B'Tselem today (Sunday, 8 February) issued a position paper detailing the issues that Israel must investigate regarding its conduct during the operation in Gaza. Israeli military and government officials declare with confidence that the military acted according to International Humanitarian Law and that responsibility for the harm to the civilian population rests exclusively with Hamas. B'Tselem's initial survey of the military operation calls these statements into question.
B'Tselem continues to research Israel's conduct in the Gaza Strip during the operation and will publish its findings. However, the information the organization has already collected raises grave suspicions that soldiers and commanders breached international humanitarian law. These suspicions relate not only to the conduct of individual soldiers, but primarily to questions of policy.
The extent of the harm to the Gaza civilian population from the recent operation is unprecedented. Whole families were wiped out. Children were killed before their parents' eyes. Some people watched as their loved ones bled to death. The extensive harm to the civilian population is not, in and of itself, proof of violations of the laws of war. However, it requires Israel to conduct an independent and credible investigation, rather than relying solely on operational debriefings. Such an investigation is mandated by law. It is also in Israel's best interest, says B'Tselem, as the Israeli public has a right to know what was done in its name in the Gaza Strip.
Based on the initial information, the investigation must examine the following questions, among others:
- Did the army target civilian objects, even if they did not contribute to Hamas military actions?
- Did the army act in accordance with the principle of proportionality, prohibiting excessive harm to civilians in relation to the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage?
- Did the army make prohibited use of weapons, including White Phosphorous?
- Did soldiers fire at civilians without justification?
- Did soldiers use Palestinian civilians as human shields?
- Did soldiers attack ambulances and medical teams while they were carrying out their duties?
- Did the army delay the evacuation and treatment of wounded in areas in which hostilities were not taking place?
As an Israeli organization, B'Tselem focuses on Israel's human rights obligations. However, the organization states that Hamas committed grave breaches of international humanitarian law. Hamas' method of combat and treatment of the Palestinian civilian population affects the legality of Israeli attacks and the injury they caused to civilians. However, the conduct of Hamas fighters does not grant sweeping legitimacy to all Israeli actions, nor does it prove that every injury to civilians resulted solely from Hamas' action. B'Tselem's findings suggest that in many cases there is a well-founded concern that civilians were harmed as a result of Israel's breach of the principles of distinction and proportionality.