Tel Aviv — When Israeli human rights groups accused the Israel Defense Forces of wrongdoing in the Gaza operation of 2008–9, many Israelis angrily defended the army and accused the critics of betraying their country. But the army has just voiced gratitude to one of the groups.
In early July, the military advocate general, Avichai Mendelblit, said that he was indicting “a number” of officers and soldiers for their conduct during the operation, including a sniper who allegedly shot a Palestinian woman who was waving a white flag. One soldier was also issued a warning for violating IDF procedures by using a Palestinian as a human shield.
In making his announcement, Mendelblit “voiced his gratitude to the human rights organization B’Tselem, thanking the organization for testimonies its activists passed on to the IDF and for assisting in coordinating the questioning of Palestinian eyewitnesses at the Erez crossing,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.
“Between the military and various human rights organizations there is constant dialogue,” said IDF spokesman Capt. Barak Raz in a phone interview on July 14.
B’Tselem is the same organization that, according to the right-wing Israeli group Im Tirtzu, is engaged in “promoting the delegitimization of IDF operations by sullying the IDF’s and the State of Israel’s image in Israel and abroad via documentation and publicity.” This claim was contained in a February report that lambasted Israeli nongovernmental organizations for their reports and statements on the Gaza conflict, called Operation Cast Lead.
Im Tirtzu claimed that information gathered by B’Tselem and by other Israeli human rights groups ended up in the United Nations-sponsored Goldstone Report, which alleged that Israel and its Gaza adversary, Hamas, had committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. Israelis across the political spectrum rejected the findings related to their army. Many were outraged at the report’s suggestion that in some cases, the IDF had targeted civilians.
The War and Peace Index, a monthly Tel Aviv University public opinion poll, found in September 2009 that among Jewish Israelis familiar with the report, 93.5% said that it was biased against the IDF. Some 79% of respondents, cutting across the political spectrum, were opposed to the Goldstone Report’s claim that during Operation Cast Lead the IDF committed war crimes.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission has endorsed the Goldstone Report’s call for Israel and Hamas to conduct “good faith independent” investigations into the Goldstone allegations or face a probe by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The General Assembly has called on the U.N. secretary general to report to it by July 26 on what each side has done.
According to Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, Israel has reportedly prepared a “massive” report it is expected to submit before that date and Hamas, too, is expected to submit something by then.
Abrahams called the Israeli army’s recently announced actions “welcome steps” and contrasted Israel with Hamas, which, he said had done “zilch” in terms of investigating its own conduct. But he added: “We need an independent and transparent investigation. The IDF will not adequately investigate itself.”
On July 6, the IDF announced it had completed all but one of 30 probes it had opened into incidents cited in the Goldstone Report. The IDF revealed that, beyond allegations cited in the Goldstone Report, it has examined another 120 incidents, and about 20 investigations are ongoing.
Of the 30 incidents mentioned in the Goldstone Report, the IDF announced judicial or disciplinary actions on four:
• A sniper who the IDF believes to have “deliberately targeted an individual walking with a group of people waving a white flag[,] without being ordered or authorized to do so” has been indicted.
• A criminal investigation has been ordered into the circumstances of an airstrike on a residence that housed about 100 members of the Al-Samouni family.
• A review of an IDF rocket attack that killed several civilians during prayer time at the Ibrahim Al-Makadma Mosque led to a “rebuke” of the officer who ordered the attack. Investigators concluded that the IDF had not targeted the mosque but rather a “terror operative” outside: Injuries to civilians inside “were unintentional,” the IDF found, so no criminal legal action was taken. But the review found that the officer “had failed to exercise appropriate judgment.”
• A battalion commander was issued a warning, which in a military court is considered a sentence, for using a Palestinian civilian to go into a house near his own, where terrorists were sheltered, to convince the residents to leave. The IDF found that the Palestinian civilian had gone to his neighbor’s home voluntarily, but it ruled that military procedure was nevertheless violated “regarding the use of civilians during operational activity.”
Mendeblit praised B’Tselem for its assistance with these cases. With the sniper and the Al-Samouni family cases, the group provided reports and testimonies. These were two of about 20 cases for which B’Tselem gathered information and, referencing it with GPS coordinates of where incidents had occurred, passed it to the IDF.
In all four cases in which Mendeblit took action, B’Tselem also volunteered as the go-between, connecting IDF investigators with Gaza witnesses. The group coordinated witnesses’ visits to the Israel-Gaza border to give evidence. “Providing material to the IDF and helping with its inquiries is about 30% or more of what takes place in B’Tselem’s office,” the group’s spokeswoman, Sarit Michaeli, told the Forward.
The Forward reported in February that IDF investigators had received assistance from several other NGOs, as well.
Despite feeling that the IDF has vindicated her group’s declarations after Cast Lead, Michaeli is not satisfied. “Ultimately, the proper tool must be an Israeli investigation — not just the army investigating itself, but Israeli society investigating Cast Lead,” she said.
Her main objection is that IDF investigations are overly focused on identifying cases in which individual soldiers or groups of soldiers were guilty of misconduct, and so these investigations are not looking at the broader question of how, on an operational level, the army fought the war.
Some critics of the NGOs said the fact that the IDF cooperates with them does not boost their legitimacy. Otniel Schneller, a Kadima lawmaker who hopes to instigate parliamentary investigations into the activities of human rights NGOs, said he recently placed one of B’Tselem’s reports “straight in the garbage.” He said of the group, “The IDF doesn’t need them.”
But Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem organization that critiques NGOs, told the Forward, “B’Tselem really does have a credible research capability, and even among serious critics like me who disagree with B’Tselem’s political agenda, their research ability is acknowledged.” Still he cautioned that the real test would come when the reliability of testimony gathered by B’Tselem is tested in court. Until then, he said, “I’m going to withhold judgement.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org