Although coverage of the Gaza War of December 2008-January 2009 was dominated by spin at the time, the conclusion that serious violations of the laws of war occurred can no longer be avoided. That follows from the sober and professional report issued a few days ago by the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. Its key conclusions are simple: Palestinian forces targeted Israeli civilian populations with rocket attacks. Israeli forces launched a mission that was overtly punitive in nature and clearly also targeted civilians. Most of the commentary of the Beltway punditry has tended to defend Israel, suggesting that Palestinian violations justified Israeli violations, whereas in much of the Middle East the mirror image was seen, in which Israeli persecution justified Palestinian acts of violence. But this construction fuels the descent into ever greater brutality that the laws of war aim to avoid. Lost in the clash is the overarching principle that war should be fought between combatant forces while civilians are protected. To a large extent, then, the controversy surrounding the laws of war in Gaza is about the right of combatant forces in the future to commit serious crimes against civilians and get away with it. It is clear that both sides championed just such a right.
Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist and former chief prosecutor for the war crimes tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, who headed a recent review of the problem for the United Nations, speaks very effectively to this problem in today’s New York Times:
Pursuing justice in this case is essential because no state or armed group should be above the law. Western governments in particular face a challenge because they have pushed for accountability in places like Darfur, but now must do the same with Israel, an ally and a democratic state. Failing to pursue justice for serious violations during the fighting will have a deeply corrosive effect on international justice, and reveal an unacceptable hypocrisy. As a service to the hundreds of civilians who needlessly died and for the equal application of international justice, the perpetrators of serious violations must be held to account.
It is simply not a case of one side being more wrong, nor is it a case of punishing states or governmental authorities. There were serious violations on both sides, and vindication of the principles of the laws of war calls for criminal accountability for the key actors on both sides who enabled the violations. Extending the politicization of the conflict into the question of accountability for war crimes ultimately undermines the laws of war. And that may in the end be the gravest security threat that the Gaza War presents—a threat that affects the entire world.