Israeli Military Cloaks Abuses

JERUSALEM — The Israeli army’s Advocate General has summarily closed an internal investigation into allegations stemming from accounts by soldiers of abuses against Palestinian civilians committed during Israel’s recent war on Hamas in Gaza.

It took the military investigators just half the duration of the 22-day war in Gaza to bulldoze the accounts and to dismiss completely the serious allegations made by soldiers who had themselves taken part in the fighting.

In a public statement Monday, Brigadier-General Avihai Mendelblit said the military police investigation revealed the testimonies "were based on hearsay and not on first-hand experience." The accusations were made last month by soldiers at a military cadet academy which they had attended before being drafted, and were leaked to the press some two weeks ago.

The army probe concludes that the soldiers’ accounts were "purposely exaggerated." It was "unfortunate", the statement said, that the soldiers had been careless about accuracy: "It is difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the armed forces, both within Israel and the world."

Several Israeli Human Rights organizations denounced the "speedy closing of the investigation" which, they say, "immediately raises suspicion that the investigation was the army’s attempt to wipe its hands of all blame for illegal activity during the operation." The groups, including Physicians for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem, and Yesh Din, say "the closing of the investigation strengthens the need for an independent, non-partisan, investigative body to look into all activity of the Israeli army during the operation."

The testimonies had included the description by an infantry squad leader of an incident where the company commander ordered the shooting of an elderly Palestinian woman; she was killed, he reported, when she was walking on a road 100 meters from a house where the company was posted. The investigators said the soldier had not himself witnessed the event and "was only repeating a rumor he’d heard." They noted, on the other hand, that a woman who approached troops and was suspected of being a suicide bomber had been repeatedly fired upon to try to stop her advancing towards them.

A different squad leader from the same brigade had reported another incident where an army sniper shot and killed a Palestinian mother and her two children whom troops had told to leave their home. According to the soldier’s account, the family misunderstood the instructions about which way to walk. The army report concludes: "It was found that during this incident a force had opened fire in a different direction towards two suspicious men who were unrelated to the civilians in question."

Israeli military analysts point out that the investigation is based on the Israeli side alone. Last Thursday, the Associated Press reported about interviews with Palestinians in Gaza about the incidents in question and stressed that, to some degree, the Palestinian accounts corroborate the descriptions by the soldiers of the alleged shootings. That report is not addressed by the army communiqué at all. The analysts note also that, given the international outcry and demands that Israel commanders and officials be charged with war crimes, the soldiers may have been trying to cover themselves by distancing themselves from the incidents.

Amos Harel, the Haaretz military correspondent who originally brought the affair to light, lashes the abrupt closure of the investigation: "The army emerges as pure as snow. Yet, there is a disconcerting message — a group of combat soldiers and officers serving in some of the finest units are proven to be nothing but a bunch of liars and exaggerating storytellers." Harel also criticizes the report for "expending great effort to conceal a string of other allegations of improper conduct — from spitting on the photographs of Palestinian families to uprooting orchards."

Apart from the two specific shooting incidents, the testimonies had included allegations of unnecessary destruction of Palestinian property: "We would throw everything out of the windows to make room and order. Everything… refrigerators, plates, furniture. The order was to throw all of the house’s contents outside," one soldier had said.

The army inquiry ignores the broad accusations about the permissiveness of the rules of engagement during the Gaza war and what the soldiers said had been the prevailing mindset among troops. One infantry squad leader had been quoted as saying, "The atmosphere in general, as I understood it from most of my men…I don’t know how to describe it…The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, are very, very much less important than the lives of our soldiers." When he first heard the testimonies, Dany Zamir, the director of the prep army college, said, "They convey an atmosphere in which one feels entitled to use unrestricted force against Palestinians."

The conclusion of the probe came on the eve of the induction of the right-wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu, a government which does not hide its commitment to the "eradication of Hamas." Further inquiry is improbable.

The investigation sends another disturbing signal to Israeli society as a whole — that the word of its soldiers is no longer trusted either by their commanders or by the top military echelons. This adds to an already widely felt concern stemming from the case of Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held in Hamas captivity for nearly three years — that their army and government are failing to meet one of the army’s fundamental obligations, never to abandon a soldier in the field.

The denial of all misconduct during the war is expected to add fuel to the conflicting views about the legitimacy of the operation as a whole — the number of Palestinians killed, the number of civilians killed, and whether Israel’s use of massive military force in trying to curb the Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli population centers was disproportionate.

The Israeli army issued its first official Palestinian casualty count last Thursday. It claims 1,166 people were killed, among them "295 non-combatants." In contrast, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza says the number of dead is 1,417, of whom 926 were civilians.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.