Israeli soldiers have killed an average of more than one Palestinian civilian per day since the current Intifada uprising began in 2000, but only a handful of cases have even been investigated, according to a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
Between Sept. 29, 2000, and Nov. 30, 2004, more than 1,600 Palestinians not involved in hostilities, including at least 500 children, were killed by Israeli security forces, and thousands more were seriously injured, says the 126-page report released Wednesday, titled "Promoting Impunity: The Israeli Military’s Failure to Investigate Wrongdoing."
"Most of Israel’s investigations of civilian casualties have been a sham," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director. "The government’s failure to investigate the deaths of innocent civilians has created an atmosphere that encourages soldiers to think they can literally get away with murder."
In a statement responding to the report, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) denied that it has fostered a culture of impunity. "All allegations claiming that innocents or terrorists had been killed as a result of the [military] opening fire in violation of official rules of engagement are thoroughly and seriously examined," the IDF said.
However, as of May 2004, the Israeli military disclosed to HRW that it had conducted investigations into only 74 alleged cases of unlawful use of lethal force involving fewer than 5 percent of the civilian deaths recorded.
This relatively small number reflected a new policy announced in September 2000, under which the military stopped routinely investigating civilian deaths because it argued that the situation was "approaching armed conflict," and therefore investigations would be limited to "exceptional cases." It did not specify what the criteria for such cases would be.
And when the IDF declines or refuses to investigate, there are no alternative forms of accountability because the West Bank and Gaza Strip are ruled under military law, the report notes.
To date, there have been a total of 19 indictments and six convictions, according to Israeli human rights groups. Two soldiers were convicted for manslaughter, two for causing grave harm, and two for illegal use of a weapon.
The longest prison sentence, handed down to a soldier who shot an unarmed Palestinian man in the southern Gaza town of Rafah in October 2003, was 20 months. Most of the convictions have drawn penalties less severe than those given for petty theft, HRW says.
For example, a soldier convicted in the negligent killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian last year was demoted and sentenced to two months in jail, while the same court system handed down a sentence of six months to a defendant who had stolen a mobile phone, cigarette lighter, and $500 cash.
Among the most egregious cases, the group cites an Oct. 5, 2004, incident in which Givati Brigade soldiers shot a 13-year-old Gaza schoolgirl. An internal IDF debriefing immediately afterwards found that the company commander had "not acted unethically."
Fellow soldiers then released a communications tape to the media showing that another soldier had warned the commander that the victim was "a little girl." The tape recorded the commander saying, "Anything that’s mobile, that moves in the zone, even if it’s a three-year-old, needs to be killed." He also reportedly states that he "confirmed the kill" by firing at the girl’s body at close range.
The IDF then opened an investigation and brought a five-count indictment against the commander, but the charges did not include murder or manslaughter, HRW reports. The commander’s trial is currently ongoing.
According to HRW, many of the deaths and injuries have occurred in situations that clearly did not amount to "armed conflict."
"Even when Israeli soldiers have killed and maimed civilians in law enforcement situations, the military has failed to meet its obligation to investigate," Whitson said.
By contrast, all civilian deaths and injuries in the 1988-1993 Palestinian uprising were investigated, although the quality of the investigations was "often poor," according to the report.
HRW said that the main problem was a military justice system, dubbed "operational investigations," that does not seek or consider testimony from victims or non-military witnesses, instead relying on debriefing soldiers to determine whether a military police investigation is warranted.
The IDF insists that the questioning sessions "allow soldiers to express themselves under conditions of confidentiality, and are therefore effective and reliable tools that can be used to determine what transpired during the event."
But HRW said the government is obligated under international human rights treaties to investigate all serious abuses, and urged it to create an independent body to hear complaints of wrongdoing by Israeli soldiers and other security forces.
"While rapid ‘operational investigations’ may serve a useful military purpose, the Israeli military should stop using them as a pretext to avoid serious and impartial inquiries," said Whitson.
The report was issued as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem Tuesday for the first time since they agreed to a truce in February. However, it appeared little of substance was achieved beyond the recent commitment by Israel that it would demolish 1,600 homes built by Israeli settlers in Gaza.