Round One: the IDF says it is closing its investigation into "permissive rules of engagement" in Gaza

The IDF announced this evening that it was closing its short-lived investigation into reports that soldiers described “permissive rules of engagement” that led to — among other things — Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed civilians during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

This investigation was, apparently, focused pnly on remarks by Israeli soldiers in a post-Gaza-war debriefing at the Oranim military academy near Haifa. A transcript of their remarks was submitted to the military, then published in a military journal by the Dany Zamir, director of a program at the military academy, before it was somehow brought to the attention of Amos Harel, military correspondent of Haaretz, who published the accounts ten days ago.

Two other Israeli media also published reports on the soldiers’ stories, while the Jerusalem Post published articles challenging the soldiers’ stories. There has been a raging debate in Israeli society ever since.

UPDATE: As AP reported overnight [Monday to Tuesday], the IDF “angrily” accused the soldiers — who did not speak out publicly, but rather in post-war group discussion — of “harming the IDF’s image in Israel’s and in the world”. AP added that “The soldiers’ accounts set off soul-searching in a country where the military is widely revered. They also echoed Palestinian allegations that Israel’s assault did not distinguish between civilians and combatants, and fueled assertions by some international rights groups that Israel violated the laws of war. Israel used unprecedented force during the three-week operation, launched against Gaza’s Hamas rulers last December to halt eight years of rocket attacks on Israeli border towns. After a week of aerial bombardments, the military launched a two-week ground offensive”. In preparing its story, AP apparently had access to Maj. Yehoshua Gutler, legal assistant to the military’s advocate general, who said that in one case reported by the soldiers in the post-war discussion, “the elderly woman was wearing bulky clothing and the soldiers had reason to believe she was a threat after intelligence reports showed ‘Hamas was going to use an elderly woman as a suicide bomber as they had in the past’.”

Even if — if — that was the case, that does not mean that each and every “elderly woman” — such as the one who was killed in this incident — is a legitimate military target.

The AP account of Maj. Yehoshua Gutler’s explanations went on: “The woman continued to advance despite repeated calls to stop and warning shots fired in the air, and soldiers had ‘no choice’ but to shoot”… On the report, following the soldiers’ post-war group session, that a mother and two children had been killed by a sniper when they went in the wrong direction after being released from days of house arrest during the fighting, Maj. Gutler said that “the investigation showed that the family ‘was not fired at and not put in peril at any stage and left the premises unharmed’. Gutler said a soldier had instead fired at militants in the opposite direction”. See full AP report posted here.

The AP report added that “Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the investigation showed that Israel possesses ‘the most moral army in the world’.

But, AP wrote, “In a tour of Gaza last week, the AP saw evidence of vandalism and destruction in Palestinian homes commandeered by the Israeli military. Graffiti in Hebrew was scrawled on walls, trash littered the floors and makeshift sniper holes were stuffed with cloth or plastic in several homes. The case of a 33-year-old resident of the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun bore some similarities to the soldiers’ accounts. Abir Hijeh told the AP she was in a group of civilians that came under Israeli fire after soldiers yelled at them to turn around when they headed the wrong way after being expelled from their homes. Hijeh’s 2-year-old daughter and a 27-year-old neighbor were killed in the incident, which was confirmed by two area hospitals and a second witness. The military has not directly commented on this case, but said all possible deviations from army rules would be investigated”.

According to the IDF statement issued Monday evening, the Criminal Investigation Department of the Military Police had [last week] opened an investigation “of the statements made by soldiers at the Rabin Military Preparation Center about Operation Cast Lead”.

The IDF said its investigation was closed. But, it is safe to say, this is not yet over.

After a thorough investigation, the IDF said in a statement, it was concluded that “the crucial components of their descriptions were based on hearsay and not supported by specific personal knowledge … Additionally, it was found that once the claims were checked, they were not supported by the facts as determined by the investigation. The investigation concluded from the soldiers who participated in the conference that the stories told were purposely exaggerated and made extreme, in order to make a point with the participants of the conference.

“The statement said that, therefore, ‘Military Advocate General, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, concluded the findings of the Military Police investigation: “It is unfortunate that none of the speakers at the conference was careful to be accurate in the depiction of his claims, and even more so that they chose to present various incidents of a severe nature, despite not personally witnessing and knowing much about them. It seems that it will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the IDF and its soldiers, who had participated in Operation Cast Lead, in Israel and the world”.’

“The IDF statement added that ‘It must be stated that during these investigations, the participants at the Rabin Center said that they had based their claims relating to the use of phosphorous munitions on what they had heard in the media and not on their personal knowledge’.

“And, it said, ‘The IDF Spokesperson Unit wishes to stress that the Military Advocate General’s conclusions refer solely to the investigations that focused on the transcripts of the Rabin Military Preparation Center conference, in addition to the two separate aforementioned claims. This investigation is additional and not a substitute for the investigations conducted on all levels of the IDF, following Operation Cast Lead’.”

Well, a group of Israeli human rights organizations were not surprised. They issued a statement shortly afterwards in which they said “[I]n response to the Israeli Army’s speedy closing of internal investigation files about war crimes in Operation Cast Lead: The speedy closing of the investigation immediately raises suspicions that the very opening of this investigation was merely the army’s attempt to wipe its hands of all blame for illegal activity during Operation Cast Lead. The internal investigation ignored a significant amount of material that was collected and that coincides with soldiers’ testimonies recently publicized in Israel media. In addition, the Military Advocate General disregarded allegations that several of the commands given during the military operations were illegal. It is clear that in this case, the Military Police Criminal Investigations Department (MPCID) has decided to focus on the individual soldier, a measure which is neither effective nor reliable”.

This statement was signed by the following groups: B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Physicians for Human Rights, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Gisha, Hamoked, The Public Committee Against Torture, Adalah, and Bimkom. Most — if not all — of these groups came together toward the end of Operation Cast Lead, and gave a statement which they defended at a Jerusalem press conference saying that the Israeli military attack on Gaza caused a “clear and present danger” to Palestinian civilians trapped in the Gaza Strip.

The New York Times reported Monday evening that “The allegations that arose from the conference at the academy and the wide coverage they received in the news media were troubling to many Israelis, most of whom are conscripted at the age of 18. Many Israelis view the army as a force that maintains high moral standards. The academy’s director, Dany Zamir, told Army Radio on Monday that he accepted the advocate general’s report. Still, he added, ‘If soldiers will now feel that they cannot talk because of the outcome of this specific story then this is very bad for us as a society and army’. On the other hand, he stated, it was not his intention to attract news media attention by making the contents of the soldiers’ discussion public, and the news media’s focus on the story ‘truly complicated everything’.” These comments were reported in the NYTimes here.

The AP, in the story mentioned above, quoted Dany Zamir — who urged the IDF to make an investigation of the soldiers’ stories — as saying that the IDF inquiry “did not address other incidents that raise serious ethical questions, such as the wanton destruction of Palestinian homes. The army still needs to deal with ‘the whole way that we and our comrades … treated .. property, houses, holy books’, he said, calling for better training in the military.

Last week, the NYTimes reported that Bentzi Gruber, a colonel in the reserves and deputy commander of the armored division, said in an interview: “I’m not saying that nothing bad happened … I heard about cases where people shot where they shouldn’t have shot and destroyed houses where they shouldn’t have destroyed houses. But the proportion and effort and directions we gave to our soldiers were entirely in the opposite direction”. The accusations caused a furor here and abroad because they came on top of others that the civilian death toll was high and that soldiers took an unusually aggressive approach in Gaza. These remarks were summarized here.

In an interview in Jerusalem on Monday afternoon, Yehuda Shaul, the head and one of the founders of the Israeli group “Breaking the Silence” which collects and publishes verified testimony from soldiers and former soldiers about abusive and illegal behavior in the occupied Palestinian territors, expressed shock that IDF bulldozers demolished Palestinian homes in the third week of the Israeli military operation Gaza, when it was clear that there was no imminent threat or danger.

On Monday morning, Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard said in an interview in his Tel Aviv office that “The testimonies by the Israeli soldiers that were revealed in Haaretz are shocking but in no way surprising. The testimonies from Palestinians and foreigners that were in Gaza during the Israeli assault have all led Israeli human rights organizations to the conclusion that something is really wrong with IDF rules of engagement. The soldiers’ testimonies have only confirmed what we have suspected before, and that is that Israeli rules of engagement as given to the soldiers on the ground were extremely permissive and not discriminatory as international humanitarian law requires. The fact of the matter is that Israeli ground soldiers have attacked civilian installations with fierce force, and that is something that must have created the understanding among the soldiers that it [they] can, unfortunately, wound and kill civilians, unarmed civilians. What we’ve seen with the recent testimonies given was that not only the IDF soldiers were given the permit to shoot at civilian infrastructure and civilian installations and buildings, from where assault or fire was fired at them, [but] also that certain zones were defined as actually death zones, areas where if anyone is walking through should be attacked. And that is in direct contradiction to what international humanitarian law and laws of war demand”.

Sfard added that “I understand from the Haaretz report that these soldiers were ground troops operating in Gaza during the ground assault, and they were low-ranking soldiers, and there was one commander, even, among those soldiers. But they were the simple soldiers on the ground, getting orders and obeying these orders, without thinking too much. For me, as a lawyer, the fact that these testimonies were given by simple soldiers, low-ranking soldiers, makes it extremely … um… I think they have no reason to lie, and their testimonies were given against their own interests, and I think we should look at these testimonies, look into them … I think these testimonies, because they were given by simple soldiers, not by high-ranking officers, are trust-worthy. The soldiers have nothing to gain from giving those testimonies. And, they corroborate testimonies given by the victims, by Palestinians in Gaza. And testimonies by Palestinians we have hundreds of them — human Rights organizations were gathering those testimonies during the assault and immediately after. And these testimonies of the soldiers just fit into the puzzle. And so the suspicion we had in the first place now becomes really heavy”.

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