Israel debates commission to probe war crimes allegations

JERUSALEM _ In the wake of the revelation that two of its senior military officers have been reprimanded for approving the use of white phosphorus in last year's Gaza war, Israel is debating whether to launch an independent commission to investigate that and other allegations of war crimes in a United Nations report.

With Israeli officials facing widespread international criticism and even arrest warrants in Britain in recent months, the country has faced global pressure to defend its conduct in the three-week Gaza offensive to stop Hamas rocket attacks.

Israel's 46-page response Friday to the UN-sponsored report spearheaded by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, prepared by the Foreign Ministry, supports the case that Israeli officials have been making for the better part of a year: that Israel doesn't need an independent commission of inquiry because the proper legal bodies for doing so already exist.

"Israel's system for investigating allegations of violations of the Law of Armed Conflict is comparable to the systems adopted by other democratic nations, including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States," the foreign ministry said. "Its commitment and ability to investigate and prosecute violations of international law has been confirmed by outside observers and foreign legal systems."

"Israel's investigative system, like that of many states, includes a range of checks and balances and multiple layers of review to ensure impartiality and independence."

Among these, the foreign ministry statement said, are the Military Advocate General Corps, which isn't subject to the military chain of command; the civilian Attorney General, who can review decisions of the Military Advocate General about whether to investigate or indict individuals; and the Israeli Supreme Court, which can be prompted to review those decisions by any interested party, including nongovernmental organizations and Palestinians.

The ministry, whose report drew on statements from almost 100 Palestinian complainants and witnesses and approximately 500 Israeli soldiers and commanders, also said that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had launched investigations into 150 separate incidents arising from the war in Gaza; of these, 36 thus far have been referred for criminal investigation.

The foreign ministry report has been met with both criticism and measured applause, and Israelis are still hotly debating whether their country should form an independent commission that would be run by impartial investigators or judges not affiliated with the military. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has come out in favor of forming a commission of inquiry, as has Israel's justice minister and its deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor. In recent days, various media have quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying he's considering forming such a commission because without one, Israel may not be able to clear its name in the international community.

"My deliberation pertains to setting up an external and independent investigative body, but I don't want officers and soldiers to get into a situation where they have to retain an attorney," Netanyahu said Sunday at a meeting of Likud party ministers, according to the Maariv newspaper.

"We have about a week to make a decision," the paper quoted Netanyahu as saying. "We have three options: an investigative team, an investigative committee determined by the government, or a commission of inquiry determined by the Supreme Court."

An observer who was in the meeting confirmed to The Christian Science Monitor that Netanyahu was deliberating the issue and had sought others' opinions on it.

Many others in Israel, however, reject the call for an independent commission. They argue that when Israel went that route before it didn't relieve the pressure from the international community. "The Sabra and Shatilla commission was very public, and that didn't stop Belgian litigants from trying to try Ariel Sharon," said Avi Bell, a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, referring to the Kahan Commission, which investigated the killings of hundreds of Palestinians at refugee camps during the Lebanon war in 1982.

"I think appointing a commission is pointless, especially where other bodies, which are already in place to do investigations, exist, and that's the reason the army opposes it," said Bell. "Once you appoint these commissions, there's a political dynamic that forces them to find someone guilty. Otherwise, it looks like a whitewash."

Gidi Grinstein, the head of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based policy group, said that he supports the formation of some kind of commission. But it's logical, he added, that the army doesn't. Its way of operating until now has encouraged soldiers and officers to be honest with investigators without fear of repercussion, he said.

"It sounds like a paradox, but in the long term, if officers and soldiers will be interrogated by external bodies in a non-supportive environment, there will be a much stronger tendency to conceal evidence," Grinstein said. "This could break the culture of debriefing, which is a real strength of the Israeli army. And the moment this is broken, interviewees will have very powerful incentive to protect themselves."

Prusher is a Christian Science Monitor staff writer.


The Goldstone Report

The Israeli Foreign Ministry response


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