Israel starts probes into war crimes

Devastation: A Palestinian woman walks past buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes and shelling in Beit Lahiya, Gaza. Some incidents from the war are now being investigated. (Reuters)

Devastation: A Palestinian woman walks past buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes and shelling in Beit Lahiya, Gaza. Some incidents from the war are now being investigated. (Reuters)

Israel’s chief military prosecutor has ordered criminal investigations into two of the most high-profile incidents in the recent Gaza war: the killing of four children in an Israeli air strike at Gaza’s port and the shelling of a United Nations school in Beit Hanoun that left 15 people dead and scores injured.

They are among five cases being actively investigated for potential criminal misconduct. Dozens are being considered for investigation.

The beach killings on July 16 and the attack on the UN school on July 24 – while it was being used as a shelter for refugees – sparked widespread international controversy and calls from the UN and the United States for a prompt investigation.

Although the Israel Defence Forces admit striking the port in two air strikes, a senior officer said this week it is still investigating the circumstances of the attack on the UN school.

The announcement of the criminal probe by senior officers in the defence force’s military attorney general’s corps came only 10 days after Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire to end 50 days of conflict that claimed more than 2 000 lives.

The speed with which the military attorney general has launched the investigations is in marked contrast to the conflict between Hamas and Israel in 2008 and 2009 – Operation Cast Lead. Israel investigated 50 incidents, leading to three convictions.

The announcement of the criminal probe comes as Israel faces pressure on multiple fronts over the recent war, with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, threatening to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Israel is also facing an investigation by the UN human rights council and a separate UN inquiry ordered by its secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, into the targeting of UN schools and how Hamas weapons came to be stored in some of them.

Israel has indicated it is unwilling to co-operate with the UN human rights inquiry led by Canadian judge William Schabas, accusing it of being biased.

Human shield
The five cases being investigated include those of a 17-year-old arrested near the village of Khuzaa, who complained of being mistreated and used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers, and an incident in which a Palestinian woman was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in Dahaniyeh, despite having co-ordinated her escape from an area of fighting with the Israeli military.

The last case involves an accusation made by an Israeli commander that one of his troops stole money from a private house during the fighting in Shujai’iya.

Officials say some of the investigations began even while the war was continuing.
Under a newly enacted procedure, designed to speed up investigations, the Israeli military has created six fact-finding teams, tasked with making initial inquiries into claimed breaches of the laws of war.

Among dozens of cases on which the military attorney general’s office has yet to rule are those that involve the question of whether Israel’s heavy use of artillery in an urban area – which was said to have shocked US officials – was justified and proportionate, and over the invoking of the Hannibal Protocol, which saw large-scale destruction around Rafah during an attempt to rescue an Israeli officer who it was feared had been kidnapped.

Palestinians say 130 people, largely civilians, were killed in what they say was an indiscriminate bombardment.

Israeli officials say military attorney general Major General Danny Efroni has decided not to investigate seven other cases, including one in which a Palestinian media worker was killed during a strike on a car he was travelling in. The Israelis say the vehicle was transporting weapons.

The military attorney general’s office, whose decisions can be overturned by civilian judges in the supreme court, provides legal advice to the Israeli military as well as overseeing criminal investigations, including breaches of Israel’s own military law and international humanitarian law.

Although the senior officer who briefed on the investigations promised they would be prompt, thorough and transparent, the military attorney general’s office has been criticised about other investigations.

The announcement of the investigation came only two days after two leading Israeli human rights nongovernmental organisations announced that they will no longer co-operate with the military attorney general’s office, accusing it of failing to properly investigate harm to Palestinians, including in the recent Gaza war.

B’Tselem and Yesh Din accused the military law enforcement system of being a complete failure, claiming that, “after examining the results of hundreds of investigations, [we] assert that the existing investigation mechanism precludes serious investigations and is marred by severe structural flaws that render it incapable of conducting professional investigations”. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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