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War Crimes in Gaza

Exposed by the Guardian

T

he going isn't easy for an army of war criminals in the 21st century. You can keep the media out of the war zone. You can requisition soldiers' cell phones before sending them into action. You can blur their faces and withhold their names. But it's hard, very hard, to conceal the results for long.

Already at the time of the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, there was unequivocal evidence of war crimes. The operation began with a much-publicized air raid on a police graduation ceremony, a civilian event. In the sequel too the Israeli attack featured massive, indiscrimate violence against civilians. At present, two months after the operation's end, the indictment against the IDF continues to grow, backed by the accounts of Gaza residents, as well as investigations by foreign sources. Among the evidence recently exposed is a note, accidentally left behind, permitting attacks on medical teams. A video has also come to light, in which an Israeli officer, instructing his soldiers, plays down the notion of protecting civilians. The Israeli apparatus of denial and whitewash was especially embarrassed when soldiers themselves naively bore witness to war crimes they had seen or participated in.

Among foreign sources, the British Guardian has added a layer to the accumulating evidence, presenting three short documentary films.

The first of these films focuses on Israel's use of so-called "drones" (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The Guardian brings in a military expert, as well as a website for Israeli soldiers. Both testify to the ability of drones to provide an extremely sharp picture of a person far below, down to details of clothing. The drone is armed, enabling its operator in a distant room to kill the person by the push of a button. Now, one of the basic rules of international law is the rule of distinction, prohibiting attacks against civilians. In the first of its documentaries, the Guardian reports two incidents where Israel used drones precisely for this purpose. In one, two women were killed while attempting to flee a combat zone. In the other, a family was wiped out while having tea in their courtyard. Considering the photographic detail provided by drones to their operators, these attacks cannot be dismissed as mistakes. Indeed, Amnesty International has reported on at least 48 civilian killings by drones. Approached by the Guardian on the question, the Israeli army spokesperson refused to be interviewed. Instead a written statement was issued, claiming that Israel sticks to the laws of war. Because the drones record what they do, there must be video evidence supporting one or the other claim, but the army has not released it.

The second Guardian film tells the story of three young brothers who were used by the army as human shields. Stripped to their underpants, they were forced to walk in front of the Israeli forces as these searched houses (which were afterwards destroyed). Following several days of this, the brothers were made to sit before a row of Israeli tanks in order to deter attacks. The use of human shields contravenes international law. Israel's own High Court forbade the practice after its employment in the West Bank a few years ago. In response, the IDF announced that, upon clarifying the matter with commanders in the relevant area, "no evidence was found" for the use of human shields. In other words, when asked whether they or their soldiers had committed war crimes, the officers said No—and we are supposed to believe them.

The third film deals with attacks on emergency medical teams. Of Gazan medical personnel, 16 were killed and 22 wounded. Among the 27 hospitals in Gaza, 15 were hit. Medical teams report that the Israelis attacked in circumstances where the teams were unmistakably medical in nature, bringing wounded people to ambulances. The film shows an attack on one such team, carrying a wounded man on a stretcher. The army spokeperson responded: Israeli soldiers are instructed that medical teams are not to be targeted, although these teams, when working in the field, do take a risk.

The three films bring myriad questions to mind. How do young human beings degenerate to the point of committing such horrors? How can an entire society go on living in denial while such crimes are committed in its name? How many coldblooded murderers stroll through the shopping centers of Jerusalem or dance in the discos of Tel Aviv? How can we free ourselves from the obtuseness and cruelty that have become endemic to Israeli society, as reflected by the actions in Gaza? Who will ensure that these crimes will not be repeated and that the criminals will be made to pay?

It is not a question of isolated acts committed by wayward soldiers. Some of the crimes are the fruit of policies determined at the highest levels. Others are the product of an "atmosphere," a "spirit of things" imbued in the soldiers, a subtext beneath explicit orders. The general message, communicated to the Israeli public for years, especially the soldiers, is that all Palestinians are enemies, all support terror, all are complicit, and the only way to fight against the Palestinian resistance is to put pressure on the civilians. "We've got to show them." This discussion is not only the inheritance of infantry grunts. The former Deputy Justice of Israel's High Court, Michel Cheshin, in his decision on a law preventing family unification, wrote: "It is impossible to know who among Palestinians is an innocent civilian, who is a terrorist and who is a civilian likely to aid terror." The State's Advocate proclaims that pressure on the civilian population by blocking the shipment of vital supplies is legitimate. When such things are ordained at the highest levels, we should not be astonished that soldiers blur the distinction between civilian and military targets. After years of collective punishment inflicted on civilians, when, morning and night, they hear politicians and journalists calling for attacks on the Palestinian population as a means of punishment and deterrence, we should not be astonished to find that soldiers internalize the message.

For years the IDF has committed war crimes while avoiding accountability. The bank of excuses is ever full. Now and then a damning video clip may catch the whitewashers pants down, but then they use the tactic of blaming some isolated soldier up front (the "gatekeeper"), who is duly made to pay the price (which is never terribly high). Every time they whitewash the beating of a prisoner, or the abuse of a passer-by, or the murder of a demonstrator, it serves as a green light for further atrocities. This time too. The next Israeli attack will likely outdo the horrors of the Gaza operation.

The responsibility lies with Israeli society, of course, to come to its senses and end the lethal tendencies in its midst. But it is no less important that the international community take action. The Geneva Convention obliges all signatory nations to search out war criminals, no matter what their citizenship may be, and put them on trial. The identities of the senior commanders in the Gaza operation are known. So too are the identities of the Defense Minister and the Prime Minister. Any country these persons enter is obliged by the terms of the Convention to arrest, interrogate and try them. About half the Israelis between 18 and 21 serve in the regular army, and many sign up for permanent duty. The minimal duty of other countries is to interview Israelis of the relevant age groups, when these enter their gates, and look for possible war crimes. Readers of the Guardian should keep in mind that the murderers of Gazan families may be found not only on the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Many go abroad for rest and relaxation, for example to the clubs of London.

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