During and after Operation Defensive Edge against Hamas in Gaza in 2014, there were the usual lurid accusations against the IDF of carrying out “war crimes” and various atrocities against Palestinian civilians. Of course, the possibility of real war crimes exist in any military conflict, and there are always “collateral” deaths, but certainly Israel is one of the least likely to carry out such crimes. Further, the spotlight of international media is highly focussed on anything that the IDF does, for propaganda purposes, compared to the military activities in any other conflict, such as those in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine, Burundi, Nigeria, etc. For example, does anyone know how many children or civilians were killed in any of those conflicts, as they do in Gaza. But, even so, it is necessary that we know that the conduct of our armed forces is above reproach.
The IDF has its own legal department that is tasked with investigating any and all reports of such crimes to decide of they are indeed actionable. There were reports that approximately 20 incidents had been referred to the Judge Advocate General and were being investigated, and that of these 10 had been cleared and 2 were proceeding to trial. If I say that the level of independent procedure is at least as rigorous as those in other Western countries, such as the US and UK, then you can be sure that there will be no cover up and, for example, in the past many IDF officers have been tried for misconduct, including as high as Generals.
This week the Israel Foreign Ministry issued Israel’s own 277-page Report on its conduct during the Gaza War. This was done no doubt after having learned the lesson of allowing the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to publish its very critical Goldstone Report in 2009 investigating Operation Cast Lead of 2008-9 in Gaza without any official Israeli response (note that Goldstone later disassociated himself from the Report). The current Report states that 44% of the 2,215 Palestinian casualties in Gaza were in fact combatants (Hamas and other terrorist groups). Whereas Hamas’ strategy was to draw Israeli fire against civilian targets, using civilians as human shields, the IDF strategy was to avoid civilian casualties at all costs. However, in war it is impossible to avoid some civilian casualties. Had Hamas accepted the initial Egyptian-brokered ceasefire offered on July 15, 2014, 90% of the casualties would have been avoided. They accepted the same ceasefire only three weeks later. Hamas and other groups launched some 4,400 missiles and shells at Israel, targeting civilians, during the conflict, of which 550 were identified as having been fired from schools, mosques, UN facilities and other sensitive sites. During the conflict Israel continued to supply Gaza with essential humanitarian aid, including water, food, medicines and electricity.
In addition to the internal investigations, the result of a high level independent international team of experts was published this week. The organization UN Watch based in Geneva published part of the Report by the team consisting of military experts and former diplomats who visited the area last May on a fact-finding mission. The ad hod International Military Group (IMG) consisted of 11 members, including former NATO Military Committee Chairman Klaus Naumann of Germany, former Italian FM Giulio Terzi , former US State Dept. Ambassador at large for war crimes Pierre-Richard Prosper, and former commander of British forces in Afghanistan Col. Richard Kemp. No-one could claim that these eminent experts could be anything but honest in their evaluation. To summarize, their Report concluded
“During Operation Defensive Edge in Gaza last summer, in the air, on the ground and at sea, Israel not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard. We saw clear evidence of this from the upper to the lower levels of command. A measure of the seriousness with which Israel took its moral duties and its responsibilities under the laws of armed conflict is that, in some cases, Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war cost Israeli soldiers’ and civilians’ lives.”
There is little doubt that these Reports were timed to precede the anticipated Report of the UNHRC on the Israeli “war crimes” that has been investigating the Gaza war, but without Israeli cooperation. Israel refused to cooperate with this UN investigation when it was charged with investigating Israeli actions, but not those of Hamas, and was headed by Prof. William Schabas, who was known not only as an extreme anti-Israel activist, but who Israel was able to show was a professional paid advisor to the PLO, and hence he was forced to resign. He was replaced by former NY Supreme Court Justice Mary McGowan Davis, who may have expanded the writ of the Committee to include investigation of Hamas war crimes. However, this two-man UNHRC probe has none of the military expertise of the IMG. It will be interesting to see if their Report is indeed the “kangaroo court” expected or if they will take the Israeli Report and that of the IMG into account.