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Al-Wehda Street in Gaza city, bombed by Israel. Photo: Mohammed Zaanoun, ActiveStills
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And now for the whitewashing

With Israel’s latest round of bombing in the Gaza Strip over, the standard whitewashing is likely next. Israel will probably soon announce it is looking into several “exceptional incidents” related to the bombings. A few months later, the Military Advocate General will conclude no breaches of the law took place, except perhaps in one or two cases in which largely symbolic action will be taken against the persons involved. He may also recommend minor revisions to procedures or to the military decision making process. This forecast is based on Israel’s past conduct in similar circumstances. Investigations are always carried out by the military, freeing government level officials – who authorized the bombing policy and ordered the use of lethal military force – from investigation or accountability. The senior military commanders in charge of implementing the policy and the MAG who provided a legal stamp of approval have never been investigated, either. As a result, no one responsible for this policy of repeated human rights violations has ever been investigated.

Investigations into previous rounds of fighting in Gaza were left to the military law enforcement system, which operates as a whitewashing mechanism. To the best of B’Tselem’s knowledge, these investigations have resulted, to date, in the following criminal measures:

  • After Operation Cast Lead, the MAG determined that legal standards had been met in all but three cases. In one, a soldier was convicted of credit card theft and sentenced to 7.5 months in prison and a demotion; in another, two soldiers were convicted of using a Palestinian child as a human shield and given a three-month suspended sentence and a demotion; in the third, a soldier was convicted of unlawful use of firearms for killing two Palestinian women (a mother and daughter) and given a 45-day prison sentence. This followed a round of fighting in which Israel killed 1,391 Palestinians – at least 759 of whom did not participate in the hostilities, including 318 minors under the age of 18 – destroyed more than 3,500 homes, leaving tens of thousands without shelter, and wreaked havoc upon other structures and infrastructure facilities in Gaza.
  • After Operation Protective Edge, the MAG found that the law had been upheld with the exception of a single case, in which three soldiers were convicted of stealing NIS 2,420. They were sentenced to two to four months of community service. Some of the cases are still in various stages of examination. This followed a round of fighting in which Israel killed 2,203 Palestinians – 1,372 of whom did not participate in the hostilities, including 528 minors under the age of 18 – and destroyed or severely damaged more than 18,000 homes, leaving more than 100,000 Palestinians homeless.
  • The military is still investigating the “March of Return” protests. To date, one soldier has been convicted of abuse of authority in a manner that endangers human life for shooting and killing a 14-year-old Palestinian and sentenced to one month’s community service. During these protests, Israeli security forces – mostly snipers – killed 223 Palestinians, 46 of them minors under the age of 18, and injured 8,079 with live fire.

While Israeli officials downplay the importance of these investigations, arguing all of Israel’s actions are legal, they do recognize the contribution they make to deflecting international criticism and possible intervention from the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This is especially relevant now, as the ICC Prosecutor has recently launched an investigation into Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories – yet will not be able to proceed if Israel carries out its own reliable investigation and holds those responsible for violations accountable.

Calling what the Israeli mechanisms do an “investigation” is not enough. Common sense, not to mention the Rome Statute – the ICC’s constitution – distinguish real investigations from actions taken by a state that is unable or unwilling to get to the truth. Investigating a handful of low-ranking soldiers while ignoring those truly responsible for a policy and its results, including senior government and military officials, is a far cry from the standards of a real investigation.

Moreover, the official premise that Israeli actions are lawful is unfounded. Having legal advisors greenlight the bombings and the open-fire policy is not enough.

International humanitarian law (IHL) was formulated when states came together to find ways to minimize harm to civilians and spare them suffering in wartime. The legal opinions that Israel flaunts – which permit, for example, decimating entire families and bombing civilian infrastructure – are light-years away from achieving this aim. They empty IHL of any real meaning, relying on a manipulative, unreasonable interpretation that provides justification for massive harm to civilians and civilian objectives. Instead of minimizing violence, Israel’s legal counselors use this body of law to justify it.

Israel has again committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip. These crimes must be properly investigated and the persons responsible punished accordingly. This is crucial not only in order to achieve justice for the victims and their families, but in order to ensure that a similar policy, with such an intolerable price, is not implemented again.