JERUSALEM — Six months after Israel’s devastating assault on Hamas, its south-western border with Gaza has not been as quiet in a decade — only two rockets in the past six weeks on Israeli towns. Yet, the plight of Palestinian civilians in Gaza continues to haunt Israel.
The World Health Organization is charging that Gazans have limited access to proper medical supplies because of the continuing Israeli blockade. In a detailed report Thursday on the dire medical situation in the Hamas controlled area, the WHO report notes that equipment now in use is often broken or outdated.
While some medicines are allowed in for humanitarian reasons, import of spare parts or new medical devices into Gaza is limited, WHO says. The UN agency also said well-meant donations are not helping. Equipment like X-ray machines and batteries are particularly difficult to get through the Israeli blockade which was imposed two years ago when Hamas took control of Gaza.
Israeli officials brushed off the criticism. A Foreign Ministry spokesman called the WHO contentions "dubious," and denied there are restrictions on medical equipment reaching Gaza.
In broader terms, Israel argues that it is because of Hamas’s obstinate refusal to agree to a long-term cease-fire and to an exchange of prisoners that Israel feels compelled to keep its siege of Gaza intact: How can you expect us to deal with Hamas as if this was a normal border when they don’t even accept our right to exist, is the standard official Israeli argument.
Until recently, Israeli officials have also blithely dismissed concerns voiced by both Arab and international human rights groups that Israel may have perpetrated war crimes during the 22-day January campaign.
Suddenly, this Israeli aloofness is beginning to change.
Speaking at the induction of a new group of army draftees this week, Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, refrained from attacking the authors of a recent report compiled by the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence, in which soldiers reported numerous abuses carried out by troops during the Gaza campaign.
Ashkenazi said that wherever complaints were not anonymous, they were investigated thoroughly: "We have appointed special commissions to review complaints. It is important to us that our military ethics remain pure," he said.
Alongside this declared new position of the top military command, and in advance of two UN reports on the conduct of Israeli troops during the Gaza offensive, a top-level team of legal experts from the Israeli foreign and justice ministries has compiled an exhaustive defense brief. Israel anticipates that the UN reports will be highly critical, especially in terms of the extent of civilian suffering during the campaign, code-named Operation Cast Lead.
Israel expects to receive drafts of the reports for its review before the end of August, prior to their public release in the middle of September. The fact that the UN General Assembly convenes later in the month augments the Israeli concerns.
One report — expected to be the more critical — is being compiled by an investigative committee chaired by Justice Richard Goldstone who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The second report, based on a UN investigation into Israeli responsibility for the destruction of UN property in Gaza and handed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in May, is now set to be made public.
Israel did cooperate with the team compiling that report. In contrast, it resolutely boycotted the Goldstone Commission, arguing that its mandate was "one-sided," that the results would inevitably be "biased," and that therefore, "any cooperation by Israel would simply legitimize the conclusions and recommendations of the report."
Foreign Ministry officials note specifically that the Goldstone Commission hearings in both Gaza and Geneva were reduced to a platform for accusations against Israel of "war crimes". Most of the witnesses were Palestinians; Noam Shalit, the father of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, was among the few Israelis who testified. They were treated "with contempt," Israeli officials said. "We were shocked at that," one official told IPS.
In respect of the other report, even though a senior Israeli foreign ministry official met last week in Geneva with UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay, he is said to have asserted that the report "had no basis in reality" since it was being "written by Arab UN personnel who were basing themselves on Palestinian newspaper accounts." A similar Israeli reaction was published following the preliminary release of the internal report to Ban Ki- moon when it was found that Israel was culpable for damaging UN property and asked for over 11 million dollars in damages.
In a pre-emptive attempt to counter the UN reports, Israel issued a defense brief on Thursday, saying that the offensive against Hamas was a "proportionate response" to attacks by the Islamist group. "Israel’s resort to force in the Gaza operation was both a necessary and a proportionate response" to more than 12,000 rockets and mortars fired from Gaza between 2000 and 2008, said the ministry’s 160-page document. The document contends that "Israeli commanders and soldiers were guided by International Humanitarian Law."
The document entitled, ‘The Operation in Gaza — Legal and Factual Aspects’, details what is called "Israel’s humanitarian efforts" during the operation despite "Hamas attempts to launch attacks during truces…hijack aid and assistance and hide within and behind medical and international facilities."
The Israeli report says Hamas is to blame for Palestinian civilian casualties by deploying its fighters in residential neighborhoods, and that Israeli forces destroyed buildings only to protect themselves.
The document also gives previously unpublished details of Israeli army investigations into alleged violations of the law during the operation. The brief says that investigators are examining some 100 complaints, and 13 criminal probes have been opened.
A Hamas spokesman described the Israeli report as "ridiculous," and said it did not "merit" a full response. He repeated the Hamas position that Israel has committed war crimes.
Despite their forceful arguments, Israeli legal experts have bluntly told a special government ministerial committee they fear the two UN reports could lead to legal proceedings being initiated against Israel, or to war crimes charges being leveled against individual Israeli public figures in the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, both based in The Hague.
"From the point we’re at now, the road to international courts could be only a short one," said one foreign ministry legal expert.
In recent years, criticism of harsh military actions by Israel in combating the Palestinian Intifadah uprising had made several top Israeli military and security officials refrain from visiting Britain or Spain for fear they would face prosecution there on the basis of complaints launched by Palestinian and human rights activists.
The threat from Britain was quietly dispelled. Recently, the Spanish parliament passed new legislation which, in effect, makes it impossible for a judge to entertain a prosecution charge leveled against Israeli officials.
(Inter Press Service)