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Israel’s Foreign Ministry Issues Report Defending Conduct in Gaza War
Jodi Rudoren, New York Times
14 June 2015
Credit: Pool photo by Gali Tibbon
JERUSALEM — In a pre-emptive strike against a forthcoming United Nations report on the war last year between Israel and Palestinianmilitants in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday issued a lengthy paper arguing that its troops adhered to international law and blaming the militants for most of the civilian casualties in Gaza.
Israel has refused to cooperate with the United Nations Human Rights Council’s inquiry into the 50-day conflict, denouncing it as biased. With the council expected to publish its findings as soon as Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Anyone who wants to continue with an automatic indictment against Israel, which is baseless, can waste his time reading the U.N. commission report.”
Mr. Netanyahu suggested instead that people read the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s 280-page study of the operation, or one produced over the weekend by five former generals from other countries. They are among a dozen in-depth reviews by human rights organizations, pro-Israel advocacy groups and Israel’s military promoted in recent months as an intense propaganda war continues long after the last bombs were dropped.
“The question is actually not what exactly happened, because you can look at this very complicated situation from very different perspectives. The question is who is trying to feed the public discourse and for what mission,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a media expert at the Israel Democracy Institute. “The interesting thing is that the Israeli government has tried a new tactic, to give its own — one-sided perhaps, but its own — report before the U.N. would publish, so that Israel won’t have only to react but will be able to lead the discussion.”
Dore Gold, the new director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, introduced the report to journalists by saying, “We need to put forward our story.” Less than two weeks ago, in his former role as head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative research group, Mr. Gold described the center’s monograph on the war as an attempt “to create an Israeli narrative.”
Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, the Islamist group that dominates Gaza, said in a telephone interview that the new report “has no value and will not work in changing the facts because the Israeli occupation crimes took place in front of the world’s cameras.”
The Israeli report mostly repeats familiar positions. It says Hamas“intentionally and systematically used strategies designed to maximize harm to civilian life and property,” such as firing rockets from within or near homes, schools, hospitals and mosques, and encouraging residents not to heed Israel’s evacuation warnings. Israel, it says, “makes efforts, including beyond its legal obligations, to mitigate the risk of harm to civilians.”
Though the United Nations and others have said as many as three-quarters of the more than 2,100 Palestinians killed during the conflict were noncombatants, the new report said Israeli intelligence has documented militant activity by 936 of the dead, or about 44 percent. Israel determined that an additional 761, or about 36 percent, were “uninvolved civilians,” leaving 428 men, ages 16 to 50, whose status remained unknown.
The new report includes aerial photography and maps of what is said to be Hamas activity near sensitive sites like United Nations schools serving as shelters that Israel struck, as well as previously unrevealed internal military documents assessing targets.
At a briefing, Lt. Col. Eran Shamir-Borer of the army’s law department showed one such declassified — though redacted — “target card” describing a 23-square-meter compound in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis that contained a 13-square-meter concrete structure believed to contain Kalashnikov rifles and missiles, with two solar panels and a smaller building on its roof. The card listed the “objective” as dropping a single bomb by fighter jet “whilst avoiding harm to civilians,” and noted that a military lawyer had advised that this could be done only after “an effective advance warning.”
“When the lawyer provides an advice, that is binding, it cannot be overridden,” Colonel Shamir-Borer said.
The report said Israel followed the principle of proportionality for collateral damage when hitting targets. Yet previous studies by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem and others documenting strikes on Palestinian homes that wiped out entire families cited international law to make the opposite point. And a reportpublished last month by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group, compiled devastating testimony from scores of soldiers saying permissive rules of engagement and indiscriminate artillery fire contributed to mass civilian casualties.
Israel’s military advocate general has addressed individual episodes, most recently clearing soldiers of wrongdoing in an attack that killed four Palestinian boys on a Gaza City beachfront on July 16. That report said the target was a compound used by Hamas naval fighters, belying accounts provided by journalists at the scene, including The New York Times’s photographer Tyler Hicks, who described it as “a small metal shack with no electricity or running water on a jetty in the blazing seaside sun.” Mr. Hickswrote at the time that children “dressed in summer clothes, running from an explosion, doesn’t fit the description of Hamas fighters either.”
Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the proliferation of reports by Israel was an effort to head off war-crimes charges at the International Criminal Court, which generally only pursues cases in places unwilling or unable to investigate themselves. The court hasbegun a preliminary inquiry into the war.
“I think it’s pretty obvious: It has three letters and they are I.C.C.,” Mr. Thrall said. “It first of all counters the report of the Human Rights Council, and offers some balance to it for the staff of the I.C.C. prosecutor’s office to look at. And secondly it’s this larger argument to be able to say the I.C.C. has no mandate.”
Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, said the Israeli report “will probably not sway international public opinion” but may be intended more “to kind of reassure the Israeli public” that the government is standing up to criticism.
“If you speak to people in Gaza,” Ms. Michaeli said, “this whole process of fact finding and information gathering isn’t helping them in any way to recover from what they’ve suffered.”