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Criminal accountability for IDF soldiers: A baseless system

Of the 240 complaints received by the army in 2012, not one resulted in an indictment. In certain respects, the IDF has outsourced to human rights NGOs its system for receiving complaints against soldiers. When it comes to investigating those complaints, however, it does a totally unacceptable job.

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

IDF soldiers clash with demonstrators in Nabi Saleh, December 11, 2011 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The most significant fact in our new fact sheet about law enforcement on IDF soldiers in the Occupied Territories is that although 240 complaints were registered in 2012, they resulted in not a single indictment. It is possible indictments will be filed in the coming years based on the complaints of 2012, but so far the percentage of complaints maturing into indictments is a fat, round zero. 2012 is somewhat problematic in this regard, but the average rate is not much better: around five percent.

Another less obvious point is also of importance. Out of 240 complaints, all of which deal with allegedly unlawful conduct – from violence to looting to unlawful killing – only six, about 2.5 percent, were made directly to the Military Police Criminal Investigative Division (MPCID), which then made only a desultory effort to investigate them. This rate was somewhat higher in 2008-2009, though still minor – nine percent (see pg. 35-46 here). The rest of the complaints made it to MPCID by Palestinians registering complaints with Israeli policemen in the DCOs [District Coordination Offices], but the majority came through human rights organizations, either directly (in 42 cases), or indirectly (when the NGOs went to the Military Judge Advocate, in 90 cases).

Only four complaints were made directly to MPCID by military officers, even though IDF orders make it clear that when a suspicion of certain offenses arises, MPCID must be informed. One single complaint came from the Shin Bet’s ombudsman responsible for examining detainee complaints, which given the notoriety of this department in closing complaints about torture, means that some soldier must have been spectacularly out of line. A similar number of complaints came from the Let the Animals Live NGO (an animal rights group), and another came from a righteous person, an individual Israeli citizen.

Anyone filing a complaint through an Israeli cop at a DCO – assuming one is actually present – is sometimes surprised to find that the complaint was lost on its way to MPCID. Sending your complaint via a human rights NGO has an added benefit: they do a good job. If the ratio of complaints coming from the police developing into an investigation is a lowly one in six, which is still much higher than those coming from an interrogation facility (1 in 18), the rate of complaints coming through NGOs and leading to investigations is one in 2.5 or 1:3.

Why is the rate for direct complaints so low? The answer is simple. MPCID does not have bases in the West Bank (and obviously, not in Gaza). The IDF and Border Police have a large number of bases in the West Bank, as well as plenty of training areas; recently, using the excuse for expelling Palestinians from their lands because they are in a “firing zone” has become depressingly common. The West Bank has bases of various ground forces, regimental bases, brigade bases expressly intended for occupation purposes (the Kfir Brigade), which has six battalions. The IDF has been in the West Bank since 1967, and never stopped building in it. And yet, MPCID has not a single base in the West Bank.

What this means in practice is that a Palestinian who wants to register a complaint against a soldier who hurt him or her needs a permit to enter Israel, because MPCID that is where its only bases are. Most Palestinians do not have such a permit. This means that there is no practical way to directly register a complaint, making certain that only the most obdurate will be able to register theirs. This certainly reduces the workload for MPCID, and saves some trouble for soldiers. One must wonder if this is truly accidental.

During the first years of the occupation, complaints about soldiers’ violence were rare. This changed immediately when the First Intifada broke out in late 1987. Between the two intifadas, complaints were supposed to travel from the Palestinians to MPCID via the Palestinian Police. This was, one could say, an unstable arrangement that collapsed when the Second Intifada broke out – but even in the 12 years since, MPCID hasn’t built a single base in the West Bank.

In certain respects, MPCID is an early example of privatization: it outsourced the system for receiving complaints to human rights NGOs. Those NGOs do MPCID’s work for it without it being forced to spend its own resources. When it comes to investigating those complaints, however, it does a totally unacceptable job. Yet, this is appears to be one public service the government of Israel won’t be in a hurry to privatize.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.

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    1. Richard Lightbown

      Thanks Yossi, for a good report, for being there, for hanging on to your humanity in depressing, sometimes dangerous circumstances, for taking the flak, for doing what you can to defend what is right. Hang on in there. It might change one day, might even be soon!

      Reply to Comment
    2. If IDF command wanted to penalize soldiers engaged in unnecessary bodily harm, theft, verbal abuse, etc., an independent command structure would be implemented. I suspect some in the IDF and MPCID wish things were different. But without an enforced standing order with protocol one soon finds that life and career easier just going through vacuous motions. Soldiers are precious in most developed militaries, and no one wants to burden young men and women with the taint of wrong behavior in a stressful situation. IDF soldiers are seen at risk in the occupation, and have to be protected.

      Police are hired, soldiers, here, drafted. I think this is used as a defense for soldier behavior in Command, and also keeps the occupation framed more as a slow war than policing action. NGO’s cannot act as the eyes of military control. If MPCID was on the ground in the Bank, an internal ethic against abuse and reporting it might develop. But this would pit one division of the IDF against another, and I suspect this is unwanted, against the communal defense ethic of the armed forces.

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard Lightbown

        “IDF soldiers are seen at risk in the occupation, and have to be protected.”

        Perhaps they need protection from immoral behaviour too:
        Israeli Soldiers’ Suicides: The Untold Story
        by César Chelala

        Reply to Comment
        • I was not, Richard, stating my own view but my surmise of prevalent Israeli opinion and how this determines IDF oversight of abuses. I think it important to articulate the motivations grounding IDF functional blindness.

          As to suicides, I hear that last year more US soldiers died of suicide than through combat.

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Richard, Common Dreams is anything but a reliable source for information.

          That Cesar guy is probably unaware that in IDF, unlike any other army, a soldier can actually decide where and if she’s willing to serve.

          If someone is unhappy to search Palestinians all she has to do is to ask for a transfer to any other unit, or quit army completly without having a need to actually take own life.

          Anyone who claims that IDF soldiers are forced to do something completely against their own will and the only possible route is suicide is a liar.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Lightbown

      No criticism implied Greg. I was using it as a lead in. The US Army is also a terror institution so I would expect comparable stats. It would be interesting to know the figures for armies used as defence institutions: New Zealand or Switzerland perhaps. Even China.

      Reply to Comment
      • Soldiers not exposed to violence of varying degrees probably have a much lower rate of suicide. Your focal case of China would be a good test, if one could compare those serving in Tibet and not. Even then, though, I expect the rate to be lower than in the present US case, for obvious reasons.

        Reply to Comment

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