Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gaza: Two years after Operation Cast Lead - not too late to investigate

Source: B'TSELEM - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

'Abd Rabo neborhood, East of Gaza City after the withdrawal of the army. Photo: Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 19 Sept. '09.

Better late than never: even two years since Operation Cast Lead, an independent Israeli investigation is crucial to achieve accountability and prevent future violations

Two years since to completion of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, B'Tselem renews its call to Israel to open an independent, effective investigation into the grave suspicions of violations of human rights and international law during the operations, based on the testimonies of Palestinian victims and of Israeli soldiers who participated in the operation.

During the operation, Israeli Security forces killed 1,390 Palestinians, of whom at least 759 were not taking part in the hostilities, among them 318 persons under eighteen years of age. More than 5,300 Palestinians were injured, more than 350 of them seriously. Israel also caused enormous damage to residential and industrial structures, to agriculture, and to electricity, sanitation, water, and health infrastructure, which were on the verge of collapse prior to the operation. According to UN figures, Israel destroyed more than 3,500 residential dwellings, leaving 20,000 persons homeless.

Palestinian armed groups fired rockets and mortar shells at Israel during the operation, with the declared intention of striking Israeli civilians. These actions killed three Israel civilians and one member of Israel's security forces, and injured dozens of persons. Inside Gaza, nine soldiers were killed, four by IDF gunfire. More than one hundred soldiers were wounded, one critically, and twenty soldiers suffered moderate to serious injuries. Even at the operation's end, Gilad Shalit remains a hostage, denied visitors to check on his condition. Contrary to its legal obligation, Hamas has not carried out any proper investigation into the actions of its members during the operation, and has not taken any steps to hold accountable the persons responsible for these violations of the law.

Israeli officials stated during the course of the operation that the army was acting lawfully. However, investigations made by B'Tselem and information from many other sources raised doubts about that claim. In some cases, it appeared that soldiers acted in contravention of military orders, and even in breach of international humanitarian law. The principal suspicions, though, relate to the policy that was drawn up by Israel's political leaders and senior military officials. Immediately after the operation ended, human rights organizations, B'Tselem among them, wrote on a number of occasions to the Israeli attorney general, demanding that he establish an independent investigation into the manner in which the army acted during the operation and the orders given it. The attorney general repeatedly rejected the demand. Following prolonged international pressure, Israel agreed that the army would examine complaints of specific incidents.

The Foreign Ministry announced, in July 2010, that 47 Military Police investigations had been opened. The report did not mention how many of the investigations had been completed, nor their results. Rather, it provided examples of a few of the cases that were investigated. As far as B'Tselem knows, four soldiers have been prosecuted on criminal charges, involving three incidents. Disciplinary proceedings were taken against six officers.

Based on media reports, we learn that the army's investigations do not deal with the policy that guided the army during the operation, nor with the legality of the instructions given to soldiers. Instead, the investigations have focused on the actions of the lone soldier in the field. For example, no investigation has been conducted into the question of how the targets (among them civilian governmental ministries) were identified; no investigation has been opened to examine the orders that enabled the massive destruction of residential buildings and farmland; and, only soldiers in the field were held accountable for the use of civilians as human shields, not those who issued the orders to do so.

In light of the severe harm inflicted on human rights during the operation, Israel has the moral and practical obligation to open an investigation, external to the military, to examine the complaints of breaches of law. For two years, Israel has firmly refused to adhere to this obligation, and refused to cooperate with the Goldstone Fact-Finding Mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate suspicions of human rights violations by Israel and Hamas. This refusal exempts the political echelons in Israel from an investigation of their responsibility for the policy which led to the severe outcome of the operation.

In spite of the length of time and the resulting evidentiary problems, Israel can still investigate effectively, and has the duty to do so. First, those responsible for the harsh violations of human rights must be held accountable. Second, the investigation's conclusions can guide policy in future military operations.

The decisions on questions such as what is a legitimate target of attack, what are the rules of engagement during combat, and how to protect the civilian population during hostilities are vital in preventing similar breaches in the future. Considering the severity of the suspicions that arose regarding the army's conduct during the operation, these and other questions must remain on the public agenda. The willingness to examine suspicions of human-rights violations, also those that are committed during hostilities, have significant implications not only for the soldiers in the field, but also, and primarily, for the morality of the society in which we live.