in three key areas. Strike One: the Report incorrectly claims Israel disproportionately attacked civilians. Strike Two: the Report unjustly accuses Israel of a disproportionate response to Hamas's attacks. Strike Three: the Report treats Israel and Hamas disproportionately by holding them to different standards.

Strike One

Jus in bello is the law governing conduct during war. One of its key principles is proportionality, which requires military personnel to take precautions in targeting the enemy to ensure that the expected civilian losses are not excessive compared to the anticipated military advantage. The commander's perspective at the time of the attack is the central focus. The law assesses whether his actions were reasonable given the information he had access to, taking into account the "fog of war." Proportionality is not measured after the fact by looking at actual civilian casualties or actual military advantages. If it were, no military could ever engage in any operations.

The Report turns proportionality's bedrock premise on its head. It relies substantively on information gathered after the fact and discounts contemporaneous Israeli intentions or actions and the surrounding circumstances. The Report also undermines its own legitimacy by automatically verifying one side's statements and impugning the other's. Israel's real-time information consists of mere "allegations," but retrospective information collected months later in Gaza consists of definitive "statements." Israel admittedly did not cooperate (given the commission's biased conception), but that cannot justify reliance on the wrong information.

Strike Two

Jus ad bellum is the law governing decisions to go to war. Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter forbids the use of force without Security Council enforcement (Article 2(7)). One exception: Article 51 preserves the right to use force in self-defense. Jus ad bellum mandates that any act in self-defense constitute a proportionate response, meaning a necessary and reasonable means to counter the attack and eliminate future threats.

The Report confuses jus in bello proportionality (as explained above) with this jus ad bellum requirement of a proportionate response. Israel acted legitimately in self-defense to destroy Hamas's tunnels and rocket launchers. Hamas indiscriminately fired thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians for eight years. And yet, the Report does not even mention Article 51. More egregiously, it uses the incorrect assessment that particular Israeli attacks violated jus in bello proportionality to unfairly package Operation Cast Lead as disproportionate overall, a clear misapplication of jus in bello principles in a jus ad bellum framework.

Strike Three

The Report's (unfounded) legal conclusions disproportionately hold Israel and Hamas to different standards. It states unequivocally (but without factual substantiation) that Israeli forces committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, such as willful killing and torture.

Article 85 of Additional Protocol I states that "making the civilian population or individual civilians the object of attack" and launching indiscriminate attacks—the very crimes Hamas committed, according to the Report—are indeed grave breaches. But the Report never considers that Palestinian armed groups committed grave breaches. Accusing Israel of "grave breaches" while failing to similarly identify Hamas' violations exposes the commission's bias to the core.

This uneven treatment pervades the entire report. For example, Hamas and Israel both had obligations to protect civilians in Gaza. The Report's single-minded focus on Israel, however, leads to absurd statements regarding Hamas's breach of those obligations when it used civilian buildings as command centers, munitions storage and rocket launch sites. While quick to condemn Israel flat out for violations, the Report merely suggests that Hamas's actions "would constitute" legal violations.

Reading the Report in an uncritical vacuum suggests that Israel abrogated its obligations under the laws of war. In reality, the main failure lies in the Report itself. The Report fails the law. Why does this matter? Because in maintaining a delicate balance between destruction of enemy capabilities and protection of innocent civilians, the law reinforces our basic dignity and humanity in the face of the horrors of war. We cannot afford to abandon it.


Laurie R. Blank is the Acting Director of Emory Law's International Humanitarian Law Clinic. Gregory S. Gordon is an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law and Director of the UND Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies.
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