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Was Churchill a war criminal?

07/11/2009 | by Falk, Ophir (Adv.)  

Commentary was first published on the YNET News Portal in October 2009.

After London was relentlessly bombed during the days and nights of WWII, Winston Churchill instructed the Royal Air Force to practically wipe out a number of European cities that were considered German strongholds. Thousands of civilians were killed by the British air raids, but it was a decisive factor in the eventual victory of the allied forces. 

Was Churchill a war criminal? Richard Goldstone might think so, but most reasonable people consider him a war hero. 

Public norms and laws changed, and with the end of WWII, the international community rewrote the laws of war. In an attempt to protect civilians, the Geneva Conventions and subsequent protocols categorized people in conflict as combatants or non-combatants, with the latter designated as immune to attack. That categorization may have been fitting for WWII but it does not adequately address the realities of modern day asymmetric warfare, where terror groups such as Hamas and al-Qaeda intentionally target civilians and take cover behind other civilians. 

The US suggests an additional category, ‘Unlawful Combatants’, whereby Qaeda and Hamas terrorists would fall under that category. Unfortunately, those who drafted the recent report concerning the battle in Gaza have yet to adopt that categorization and often confuse between non-combatant civilians and unlawful combatant terrorists. That is one of the reasons for the report’s absurd results. 

Another terminological and moral reason for the distorted findings of the UN report is the misperceived premise held by Goldstone and his team that the lives of IDF combatants and Israeli citizens are of less value than the lives of Hamas collaborators or disinclined neighbors. In a not-so-speculative scenario where a residential building located in enemy controlled territory (i.e. Gaza) is occupied by scores of terrorists (i.e. Hamas) that target civilians (i.e. Sderot), the correct course of action in Goldstone’s book would be to either let Hamas continue its terrorist attacks or to put IDF combatants under unreasonable risk by sending them into the Hamas controlled compound in an effort to vet between heavily armed terrorist, their collaborators and their reluctant neighbors. 

A different course of action would be to warn the coerced civilians of the imminent threat they are exposed to, and to target the armed terrorists from an advantaged military position, after giving the citizens ample time to evacuate the building. The IDF chose the reasonable and moral course of action. 

Richard Goldstone has been heckled for his findings by leading legal experts. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has recently depicted Goldstone as a “House Jew” who “will forever be linked in infamy with the distortion of history and truth.” While Judge Goldstone might not be a “House Jew,” he’s certainly wrong. 

Unprecedented precautions 

It is worth reiterating that prior to the IDF’s military operation in Gaza, Hamas intentionally targeted Israeli civilians living in Southern Israel for over 8 years. Hamas indiscriminately fired over 12,000 rockets or mortar shells at civilian towns in Israel. More than London was hit with. Clearly it was necessary for Israel to defend itself. Even the UN belatedly recognized that. 

As for the battle itself, never in the history of human conflict (as Churchill would have probably coined it) were noncombatants and civilians of a conflict been alerted to danger by an attacking force more often than in the Gaza campaign. Israel’s defense forces warned the civilian population of imminent perils and instructed them time and again by countless flyers dispersed over homes, as well as thousands of text messages insisting that they get out of harms way. Israel took all the reasonable and at times unreasonable precautions to spare civilian life. Unprecedented precautions.

Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimating 1.5 million inhabitants on Gaza’s 139 sq. mile area. Hamas makes use of that civilian population as human shields. That is no secret. It was reported that in the Gaza operation, hundreds of civilians were killed. If the IDF would have “intentionally killed” civilians like Goldstone’s report would like us to believe, there would have been hundreds of thousands killed. Thankfully Israel took caution. 

Ironically, the UN Human Rights Council, which gave Goldstone the mandate to prepare the report on Gaza, is mostly composed of countries that systematically disregard and abuse the rights of citizens, including the citizens of their own countries. These “pillars of humanitarianism” include Bangladesh, China, Jordan, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ghana, Bahrain, Qatar, Cuba, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Senegal, Pakistan and of course Saudi Arabia. These countries constantly choose to criticize Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, while disregarding any wrongdoing by rogue states such as their own. 

Many able analysts have found Goldstone’s findings feverishly flawed. Even The Economist depicted the report as tainted. Political criticism came from the United States by means of its Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and by Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell who emphasized the report’s bias. 

Goldstone has recently backpedaled on the report’s findings. Although it states that Israel “violated the prohibition under customary international law”, in a recent interview to the The Jewish Daily Forward, Goldstone acknowledged that the report is limited and if it were presented in “a court of law, there would have been nothing proven." Goldstone belatedly added that he himself "wouldn't consider it in any way embarrassing if many of the allegations turn out to be disproved." 

The report’s flawed facts should be refuted. By addressing the Human Rights Council’s unfounded allegations there is fear of giving legitimacy to an illegitimate body of hypocrites. However, if left unchallenged the absurd accusations of the report may be difficult to uproot.

The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).