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Two years after Gaza war, not a single war crime indictment

The Israeli military’s law enforcement system and its flawed investigative mechanisms appear primarily geared toward protecting the armed forces instead of civilians, thus allowing impunity to prevail.

By Muna Haddad

Palestinians drive through a destroyed quarter of Al Shaaf area in Al Tuffah, east of Gaza City, March 21, 2015. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Palestinians drive through a destroyed quarter of Al Shaaf area in Al Tuffah, east of Gaza City, March 21, 2015. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Two years after the Israeli military offensive on Gaza, dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” more than half of the civilian structures destroyed during the war have yet to be reconstructed, and Palestinian residents of the coastal strip are still finding bones amongst the ruins. And two years after that devastating offensive, Israeli authorities are again proving what previous experience with the Israeli system has long made clear: Israel is unwilling to conduct genuine, independent investigations into suspected war crimes, and does not hold those responsible to account, as required by international law.

At total of 2,251 Palestinians were killed during the 2014 war, most of them civilians, including 299 women and 551 children. More than 18,000 civilian structures were destroyed, including hospitals and essential infrastructure. Despite this unprecedented destruction and human suffering, Israel has failed to file even a single indictment against any military figure for killing or wounding civilians or for destruction of civilian structures.

As was the case in the wake of previous Israeli attacks on Gaza, such as “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-2009, low-level soldiers were disciplined for looting. The Military Advocate General (MAG) investigated and filed indictments against two soldiers for looting, and against one additional soldier for acting as an accomplice in the looting of a Palestinian home in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood of Gaza. This is the same neighborhood in which an Israeli assault between the 19th and 20th of July 2014 killed 55 civilians, including 19 children and 14 women.

A joint report prepared by Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights (Gaza), marking two years since the Israeli offensive, examined the status of 27 complaints the two organizations submitted to the Israeli attorney general and MAG between July and September 2014. Adalah and Al Mezan demanded independent investigations on suspicions of grave violations of international law during the military offensive.

The report reveals that in 15 incidents in which multiple Palestinian civilians were killed or wounded, and in which massive damage was caused to civilian property, the MAG’s probes into these cases are still being conducted in a sluggish and convoluted manner and have yet to be concluded.

The MAG’s initial examinations of 11 cases, which were conducted in a manner that does not meet international standards, ended in decisions to refrain from conducting full-scale investigations. The MAG – whose methods of operation are stained by a clear conflict of interest as both the military’s legal advisor and its investigator – rejected Adalah’s and Al Mezan’s complaints with vague arguments and explanations.

One such case, described by the MAG as producing a “regrettable result,” was the Israeli air strike on a United Nations school in Gaza’s Rafah area, which was being used as a shelter for thousands of civilians who had been evacuated from their homes.

The MAG claimed, in a statement released about two weeks ago, that the Israeli military targeted and attacked three people riding a motorcycle who were “identified as military operatives” (without noting their identity or the military group to which they were supposedly affiliated), but that it was “not able to discern in real-time the group of civilians that were outside the school.” Thus according to the Israeli military’s standards and its investigative mechanisms, an attack adjacent to a site in which thousands of civilians were seeking shelter – and in which 14 civilians, including eight children, were killed – was both legal and acceptable, and does not count as a reasonable suspicion of a violation of criminal law.

The MAG closed its examination of the incident without opening a full-scale criminal investigation and, of course, without taking any measures against those involved in the attack. According to eyewitness testimony taken at the scene, two civilians – not three military operatives – were riding the motorcycle. Furthermore, the type of munition used by the Israeli military in this attack in fact allows the operator to see the target even after the missile is launched and divert it in midflight, allowing for the possibility of saving human life.

Smoke rises from Gaza shore after missiles launched by the Israeli navy. 4 children from the Bakr family were killed while they were playing on the beach. The names of those killed: Ahed Atef Bakr, 10; Zakaria Ahed Bakr, 10; Mohamed Ramez Bakr, 11 and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, 9. Eye witnesses said that three of the children where hit while escaping. Following the incident, the army spokesman announced that an investigation of the incident will be opened. On June 2015, the Israeli investigation into the case was closed with Israel’s Advocate General’s office saying the attack, was a “tragic accident”. The attack occurred in front of many international media crew and was extensively documented. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Smoke rises from Gaza shore after missiles launched by the Israeli navy killed four children from the Bakr family who were playing on the beach, July 16, 2014. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

The only one of the 27 complaints for which the MAG opened an investigation – and subsequently closed – was Israel’s attack on July 16, 2014 that killed four boys from the Bakr family while they were playing soccer on the beach in Khan Yunis. The case garnered extensive international media and public attention, especially due to its occurrence near a hotel where many foreign journalists were staying.

The Israeli military claimed that “intelligence insight” indicated a Hamas maritime force was expected to gather at that location, and that it had attacked the moment it identified figures running on the beach, without recognizing that the figures were children between the ages of seven and nine.

The MAG ruled that while the commanders’ appraisal of the situation was in error, it was nevertheless not unreasonable, and decided to close the case based solely on military evidence, while willfully disregarding the testimonies from journalists and Palestinian witnesses who were on site at the time of the killing.

The UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on the 2014 Gaza conflict, which released a report of its findings in June 2015, extensively documented and investigated numerous allegations of widespread and systematic violations of international law during the 2014 operation, and raised serious concerns that certain attacks by the Israeli military may amount to war crimes.

The plodding rate of the MAG’s investigations, and its decisions to close cases without conducting proper investigations, even in specific instances in which the UN CoI’s own probes pointed toward suspicion of war crimes, clearly demonstrate Israel’s unwillingness to genuinely investigate allegations of war crimes and other serious violations of international law, as well as its lack of intent to bring responsible perpetrators to justice.

The Israeli law enforcement system and its flawed investigative mechanisms appear primarily geared toward protecting its armed forces, thus allowing impunity to prevail. This grants the Israeli military legitimacy to continue to directly attack civilians, destroy civilian structures, and cause unbearable suffering to Palestinians who have been living for almost a decade under an illegal siege.

The writer is an attorney at Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. A version of this article also appears in Hebrew in Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. R5

      Adalah: proving everything how absurdly free and democratic Israeli society is, that it should tolerate the existence of a foreign-funded lawfare organization hellbent on undermining the country’s physical security and right to self-defense under international law.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      Gaza: here’s an informative interview with Israeli writer Amos Oz about the topic:
      https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/feb/14/amos-oz-interview

      “I’m not sure. Israelis were genuinely infuriated, as was I, about the harassment and bombardment and rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages for years and years by Hamas from Gaza. And the public mood was ‘Let’s teach them a lesson’. Trouble is, this so-called lesson” – which Oz supported – “went completely out of proportion. There is no comparison between the suffering and devastation and death that Gaza inflicted on Israel for eight years, and the suffering, devastation and death Israel inflicted on Gaza in 20 days. No proportion at all.” He is appalled by the numbers – “300 dead children. Hundreds of innocent civilians. Thousands of homes demolished” – and while he would like to think that bombing UN structures was accidental, he is also appalled by reports that white phosphorus may have been used, and Dime bombs: “There is no justification. No way this could be justified. If this is true, it’s a war crime and it should be treated as a war crime.”

      Readers will also want to dig up the Oz piece in the New Yorker about the negotiations; what happened was much too complicated to be summed up by “the Palestinians walked away”. As JJ Goldberg at the Forward points out, no one “walked away” – the negotiations simply haven’t been finished.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bernie

      Yeah. When will the ICC start handing out those indictments against Hamas for ordering the kidnap/murder of those three Jewish youths and for firing hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilian targets?

      Reply to Comment