Gaza crimes inquiry criticised

Activists accuse Israel of failing to address allegations while the army's findings refer to the killing of just a few dozen civilians.

GAZA BORDER, ISRAEL - JANUARY 09:  Israeli soldiers watch an Air Force bombing attack against the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun January 9, 2009 as seen from Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. Both the militant Islamic movement Hamas and Israel have rejected a UN Security Council call for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, following Israel's 14-day offensive on the Hamas-ruled coastal territory.  (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

TEL AVIV // Human rights lawyers and activists yesterday blasted the Israeli army's investigation into its conduct during the recent onslaught in the Gaza Strip as faulty and claimed it exposed soldiers and officers to possible prosecution for war crimes abroad. Despite widespread international criticism over its handling of the three-week assault in December and January, the military said on Wednesday that the findings of five internal investigations showed it operated in accordance with international law and that it only made "isolated" mistakes during the fighting.

Sari Bashi, a lawyer and head of Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, said: "The military has a record of whitewashing its violations of international law. It has never proven itself to be able to credibly investigate its own wrongdoings." The army's findings drew a barrage of criticism from activists for failing to take into account testimonies of Palestinian victims, for not disclosing the sources used in the investigation and for only addressing several isolated incidents while ignoring questions on the military's overall policies on its use of firepower in Gaza.

Yael Stein, research director at B'Tselem, an Israeli rights organisation, said: "They used much more force than in previous cases when they entered Gaza or the West Bank, and it seemed that they had a change in policy which should be checked. The amount of people who got killed was unprecedented in the occupied territories." Israel's onslaught was widely condemned abroad amid allegations that it used disproportionate and deliberate force in densely packed residential areas, targeted United Nations facilities, hospitals and medical rescue teams and illegally fired white phosphorus weapons against civilians.

Human rights groups said yesterday the army's refusal to admit to wrongdoing strengthened their demand for an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by either Israel or Hamas during the Gaza attacks. However, the chances for such an investigation appear slim. Last week, Israel said it would refuse to co-operate with an inquiry by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Furthermore, Israel added that it may block the investigation team, led by Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge who had served as a UN chief prosecutor for war crimes, from entering Gaza. Israel controls all of Gaza's border crossings except for Rafah, which is managed by Egypt.

Some legal experts warned yesterday that by failing to take responsibility for violations of international law, Israel was leaving its military officials vulnerable to prosecution abroad. Ms Bashi from Gisha said: "In terms of universal jurisdiction on war crimes, if you fail to prosecute domestically, you pave the way for others to prosecute you internationally." News agencies reported this week that Norway's public prosecutors are looking into complaints filed by a group of lawyers accusing Israeli leaders - including Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, the current defence minister and the former foreign minister, respectively - of war crimes in Gaza.

Yesterday, activists accused Israel of failing to address many allegations in its investigation, including the intentional killing of civilians by soldiers. Israel disputes claims by rights groups that most of the more than 1,300 Gazans killed during the fighting were noncombatants, many of them women and children. Israel has stated that 1,166 people were killed, including only 295 noncombatants.

Yet, its findings ignored most of those civilian deaths. They referred to the killing of only several dozen civilians, ascribing them to "intelligence or operational errors". That description drew condemnation from rights activists. "The military's referral to massive civilian deaths ? as operational mistakes is callous and suggests disregard for the laws of war and morality," Ms Bashi said. The most prominent such "error" cited by the army involved the bombing of the home of the Daia family in Gaza City, in which 21 people were killed. The military said it had intended to strike a weapons storage facility nearby.

But commentators yesterday pointed to numerous testimonies by Gazans that the Daia family was not an isolated case. "It's clear that the whole onslaught was characterised by tens of cases where entire families or many of their members were killed," wrote Amira Hass, one of the few Israeli journalists who were highly critical of Israel's Gaza operation, in the liberal Haaretz daily yesterday. Activists also criticised what appeared to be the army's indication that any person affiliated with Hamas, which rules Gaza, was a legitimate military target during the operation.

According to Israel, 709 of those killed are what it calls Hamas terrorist operatives. Hadas Ziv, executive director of the rights group Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, said: "The army does not let you know how they define a Hamas activist. Just to label people Hamas does not make them a legitimate target." The army's findings also blamed Hamas for "taking cover" among Palestinian civilians and using them as human shields during the fighting, but failed to address allegations that Israeli soldiers did likewise.

Rights groups have said they have obtained testimonies from Gazans claiming they were forced to walk for hours ahead of Israeli soldiers, kneel in front of their tanks or remain in homes occupied by the army to deter Hamas fighters from firing.