Soldiers give testimonies about war crimes in Gaza, but will Israel be held accountable?

Despite Israeli soldiers' testimonies documenting war crimes they committed or witnessed in Gaza, Israeli Army Chief Gabi Ashkenazi said he did not believe his soldiers harmed Palestinian civilians in "cold blood" during the 3-week Israeli offensive. But the testimonies have left journalists asking, when will Israel be held accountable? MENASSAT takes a look at the coverage in the Arab, Israeli and international press.
"I can say that the IDF is the most moral army in the world," Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi told a group of new recruits.

BEIRUT, March 25, 2009 (MENASSAT) – On Sunday, Israeli Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi said that the army “behaved in a moral and ethical manner" during the Israeli military's 23-attack on the Gaza Strip (December 27-January 18) that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.

Ashkenazi was responding to reports from Israeli soldiers’ testimonies last week that were leaked to the Israeli press.

On February 13, founder of a pre-military preparatory program and deputy battalion commander, Danny Zamir, invited combat soldiers and officers who graduated from the program at Oranim Academic College in Kiryat Tivon for a discussion of their experiences in Gaza.

from the meeting were published the following week in the program’s bulletin, later making it to major Israeli media outlets and then to the international media.

Despite the detailed accounts of the army’s widespread disregard for Palestinian safety, Ashkenazi is convinced that the actions mentioned are isolated incidents. “I can say that the IDF is the most moral military in the world with high values,” Ynet reported.

But it seems the media, Israeli and international, is not completely buying Ashkenazi's story.

Yesterday, in the Guardian comment section Seumas Milne opened his piece with a bold statement –  “Evidence of the scale of Israel's war crimes in its January onslaught on Gaza is becoming unanswerable,” asking whether Israel can remain devoid of international accountability while there is such powerful evidence against it. 

On the Guardian website today, Tessa Gregory and Phil Shiner, representing a UK team of Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) echoed a similar statement.

“It is time for our government to consider what its purported commitment to international law really means and, in the face of the Palestinian men, women and children who have lost their lives, it is time for our courts to be brave enough to hold the government to that commitment,” they said.

Filmmaker Clancy Chassy also released three films dealing with allegations of "war crimes" against the Israeli army.

According to Milne, “The films provide compelling testimony of Israel's use of Palestinian teenagers as human shields; the targeting of hospitals, clinics and medical workers, including with phosphorus bombs; and attacks on civilians, including women and children – sometimes waving white flags – from hunter-killer drones whose targeting systems are so powerful they can identify the color of a person's clothes.”

"No logic to army's actions"

Amira Hass, a journalist for Israel’s Haaretz, said that most Israelis reacted as though the soldiers' testimonies about potential war crimes in Gaza were the first such reports to come out since fighting ended in mid-January.

But Hass points to the fact that rights groups like Amnesty International and the Geneva-base UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights have been speaking publicly about the Gaza war since it started on December 27.

“These people have concluded that the events go beyond isolated incidents and that the problem is not only in the soldiers' conduct, but the instructions from the senior military ranks and the ministers in charge," Hass writes.

In one of the soldiers' testimonies on Haaretz, Aviv, a squad commander said, “You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won't say anything. To write 'death to the Arabs' on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing in understanding how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It's what I'll remember the most."

He also told the story of a fellow commander who saw an old woman walking in the distance, and ordered his men to “take her out.”

When asked why he shot her, Aviv responded, "That's what was 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. With us it was an old woman, on whom I didn't see any weapon. The order was to take the person out, that woman, the moment you see her."

Despite the soldiers' leaked testimony, Israeli general Ashkenazi asserted, "I don't believe that IDF soldiers cold-bloodedly targeted Palestinian civilians.”

But Hass writes, “It's hard to believe that the chief of staff, defense minister and their aides haven't read at least some reports that were not issued by the IDF. But even if they did, why should they let on? After all, they are the ones who gave the orders.”

Arab media: Who holds Israel accountable?

Arab newspapers also seized the opportunity to cover the Israeli soldiers’ confessions.

Hilmi Moussa, editor of the Israeli page in the Lebanese daily As-Safir  wrote on March 23, that the Israeli army had "consistently refused to conduct any investigation into what occurred in Gaza, especially the targeting of civilians and the UN institutions and headquarters.”

Last week, Human Rights Watch wrote to European Union foreign ministers calling for an international inquiry into war crimes in Gaza.

Citing the siege of Gaza as a form of collective punishment, the HRW report focused on the use of artillery and white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas, including schools; the shooting of civilians holding white flags; attacks on civilian targets; and "wanton destruction of civilian property," the Guardian reported.
And as international and domestic pressure has built in the wake of last week's soldiers' confessions, Ashkenazi told reporters that the army had also opened an investigation.

As-Safir's Moussa writes, “It is ironic that after publishing the soldiers’ confessions, the Israeli army started investigating their statements versus the alleged crimes they and their fellow soldiers committed."

Moussa added, “There is no doubt that these crimes are war crimes. But the problem is: who holds Israel accountable and who punishes it?”

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Egyptian paper Al-Dustor on March 20, drew attention to the silence of western governments during the Gaza attack.

“This world, which claims to defend human rights and opposes crimes against humanity, didn’t lift a finger to stop this aggression. Even the statements that denounced the attack, were shy and insignificant and didn’t stop the violence of the crimes committed by the Israeli soldiers during this war.”

The Op-Ed continued: “Where are those calling for the defense of human rights in the West? Where are the Western governments that always claim to be defenders of democracy and human rights? Will they move to denounce these crimes? And what is more important is the International Criminal Court, why didn’t the General Prosecutor file a suit in his prestigious court against the Israeli leaders who gave the orders to launch war on Gaza?”

Gaza: a religious mission or Qassam rockets?

Ram, who participated in the testimonies and serves in an operations company in the Givati Brigade, said he remembers, at the beginning of Gaza, feeling that it was “almost a religious mission.” 

His sergeant, a student of a program that combines religious study and military service, assembled the whole platoon and led the prayer for those going into Gaza. 

"There was a huge gap between what the Education Corps sent out and what the IDF rabbinate sent out. The Education Corps published a pamphlet for commanders - something about the history of Israel's fighting in Gaza from 1948 to the present.”

Ram continued, “The rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles, and ... their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released another report today (March 25) that accused Israel of illegally using white phosphorous during the Gaza War.

HRW said the munitions were fired indiscriminately and over densely populated areas in Gaza leading to many casualties, and has called for Israeli senior commanders to be held acountable for what HRW suggested were direct orders by superior officers.

Israel originally denied using the munitions during its war on the Gaza Strip, but has said it would hold an internal investigation into its improper use.