Human Rights Watch says Israel, Hamas failed in Gaza probes

February 7, 2010

Israel has failed to demonstrate that it will conduct “thorough and impartial investigations” into alleged violations by its forces during the Gaza conflict, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Sunday.  

“Israel claims it is conducting credible and impartial investigations, but it has so far failed to make that case,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch in a press statement.  “An independent investigation is crucial to understand why so many civilians died and to bring justice for the victims of unlawful attacks.”

The New-York based watchdog said that it met military lawyers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on February 4 to discuss the investigations, but learned that while the military is conducting investigations, “officials did not provide information showing that they will be thorough and impartial or that they will address the broader policy and command decisions that led to unlawful civilian deaths.”

In one case, HRW said, a military investigation apparently missed an important piece of evidence: remains of an aerial bomb found in the al-Badr flour mill outside Jabalya.  Israel denied targeting the mill from the air, as alleged by the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.  However, video footage obtained by Human Rights Watch and released today shows the apparent remains of an Israeli MK-82 500-pound aerial bomb in the damaged mill, and UN de-miners say they defused the bomb.

HRW said that it had documented 53 civilian deaths in 19 incidents in which Israeli forces appeared to have violated the laws of war. “Six of these incidents involved the unlawful use of white phosphorus munitions; six were attacks by drone-launched missiles that killed civilians; and seven involved soldiers shooting civilians who were in groups holding white flags,” the watchdog said.

The Israeli military lawyers said the military was investigating all cases reported by Human Rights Watch.  Seven of the cases are criminal investigations into the alleged shooting of civilians waving white flags, they said.  The military had originally dismissed Human Rights Watch’s report on these cases as based on “unreliable witness reports.”

According to HRW, the Israeli military has thus far examined specific incidents but not broader policies that may have caused civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war. 

An independent investigation should examine the pre-operation decisions that led to civilian casualties, it said.

But, according to Stork, the Israeli investigations so far have looked mostly at soldiers who disobeyed orders or the rules of engagement, but failed to ask the crucial question about whether those orders and rules of engagement themselves violated the laws of war. “For those decisions and policies, senior military and political decision-makers should be held responsible.”

Hamas’s latest claim that its rocket attacks against Israel are not war crimes is factually and legally wrong, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 27, HRW rejected a Hamas report claiming its rocket attacks into Israel “only targeted military objectives, and that civilian casualties were an unintended result.”

“Hamas can spin the story and deny the evidence, but hundreds of rockets rained down on civilian areas in Israel where no military installations were located,” said Stork.  “Hamas leaders at the time indicated they were intending to harm civilians.”

The Goldstone report said that rocket attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups constituted war crimes and perhaps crimes against humanity.

HRW said that Hamas has not prosecuted anyone for firing hundreds of rockets indiscriminately into Israel. 

A UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, in September 2009, said that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity and called on both parties to conduct impartial investigations within six months.

On November 5, the UN General Assembly endorsed the Goldstone report and asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for a progress report about domestic investigations.  Ban gave his report on February 4, passing on documents provided to him by Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

“Secretary-General Ban merely passed on the parties’ claims, but he also reasserted the importance of credible investigations in conformity with international standards,” Stork said.  “The pressure is still on Israel and Hamas to show that they will do it right.”



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About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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