Israeli probes into possible Gaza war crimes draw criticism

Israeli soldiers from a paratrooper brigade looks through their gun scopes towards Gaza city before beginning training exercises near the Israel Gaza border, Monday Sept. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Israeli soldiers from a paratrooper brigade looks through their gun scopes towards Gaza city before beginning training exercises near the Israel Gaza border, Monday Sept. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov) AP

Facing a United Nations investigation for possible war crimes committed during its recent military campaign in the Gaza Strip, Israel has launched probes of its own into suspected violations, hoping to ward off prosecution in international tribunals.

The army has said it’s conducting criminal investigations into five incidents and that dozens of others were under review. However, Israeli human rights advocates say the inquiries are flawed because the army is investigating itself and the probes don’t cover the legality of orders that led to the alleged violations.

More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed in the 50-day conflict in July and August, about 70 percent of them civilians, according to the U.N. Seventy-one Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed in combat and in rocket and mortar strikes.

Militants from Hamas and other Islamist groups in Gaza fired volleys of rockets at Israeli towns and cities, and Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said both sides in the conflict might have committed war crimes. But a U.N. inquiry announced last month is focused on violations of international law in the Gaza Strip, suggesting that it will concentrate on the impact there of Israeli military actions.

Under its mandate, the commission can recommend “accountability measures” to hold Israeli officials and military officers responsible for possible violations.

Palestinian officials are considering using their observer-state status at the U.N. to join the International Criminal Court, which would make it possible to bring war crimes cases against Israel in connection with the Gaza conflict. Such membership would also expose the Palestinians to prosecution of war crimes charges against Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip.

Under the Rome Statute outlining the powers of the International Criminal Court, it’s “complementary to national criminal jurisdictions” and can act only when states fail to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes under their jurisdiction.

In an effort to demonstrate its readiness to investigate possible violations, the Israeli army announced Sept. 10 that it had appointed fact-finding teams headed by a major general to look into “exceptional incidents” during the Gaza war that might require criminal investigation.

The army said 44 incidents had been referred to its “fact-finding mechanism” and more than 50 others had been identified for future referral.

After review, the Israeli military advocate-general recommended criminal investigations into five cases, including a strike on a Gaza beach July 16 that killed four Palestinian boys and the shelling of a U.N. school housing war refugees July 24 in which 16 people were killed, the army said. The other criminal investigations are into the fatal shooting of a Palestinian woman, the reported beating of a Palestinian in custody and a theft of money by a soldier.

“Throughout the recent conflict Israel has done its utmost to comply with the strictest standards of international humanitarian law,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The “professional and comprehensive examination of alleged violations” undertaken by the military demonstrated “Israel’s commitment to the rule of law,” it added.

Human rights advocates assert that the Israeli army’s investigations of its operations aren’t independent and therefore can’t be relied on to produce credible results.

“Israel has a long record of failing to undertake credible investigations into alleged war crimes,” Human Rights Watch said in a report published this month about three strikes on U.N. schools during the Gaza campaign. The report found that the strikes, one of which is among the incidents the Israeli military is investigating, violated the laws of war.

Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights attorney, said army investigations into specific incidents didn’t go far enough because they didn’t probe the legality of top-level orders that had led to the alleged violations.

The shelling of crowded neighborhoods in Gaza and bombings of the family homes of suspected militants, in which many Palestinian civilians were killed, apparently were approved by the army’s legal branch, disqualifying it from investigating those same incidents, Sfard said.

“These cases raise grave suspicion of violations of the laws of war,” Sfard said. He said it was necessary to investigate whether “the combat methods and definitions of legitimate military targets” – which had been approved by the military advocate-general, the defense minister and the prime minister – were legal.

Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, said an impartial Israeli inquiry outside the military was necessary.

“It would be a welcome change if instead of the existing whitewashing mechanisms, an independent apparatus were established to investigate suspected violations of international humanitarian law,” he said.

Figures compiled by B’Tselem show that after looking into 400 incidents of suspected violations in a previous campaign in Gaza, in late 2008 and 2009, the army launched 52 criminal investigations. Only three ended with indictments.

Army probes of more than 80 incidents during a 2012 Gaza offensive ended with no criminal investigations, B’Tselem said.

B’Tselem said that in light of the army’s failure to effectively investigate possible violations by troops, it would break with previous practice and wouldn’t provide the military with information it had collected about possible wrongdoing in the latest conflict.

“Israeli law enforcement authorities are unable and unwilling to investigate allegations of breaches,” B’Tselem said. It called the military investigation mechanism “nothing more than a masquerade.”