Briefing Paper July 2009

Palestine’s War of Independence

We are negotiating about dividing the pizza, and in the meantime Israel is eating it.

Senior Palestinian spokesperson

IDF ceased long ago being ‘most moral army in the world’

Gideon Levy Ha’aretz 22/03/2009

What shock, what consternation. Haaretz revealed grave accounts by officers and soldiers describing the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians during the war in Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman was quick to respond that the IDF had no prior or supporting information about the events in question, the defense minister was quick to respond that “the IDF is the most moral army in the world,” and the military advocate general said the IDF would investigate.

All these propagandistic and ridiculous responses are meant not only to deceive the public, but also to offer shameless lies. The IDF knew very well what its soldiers did in Gaza. It has long ceased to be the most moral army in the world. Far from it – it will not seriously investigate anything. The testimonies from the graduates of the Oranim pre-military course were a bolt from the blue – accounts of soldiers butchering a woman and two of her children, shooting and killing an elderly Palestinian woman, how they felt when they murdered in cold blood, how they destroyed property and how there was not even fighting in this war that was not a war.

But this is neither a bolt nor blue skies. Everything has long been known by those who wanted to know, those who, for example, read Amira Hass’s dispatches from Gaza in this paper. Everything started long before the assault on Gaza. The soldiers’ transgressions are an inevitable result of the orders given during this brutal operation, and they are the natural continuation of the last nine years, when soldiers killed nearly 5,000 Palestinians, at least half of them innocent civilians, nearly 1,000 of them children and teenagers.

Everything the soldiers described from Gaza, everything, occurred during these blood-soaked years as if they were routine events. It was the context, not the principle, that was different. An army whose armored corps has yet to encounter an enemy tank and whose pilots have yet to face an enemy combat jet in 36 years has been trained to think that the only function of a tank is to crush civilian cars and that a pilot’s job is to bomb residential neighborhoods. To do this without any unnecessary moral qualms we have trained our soldiers to think that the lives and property of Palestinians have no value whatsoever. It is part of a process of dehumanization that has endured for dozens of years, the fruits of the occupation.

“That’s what is so nice, as it were, about Gaza: You see a person on a road … and you can just shoot him.” This “nice” thing has been around for 40 years. Another soldier talked about a thirst for blood. This thirst has been with us for years. Ask the family of Yasser Tamaizi, a 35-year-old laborer from Idna who was killed by soldiers while bound, and Mahdi Abu Ayash, a 16-year-old boy from Beit Umar who was found in a vegetative state, another victim of recent days, far from the war in Gaza.

Most of the soldiers who took part in the assault on Gaza are youths with morals. Some of them will volunteer for any mission. They will escort an old woman across the street or rescue earthquake victims. But in Gaza, when faced with the inhuman Palestinians, the package will always be suspicious, the brainwashing will be stupefying and the core principles will change. That is the only way they can kill and engage in wanton destruction without deliberating or wrestling with their consciences, not even telling their friends or girlfriends what they did.

Regarding the statement of one soldier, who said “As much as we talk about the IDF being an army of values, let’s just say this is not the situation on the ground, not on the battalion level,” the IDF has long ceased to be an army of “values,” not on the ground, not in the battalion, not in the senior command. When an army does not investigate thousands of cases of killing over many years, the message to the soldiers is clear, and it comes from the top.

Our Teflon chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, cannot wash his hands of this affair. They are bloody. What the soldiers of the preparatory academy described were war crimes, for which they should be tried. This will not happen, save for the grotesque spectacle of “principled probes” in an army that killed 1,300 people in 25 days and left 100,000 homeless. Military police investigations will not lead to anything.

The IDF is incapable of investigating the crimes of its soldiers and commanders, and it is ridiculous to expect it to do so. These are not instances of “errant fire,” but of deliberate fire resulting from an order. These are not “a few bad apples,” but rather the spirit of the commander, and this spirit has been bad and corrupt for quite some time.

Change will not come without a major change in mindset. Until we recognize the Palestinians as human beings, just as we are, nothing will change. But then, the occupation would collapse, God forbid. In the meantime, prepare for the next war and the horrific testimonies about the most moral army in the world.

“What we are seeing now is a revision of international law,” Reisner said. “If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries. Cut to pieces: the Palestinian family drinking tea in their courtyard

(Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles – the dreaded drones – caused at least 48 deaths in Gaza during the 23-day offensive)

Clancy Chassay, 23/03/ 2009 Mounir al-Jarah slowly takes down the bricks he used to wall up the entrance to his sister’s courtyard. Inside, flesh still clings to the walls; blood-soaked furniture and family items lie broken and mangled. Mounir’s eyes search around the old house as he recounts the events of 16 January, when a rocket fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle killed his sister, her husband and four of her children. Sitting around drinking tea with the family in their small courtyard, Mounir heard the loud buzzing of an Israeli drone, clearly visible in the sky above.

He went inside for a moment and, as he returned, he saw a ball of light hurtling down toward him. There was a loud explosion and he was thrown backward. He gathered himself and stumbled out into the courtyard, where he saw the scene he says will never leave him. “We found Mohammed lying there, cut in half. Ahmed was in three pieces; Wahid was totally burnt – his eyes were gone. Wahid’s father was dead. Nour had been decapitated. We couldn’t see her head anywhere.”

All six members of the family had been blown to pieces, coating each wall of the narrow enclosure with blood and body matter. “You cannot imagine the scene: a family all sitting around together and then, in a matter of seconds, they were cut to pieces. Even the next day we found limbs and body parts on the roof, feet and hands,” Mounir says. Fatheya, 17, is one of the few surviving members of the family. Slipping further into grief-stricken madness, flitting from one horrific description to the next, she says: “There were rocks and dust and fire … It’s very difficult … I can’t, no matter how I try to explain my situation to you, picking up the pieces of my dead family … I couldn’t handle it, limbs and flesh all around me. What have we done to deserve this?”

The attack on this home in Gaza City is just one of more than a dozen incidents recorded by Amnesty International where Israel’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones – killed one or more civilians. During the 23-day offensive, 1,380 Palestinians perished, 431 of them children, according to figures published by the World Health Organisation.

A Guardian investigation into the high number of civilian deaths has found Israel used a variety of weapons in illegal ways. Indiscriminate munitions, including shells packed with white phosphorus, were fired into densely populated areas, while precision missiles and tanks shells were fired into civilian homes. But it is the use of drones in the killing of at least 48 civilians that appears most reprehensible. The drones are operated from a remote position, usually outside the combat zone. They use optics that are able to see the details of a man’s clothing and are fitted with pinpoint accurate missiles. Yet they killed Mounir’s family sitting in their courtyard, a group of girls and women in an empty street, two small children in a field, and many others.

Chris Cobb-Smith, a senior military analyst in Gaza to advise Amnesty in its investigation, is at a loss to explain how these killings occurred. “With a weapons system that is so accurate, and with such good optics, why are we experiencing so many civilians being killed? There should be no excuse for these numbers,” he said. The Guardian asked the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) about their use of armed drones but they declined to be interviewed on the subject. Instead they issued a written statement: “The IDF operated in accordance with the rules of war and did the utmost to minimise harm to civilians uninvolved in combat. The IDF’s use of weapons conforms to international law.”

Israel still refuses to confirm whether it is using armed drones over Gaza but, in the online version of an Israeli army magazine, Major Gil, the deputy commander of the first UAV squadron, describes using the drones to carry out attacks during this offensive. “We were able to monitor each of the soldiers at any minute and identify any threats to them,” he said. He also describes being able to clearly distinguish fighters from women and children and other civilians: “When there were innocent people around, we would wait for the terrorist to leave the child and then hit him,” he said.

Lieutenant Tal, an operator and intelligence officer in the UAV squadron, describes the details the drone cameras can see. “We identified a terrorist that looked like an Israeli soldier. Our camera enabled us to see him very clearly. He was wearing a green parka jacket and was walking around with a huge radio that looked exactly like an army radio. It was very clear he wasn’t a soldier.”

According to Robert Hewson of Jane’s Defence Weekly, who has been monitoring armed drones and their role in assassinations in the occupied territories since 2004, most of Israel’s armed drones use a modified anti-tank weapon called a mikholit (“paintbrush” in Hebrew) that delivers a small but intense explosion like the one in Mounir’s courtyard.

Teams of human rights investigators and international law experts are now building the case for war crimes charges against Israel and trying to decipher why so many innocents were killed in this offensive. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz discovered that the IDF’s international law division (ILD,) the body responsible for advising Israeli forces on the legality of their actions, had authorised an easing of the rules of engagement in Gaza. A copy of the rules of engagement for Operation Cast Lead was obtained by Ha’aretz in the days before the offensive began. According to a journalist who saw the document, the new, less stringent rules were approved at the highest levels of the Israeli military. Ha’aretz was repeatedly blocked from publishing the document by the military censor.

In recent days, striking testimony has emerged from Israeli soldiers involved in the Gaza fighting, in which they described the shooting of civilians and the low regard held among the troops for Palestinians. The soldiers, all graduates of the same Israeli college, gave their testimony in a session in mid-February. It was published last week in the college newsletter, forcing the Israeli military to announce another investigation into the conduct of the war. In one of the worst cases, a soldier described how an Israeli sniper shot dead a Palestinian mother and her two children. He said the soldiers around him believed the lives of Palestinians were “very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers”.

Another soldier said a company commander had given orders to shoot an elderly Palestinian woman who was walking on a road about 100m from a house the soldiers had taken over. Others talked about the influence of military rabbis and the sense among soldiers that they were fighting a “religious war”.

Some efforts to explain the large number of civilian deaths have focused on the aggressive conduct of the war by Israel.

But other explanations look at a broader shift in military philosophy. The former head of the ILD, Colonel Daniel Reisner, spoke frankly to the Israeli media in the aftermath about the role the body plays in pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in war.

“What we are seeing now is a revision of international law,” Reisner said. “If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries.

“International law progresses through violations. We invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it.”

The United Nations human rights council is preparing to launch an inquiry into allegations that Israel committed war crimes during its offensive against Gaza. Israel has already dismissed the inquiry, accusing the UN of bias. It says Palestinian fighters committed war crimes by firing mostly crude homemade rockets into civilian areas. Amnesty International says Palestinian militants should be prosecuted for war crimes, but insists the vast majority of offences were committed by Israel. “Only an investigation mandated by the UN security council can ensure Israel’s cooperation and it’s the only body that can secure some kind of prosecution,” said Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera, who spent two weeks in Gaza investigating war crimes allegations.

“Without a proper investigation, there is no deterrent. The message remains the same: ‘It’s okay to do these things, there won’t be any real consequences’.”

One would be hard-pressed not to express astonishment at the speed and efficiency demonstrated by the Military Advocate General, Brigadier-General Avichai Mendelblit, and the Military Police investigation unit in probing the “combat soldiers’ testimonials affair” that took place at the Rabin pre-military training academy. The investigation into Moshe (Chico) Tamir’s all-terrain vehicle accident made its way from desk-drawer to deskdrawer over the course of almost 18 months, yet the military advocate general needed just 11 days (including two Saturdays) to probe the accounts of combat soldiers in order to completely dispel the allegations.

There is something soothing in the exhaustive investigation by the military advocate general. The IDF emerges from it (and from the Gaza Strip) as pure as snow. Yet at the same time there is a disconcerting message emanating from the closure of the investigation, one which, at least according to Brig. Gen. Mendelblit, a group of combat soldiers and officers serving in some of the finest units in the IDF has proven to be nothing but a bunch of liars and exaggerating storytellers, men who have not uttered one truthful word.

Either troops are liars, or the IDF is pure as snow

Amos Harel, Haaretz 31/03/2009

Disposable justice

Gideon Levy Ha’aretz 02/04/2009

Anyone who cares about the rule of law and Israel’s moral image, and is worried that its soldiers may have carried out war crimes in the Gaza Strip, can now sigh with relief. The military advocate general, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, ordered that the investigation into soldiers’ testimonies on their experiences in Operation Cast Lead be closed. A flash operation of instant justice buried a story that had rocked worlds. There are judges in Jerusalem, and a military advocate general in Tel Aviv. All he needed was a day or two – no Palestinian testimonies were deemed necessary. There was no real investigation whatsoever – the case was instantly disposed of.

Mendelblit’s effective and scandalously quick conduct proved beyond doubt what everyone already knew: His office is a propaganda machine, part of the Israel Defense Forces’ information activities. It has the same relation to justice as military marches do to music, to borrow a phrase from French statesman Georges Clemenceau.

It is inconceivable that the IDF would investigate itself. It doesn’t have the slightest intention to do so. Just as the police don’t investigate suspicions against policemen, neither would the IDF investigate charges against its soldiers. Let the IDF have a body similar to the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation Department. Only an independent judicial system can consider the hard questions arising from the death and havoc in Gaza.

While half the world is still inquiring about suspicions of war crimes, the use of white phosphorous on civilians, disproportionate destruction, and attacks on medical teams and UNRWA installations, the military advocate general has cast his verdict: The soldiers’ testimonies were “rumors.” In other words, they lied, our army is pristine and our weapons pure. Mendelblit pleased his superiors. The prosecutor became an advocate, the investigator covered for his suspects.

Not that anything different could have been expected. From the day the military advocate general announced that unlike in the first intifada, not every killing in the territories would be investigated, battle ethics were condemned. When the killing of 4,747 Palestinians in the second intifada, 942 of them women and children, according to B’Tselem, is followed by 30 indictments, five convictions and only one prison sentence of any considerable length, the IDF is sending a clear message: The killing of Palestinian civilians is of no concern to the military justice system.

The message to soldiers is just as clear: Kill as much as you please, no wrong will come to you, the army won’t even bother to look into it. Now, after 1,300 deaths in Gaza, the military advocate general confirmed this policy. Any adherent of the rule of law in Israel should have been shocked by this rash decision, but our army of lawyers is concerned with other things.

If the IDF had a truly independent justice system, it would have been the first to investigate what happened in Gaza. If the army cared about the morality of its soldiers, the story would not have waited for Haaretz. But the IDF doesn’t want an inquiry, and the military advocate general does as he’s told. Mendelblit’s decision threw the doors open for the rest of the world. For want of a real inquiry in Israel, international institutions will have to investigate what happened in Gaza and who’s to blame. With Israeli supporters of the rule of law receiving no legal aid, they have the right and duty to call for an international inquiry. Yes, Israel too has people concerned by what had been going on in Gaza, but the military advocate general’s decision goes well beyond the killing fields. Anyone who thinks Israel’s image as a country of the rule of law is based solely on the Supreme Court in Jerusalem is profoundly wrong. Mendelblit shapes our image no less than the court’s president, Dorit Beinisch. Moreover, some of the graduates of the flawed and twisted military justice system go on to lead the civil justice system, contaminating it with the same flawed values of the IDF.

Israel cannot be considered a country of the rule of law if its backyard is occupied by this grotesque show called the military justice system. Only when it is segregated from the IDF and a civil justice system investigates the army will we know we have a legal army and a legal state. Until then, all we can do is look to The Hague.

Changing the rules of war

George E. Bisharat San Francisco Chronicle 01/04/2009

The extent of Israel’s brutality against Palestinian civilians in its 22-day pounding of the Gaza Strip is gradually surfacing. Israeli soldiers are testifying to lax rules of engagement tantamount to a license to kill. One soldier commented: “That’s what is so nice, supposedly, about Gaza: You see a person on a road, walking along a path. He doesn’t have to be with a weapon, you don’t have to identify him with anything and you can just shoot him.” What is less appreciated is how Israel is also brutalizing international law, in ways that may long outlast the demolition of Gaza.

Since 2001, Israeli military lawyers have pushed to re-classify military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from the law enforcement model mandated by the law of occupation to one of armed conflict. Under the former, soldiers of an occupying army must arrest, rather than kill, opponents, and generally must use the minimum force necessary to quell disturbances.

While in armed conflict, a military is still constrained by the laws of war – including the duty to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and the duty to avoid attacks causing disproportionate harm to civilian persons or objects – the standard permits far greater uses of force. Israel pressed the shift to justify its assassinations of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, which clearly violated settled international law. Israel had practiced “targeted killings” since the 1970s – always denying that it did so – but had recently stepped up their frequency, by spectacular means (such as air strikes) that rendered denial futile.

President Bill Clinton charged the 2001 Mitchell Committee with investigating the causes of the second Palestinian uprising and recommending how to restore calm in the region. Israeli lawyers pleaded their case to the committee for armed conflict. The committee responded by criticizing the blanket application of the model to the uprising, but did not repudiate it altogether. Today, most observers – including Amnesty International – tacitly accept Israel’s framing of the conflict in Gaza as an armed conflict, as their criticism of Israel’s actions in terms of the duties of distinction and the principle of proportionality betrays. This shift, if accepted, would encourage occupiers to follow Israel’s lead, externalizing military control while shedding all responsibilities to occupied populations.

Israel’s campaign to rewrite international law to its advantage is deliberate and knowing. As the former head of Israel’s 20-lawyer International Law Division in the Military Advocate General’s office, Daniel Reisner, recently stated: “If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries … International law progresses through violations. We invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it. At first there were protrusions that made it hard to insert easily into the legal molds. Eight years later, it is in the center of the bounds of legitimacy.”

In the Gaza fighting, Israel has again tried to transform international law through violations. For example, its military lawyers authorized the bombing of a police cadet graduation ceremony, killing at least 63 young Palestinian men. Under international law, such deliberate killings of civilian police are war crimes. Yet Israel treats all employees of the Hamasled government in the Gaza Strip as terrorists, and thus combatants. Secretaries, court clerks, housing officials, judges – all were, in Israeli eyes, legitimate targets for liquidation.

Israeli jurists also instructed military commanders that any Palestinian who failed to evacuate a building or area after warnings of an impending bombardment was a “voluntary human shield” and thus a participant in combat, subject to lawful attack. One method of warning employed by Israeli gunners, dubbed “knocking on the roof,” was to fire first at a building’s corner, then, a few minutes later, to strike more structurally vulnerable points. To imagine that Gazan civilians – penned into the tiny Gaza Strip by Israeli troops, and surrounded by the chaos of battle – understood this signal is fanciful at best.

Israel has a lengthy history of unpunished abuses of international law – among the most flagrant its decades-long colonization of the West Bank. To its credit, much of the world has refused to ratify Israel’s violations. Unfortunately, our government is an exception, having frequently provided diplomatic cover for Israel’s abuses. Our diplomats have vetoed 42 U.N. Security Council resolutions to shelter Israel from the consequences of its often illegal behavior.

We must break that habit now, or see international law perverted in ways that can harm us all. Our government has already been seduced to follow, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Israel’s example of targeted killings. This policy alienates civilians, innocently killed and wounded in these crude strikes, and deepens the determination of enemies to harm us by any means possible.

We do not want civilian police in the United States to be bombed, nor to have anyone “knock on our roofs.” For our own sakes and for the world’s, Israel’s impunity must end.

The day started with a celebration at the President’s office. All the members of this bloated government – 30 ministers and 8 deputy ministers – were dressed up in their best finery and posed for a group photo. Binyamin Netanyahu read an uninspired speech, which included the worn-out cliches that are necessary to set the world at ease: the government is committed to peace, it will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, bla-bla-bla. Avigdor Lieberman hurried from there to the foreign Office, for the ceremonial change of ministers. He, too, made a speech – but it was not a routine speech at all.

“Si vis pacem, para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war,” declared the new Foreign Minister. When a diplomat quotes this ancient Roman saying, the world pays no attention to the first part, but only to the second. Coming from the mouth of the already infamous Lieberman, it was a clear threat: the new government is entering upon a path of war, not of peace.

With this sentence, Lieberman negated Netanyahu’s speech and made headlines around the world. He confirmed the worst apprehensions connected with the creation of this government.

Uri Avnery 03/04/09

Israel bans books, music and clothes from entering Gaza

Amira Hass Ha’aretz 17/05/2009

Israel allows only food, medicine and detergent into the Gaza Strip. Thousands of items, including vital products for everyday activity, are forbidden. Altogether only 30 to 40 select commercial items are now allowed into the Gaza Strip, compared to 4,000 that had been approved before the closure Israel imposed on Gaza following the abduction of Gilad Shalit, according to merchants and human rights activists.

The number of items changes according to what is determined by The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. COGAT has refused the PA representative’s request for an updated list of the items permitted into Gaza in writing, and passes the information only via the telephone. Gaza merchants are forbidden to import canned goods, plastic sheeting, toys and books, although the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other aid organizations are permitted to bring them into the strip.

The few items merchants are allowed to trade in are divided into three categories: food, medicine and detergent. Everything else is forbidden – including building materials (which are necessary to rehabilitate Gaza’s ruins and rebuild its infrastructure), electric appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, spare machine and car parts, fabrics, threads, needles, light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, cutlery, crockery, cups, glasses and animals. Many of the banned products are imported through the tunnels and can be found in Gaza’s markets.

Pasta, which had been forbidden in the past, is now allowed, after U.S. Senator John Kerry expressed his astonishment at the ban during a visit to Gaza in February. But tea, coffee, sausages, semolina, milk products in large packages and most baking products are forbidden. So are industrial commodities for manufacturing food products, chocolate, sesame seeds and nuts. Israel does allow importing fruit, milk products in small packages and frozen food products as well as limited amounts of industrial fuel.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that during the first week of May, 2.2 million liters of industrial fuel – some 70 percent of the weekly supply required to operate the power station – was allowed into Gaza. UNRWA receives petrol and diesel supplies separately. A daily 270-300 tons of cooking gas – 54 percent of the required amount – is allowed. Petrol and diesel for private cars and public transportation have not been imported from Israel since November 2, 2008, except for a small amount for UNRWA. The union of Gaza’s gas station owners estimates that some 100,000 liters of diesel and 70,000 liters of petrol are brought through the tunnels daily.

Egypt, which in the past two months has been restricting the trade movement through the tunnels, does not limit the supply of gas and fuel. But since Egyptian fuel is heavier than Israeli fuel, it damages the newer cars in Gaza and causes malfunctions. In the past, Israel allowed wood for home furnishings to be brought into Gaza for some time, but not wood for windows and doors. Now Israel has resumed the ban on wood for furniture. The ban on toilet paper, diapers and sanitary napkins was lifted three months ago. A little more than a month ago, following a long ban, Israel permitted the import of detergents and soaps into Gaza. Even shampoo was allowed. But one merchant discovered that the bottles of shampoo he had ordered were sent back because they included conditioner, which was not on the list.

Five weeks ago Israel allowed margarine, salt and artificial sweetener to be brought into Gaza. Legumes have been allowed for the past two months and yeast for the past two weeks. Contrary to rumors, Israel has not banned sugar. COGAT commented that, “The policy of bringing commodities derives from and is coordinated with Israel’s policy toward the Gaza Strip, as determined by the cabinet decision on September 19, 2007.”

A COGAT forum convenes with representatives of international organizations weekly to address special requests of the international community regarding humanitarian equipment and the changing needs of the Palestinian population, the statement says.

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