Israeli military divided over Gaza war probes

2015-01-06 11:37

Jerusalem - A fierce debate is raging within Israel's military over the extent to which soldiers should be held legally accountable for their actions during last year's Gaza war, with commanders increasingly at odds with military lawyers.

The dispute has set off a firestorm in Israel, where many say the legal threat would shackle soldiers in any future battle, lower their morale and shatter a sacred trust on which Israel's compulsory military service relies.

But with the Palestinians announcing their application last week to the International Criminal Court, the decision to investigate becomes all the more pressing: A robust Israeli inquiry into its military's actions could be essential in thwarting an embarrassing and potentially incriminating outside probe.

Israel launched the operation in Gaza on 8 July in what it said was a mission to halt relentless rocket fire by Hamas militants. During 50 days of fighting, more than 2 100 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry and the UN. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.

Israel has defended the operation as an act of self-defence and blamed Hamas for the heavy civilian death toll, saying the militant group used residential areas for cover. But critics have pointed to the heavy Palestinian civilian death toll and questioned whether Israel's response was proportionate.

Israel has also come under fire from critics who say it fails to thoroughly investigate its military operations or prosecute soldiers for abuses.

Israel says it does investigate its actions, although those inquiries rarely lead to criminal punishment. Following a similar operation in Gaza in early 2009, the army convicted a total of four soldiers on various charges, including looting, improper use of a weapon and life-endangering conduct. The most serious sentence was a three-and-a-half month prison term.

Straddling the fence

Israel's outgoing military chief, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, has walked a fine line in the debate, trying both to soothe the troops' worries and explain the need for inquiries.

"Soldiers and commanders know they have the full support of the command level," Gantz said last month. "I feel very secure with our support and with the investigations, which are a necessary tool for our continued improvement."

Israel's military advocate general, Danny Efroni, is seen as the leader of the drive to investigate soldiers. Efroni and his legal team have received more than 100 complaints regarding incidents from last summer's war and plan to conduct criminal investigations into at least 10, including the deaths of four boys in an explosion on a Gaza beach on 16 July and an attack on a UN school on 24 July.

Efroni's perspective, military analysts say, views an internal investigation as preferable to a potential probe by the International Criminal Court. The military did not answer a request seeking comment.

The Palestinians are expected to join the court within about 60 days. Once that happens, they can submit war crimes claims against Israel. However, if Israel can show the court that it has carried out its own investigation in good faith, it could avoid an outside probe.

"Some in the military say 'let us investigate, we have nothing to hide. The moment we investigate, international law won't intrude. There will be no international inquiry and no trial in The Hague,'" said Ilan Katz, a former military deputy advocate general.

Still, the threat of criminal investigations has fuelled concerns that soldiers and commanders will increasingly face prosecution. Critics say that would undermine performance in the field and dissuade new recruits from joining key combat units.

Bone of contention

The main bone of contention in the military ranks surrounds the events of 1 August, when a temporary cease-fire was interrupted by the suspected capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas militants. Israel unleashed a massive barrage of airstrikes and artillery fire aimed at blocking any potential escape routes of the suspected abductors, which killed nearly 200 people in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, according to Palestinian rights groups. The Israeli army subsequently declared that the Israeli soldier had been killed in action.

The debate over whether to investigate the soldiers follows a separate inquiry into a commander of the same brigade that fought in Rafah, who was suspected of covering up crimes alleged to have been committed by his troops, including sexual misconduct.

A group of reservists has appealed to Efroni not to investigate the Rafah incident, calling the possibility "outrageous and worrying”.

Brigadier General Udi Simhony, a retired military commander, warned that investigating the soldiers could lead them to lose motivation and conceal evidence from the battlefield to protect themselves.

"This needs to stop before we see its implications harm us mercilessly," he wrote on the Walla website, a popular Israeli news portal.

  • Deon Pretorius - 2015-01-06 11:43

    They should be held accountable in terms of the laws that were in place at the time of the conflict. These people had rules that were in place to guide their actions, but they chose to disregard them.

      Ayesha Omar - 2015-01-06 14:23

      bullys operate like israel,small guy does nothing serious and big guy to flex his muscles beats the hell out of small guy but bullies only hit because of their own weakness

  • Derek Bredenkamp - 2015-01-06 12:09

    "Let us investigate ourselves - we've got nothing to hide" says it all.

  • Madhi - 2015-01-06 14:09

    Maybe not in my life time, but there will be a time where might won't be right but justice will prevail for all those subjugated by brutal and inhumane use of force. I have no trust that will come to pass in the near future however as long as we have one unipolar world where all you need as insurance is loyal support of the only super power in the world.

  • wez1 - 2015-01-06 14:52

    Don't budge Israel. Self defense is a right, and more so when your neighbors have been trying to destroy you for 66 years. One would think that the Islamic world would just accept their existence. Instead they have sacrificed tens of thousands of their own in a futile bid to destroy a nation that will not lie down and die. Islam needs to urgently be replaced by democracy and freedom the world over, lest out children's children live a life of subjugation to a make-believe, 1400 year old, vicious, violent life of fear and restricted freedoms and choices.

      Rashid Kara - 2015-01-06 16:38

      @wez1 the criminals and killers should be dragged off to the ICC and not even ask to plead, give them the gallows, the whole lot of them!! their killing spree needs to end now!!!

  • James Uknow - 2015-01-06 15:37

    this is like asking America to take responsibility for killing Iraqis for oil ,nothing will come of it ,instead the other side will be demonized

  • Brett Lamont - 2015-01-06 15:42

    What rubbish, Israel should not be part of that waste of space otherwise known as the international criminal court, Israel should not have joined like the USA in the first place. The IDF is protecting Israel from terrorists, who have no care for rules nor laws, no Palestinian can be considered a civilian as they voted for Hamas and thus voted to be a terrorist territory. The IDF should stop putting their soldiers at risk I do feel, they should rather deal with the Gaza Strip like the allies dealt with Japan, fire bomb the cities daily or use daisy cutters, much more efficient. In war we can not be so soft, kill the enemy until the threat is gone.

      Rashid Kara - 2015-01-06 17:12

      @brett, you have said it beautiful, in war you cannot be soft, this is what we wil do, until the black spot is wiped off completely!!!

  • Brett Lamont - 2015-01-06 15:48

    Send the lawyers into the Gaza Strip wearing t shirts that say: I Love Israel, give them a gun and a memo; the memo is to the Palestinians asking them to please stop sending rockets into Israel, let's see which item they use after an hour. Then when they start screaming for the IDF to come and rescue them just send them a message saying it might be against the rules, we would not want to upset the poor terrorists that are about to murder you,..

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