For Israeli military, accountability tests

By Joel Greenberg
Friday, October 8, 2010

JERUSALEM - A YouTube video showing a dancing Israeli soldier shimmying near a bound and blindfolded Palestinian woman went viral on the Internet this week, embarrassing the Israeli military and fueling fresh debate about morals and accountability in the armed forces.

The army's chief legal officer ordered a military police investigation of the clip, which was posted two years ago but publicized this week on an Israeli television program. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued an emphatic condemnation.

"The Israel Defense Forces is one of the most moral armies in the world," Netanyahu said in a statement. "Humiliation of prisoners and detainees is not the way of the State of Israel, nor that of the Jewish people."

The conduct of Israeli soldiers in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians had already stirred discussion this week after a military court convicted two former servicemen for using a boy as a human shield during Israel's 2008-09 war in the Gaza Strip against the militant group Hamas. The soldiers had ordered the boy to open bags they suspected had been booby-trapped.

The conviction, the first for a combat action during the war, served as an indicator of how effectively the military is addressing alleged violations of international law a year after a U.N. fact-finding mission accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes. The war left as many as 1,400 Palestinians dead, hundreds of them civilians. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed.

The army later conducted several high-level internal investigations and says it has questioned hundreds of soldiers and scores of Palestinians, examined more than 150 incidents and opened 48 criminal probes into alleged violations.

Two-thirds of the investigations have been completed, according to the army, with three soldiers court-martialed: two in the human-shield case and one who was convicted of stealing a credit card from a Gaza home. A fourth soldier has been indicted on a charge of manslaughter in the shooting of a civilian walking with a group raising a white flag.

In three other cases, officers have been disciplined, including two senior officers reprimanded for artillery shelling that hit a U.N. compound in Gaza City.

Still, there is a wide discrepancy between the number of criminal prosecutions and the reported cases of killing and wounding of noncombatant civilians, as documented by human rights groups, the media and the U.N. fact-finding mission, which was headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone.

Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitz, an army spokeswoman, said the gap reflects the realities of combat as it was waged by the army against militants sheltering in a densely populated civilian environment. "The majority of the people that were killed were terrorists - we checked each name - and this is an amazing ratio, because in similar war zones you have the complete opposite," she said. "We were able to develop different kinds of munitions with a very high rate of precision in order to prevent the targeting of innocent civilians."

"The fact that we opened offices for nongovernmental organizations and Palestinians to file complaints and questioned a large number of people shows that we are going forward in a very transparent manner and that we have nothing to hide," Leibovitz said. Details of some military investigations have been laid out in two reports issued this year by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

But both Israeli and foreign human rights groups assert that the military's investigations are far from transparent and that little has been disclosed about the status of most cases. The army's debriefings, in which officers interview their own subordinates, are unlikely to produce a full picture of the events in question, the rights advocates say.

"A host of groups have quite serious and well-documented allegations, but we don't know which have been investigated, or if criminal investigations are open or closed," said Bill Van Esveld, a Jerusalem-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "In addition to the numbers, which are very troubling, there's a lack of transparency about the criteria according to which they're closing investigations. It's good that they've prosecuted some people, but it's been too little, and too low- level."

Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, said the army tended to investigate soldiers for abuses such as beatings and theft more readily than killings by gunfire or shelling.

According to military procedures, cases of suspected wrongdoing are examined first through debriefings within the units involved, and if those produce findings that justify a criminal investigation, the army's advocate general can order a probe by the military police.

The military's approach "that in a situation of armed conflict, hardly any behavior by a soldier is cause for a criminal investigation is one of the root causes of the culture of impunity in the army," Michaeli said.

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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