Israel's war crime response 'ridiculous'

Government indicts officer and soldier but activists criticise 'cosmetic' response to the 22-day Gaza attack that killed about 1,400.

TEL AVIV // Human-rights activists yesterday lambasted Israel for ignoring the hundreds of cases of alleged war crimes during its Gaza onslaught 18 months ago, a day after the country said it indicted an officer and a soldier for their actions during the 22-day conflict.

Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, called Israel's announcement "ridiculous" and said it fell far short of the full responsibility the country should bear for the many civilian killings during the assault. He added: "This is a cosmetic and very ungenuine move. It again demonstrates that Israel does not want to hold soldiers or anyone in the political level accountable for involvement in war crimes or crimes against humanity."

Following an internal investigation, Israel's army said on Tuesday that its chief prosecutor had decided to take disciplinary and legal action in four separate cases. They include indicting a staff sergeant with manslaughter for deliberately shooting at least one Palestinian walking with a group waving a white flag, and charging a battalion commander for allowing his troops to use a Palestinian civilian as a human shield.

Israeli media reported that the army also used in its probes Palestinian testimonies provided by B'Tselem. Avichai Mendelblit, the military prosecutor, made the rare gesture of thanking the Israeli rights organisation for the accounts and for helping coordinate the questioning of Palestinians by the army. B'Tselem, however, said the actions announced were far from sufficient and did not address what critics have claimed was an Israeli use of excessive and indiscriminate firepower. Sarit Michaeli, a representative, said: "I think that it would be very difficult for Israel to show that it adheres to its obligations to investigate if that's all that they came up with."

Ms Michaeli condemned Israel for not probing into the military policies that led to the deaths of the more than 1,400 Palestinians and to the massive damage of the impoverished territory's buildings, roads, bridges and electricity and water networks. Israel has faced harsh international criticism for its attacks after a United Nations panel headed by Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist, last year accused the country in a scathing report of committing war crimes during the assault. Israel had refused to cooperate with Mr Goldstone's committee, claiming that its report was unbalanced. Israel, which said it had launched the attacks to curtail cross-border rocket-fire from Gaza, also said that many of the killings were a result of its army's difficulty of battling militants operating in heavily populated civilian areas.

According to Israel's military, it has so far examined more than 150 incidents and launched about 50 investigations into the army's conduct during the onslaught. From the four cases mentioned in the army's announcement, the white-flag incident was among the most widely publicised. The army said its probe was based on Palestinian testimonies that on January 9, 2009 Israeli fire killed two women walking with a group of people holding a white flag.

Human Rights Watch and other organisations have said that a group of 28 Palestinian civilians - 17 of them children - from two families were trying to evacuate their homes that day after hearing Israeli army orders on the radio to leave the area. They walked, clustered in small groups, each group raising a flag made of white cloth on a wooden broomstick. According to some of their testimonies, Israeli soldiers then opened fire and killed a mother and her daughter.

In another case, the Israeli military said a battalion commander was indicted on suspicion of deviating from "authorised and appropriate" behaviour and from an Israeli Supreme Court ruling when he authorised his troops to use a Palestinian man as a human shield by ordering him to enter a home in which militants were hiding in order to convince them to leave. In the third case, the prosecutor instructed that disciplinary action be taken against an army officer who ordered an airstrike on a militant allegedly involved in firing rockets, and who was standing outside the Ibrahim al Maqadma mosque in northern Gaza. The Goldstone report had said that at least 15 civilians who were mostly inside the mosque for evening prayers were killed in the incident.

In the final case, the military prosecutor also ordered a criminal investigation into the airstrike on a house occupied by about 100 members of the extended Samouni family in the Zeitoun district of Gaza City. The incident had spurred wide international criticism of Israel after it was reported that Palestinian paramedics were not permitted by Israeli troops to reach the house for several days after the strike, which killed up to 30 family members.