Reuters & Aluf Benn / Ha’aretz & Amos Harel / Ha’aretz – 2009-02-01 22:54:41
US Envoy to UN Calls on Israel to Investigate Gaza War Crimes Claims
(January 30, 2009) — Israel must investigate allegations that its army violated international law during its three-week war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, the new U.S. envoy to the United Nations said on Thursday.
“We expect Israel will meet its international obligations to investigate and we also call upon all members of the international community to refrain from politicizing these important issues,” Ambassador Susan Rice said in her debut speech before the UN Security Council.
Rice said that Hamas had been guilty of violating international law “through its rocket attacks against Israeli civilians in southern Israel and the use of civilian facilities to provide protection for its terrorist attacks.”
“There have also been numerous allegations made against Israel some of which are deliberately designed to inflame,” she told the council during a meeting on international humanitarian law.
Some 1,300 Palestinians, including at least 700 civilians, were killed during Israel’s Gaza offensive, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in the territory. Israel put its losses at 10 soldiers and three civilians.
During the campaign, Israel fired on several UN installations in Gaza, including schools, where hundreds of Palestinians had been seeking shelter from the fighting. Israel rejects allegations that its army was guilty of war crimes.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said there would also be a UN investigation of the deadly attacks on United Nations sites in the Gaza Strip.
Rice made it clear that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama had a very different view of the role of the United Nations from George W. Bush’s government, whose officials were often suspicious of the world body and occasionally spoke of it with disdain.
She said Obama’s long-term goals included enhancing global peace and security, fighting terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, dealing with climate change, alleviating poverty and improving respect for human rights worldwide.
“The United Nations is indispensable for advancing these goals and making our world a better, safer place,” she said.
She also hinted that Obama had a different attitude towards The Hague-based International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal.
President Bill Clinton’s administration had signed the ICC treaty, which was never ratified by Congress. Bush later rejected the idea of ever joining the court.
“The International Criminal Court, which has started its first trial this week, looks to become an important and credible instrument for trying to hold accountable the senior leadership responsible for atrocities committed in the Congo, Uganda and Darfur,” Rice said.
Israel Fears Wave of War Crimes Lawsuits over Gaza Offensive
Aluf Benn / Ha’aretz
(January 1, 2009) — Israel is preparing for a wave of lawsuits by pro-Palestinian organizations overseas against Israelis involved in the Gaza fighting, claiming they were responsible for war crimes due to the harsh results stemming from the IDF’s actions against Palestinian civilians and their property.
Senior Israeli ministers have expressed serious fears during the past few days about the possibility that Israel will be pressed to agree to an international investigation of the losses among non-combatants during Operation Cast Lead; or alternately, that Israelis will be faced with personal suits, such as happened to Israeli officers who were accused of war crimes in Britain for their actions during the second intifada.
When the scale of the damage in Gaza becomes clear, I will no longer take a vacation in Amsterdam, only at the international court in The Hague,” said one minister. It was not clear whether he was trying to make a joke or not.
Another minister said that in contrast to the situation that existed following Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank seven years ago, this time attacked by Israel is under total Palestinian control. Hence, foreign journalists who enter the Gaza Strip to report on the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead will not be accompanied by Israeli officials or spokesmen, as they were in the West Bank in 2002.
The defense establishment has started to collect material in advance of the expected legal claims, and has prepared its defense regarding the private houses the Israel Defense Forces attacked in Gaza.
The evidence includes material about where weapons were stockpiled, and sites from which Hamas was firing rockets. Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor), who is coordinating the humanitarian aid to Gaza, will also coordinate Israel’s public relations efforts against the accusations of war crimes.
The main danger is expected to come from lawsuits brought by individuals and organizations, rather than governmental attempts to undertake official investigations. Senior officials expect that the visits of European leaders in Jerusalem this week, and statements by them that presented Israel’s offensive as part of a justified war on terror, will aid Israel in future legal battles.
Israel will emphasize that it acted in self-defense in Gaza and expended great efforts in warning residents that their homes were about to be targeted and ordering them to vacate them. Israel used text messages, dropped flyers from the air and made a quarter of a million telephone calls to warn Gaza residents, as well as taking over and broadcasting warnings on Palestinian radio stations.
Its defense will also provide evidence of how Hamas turned houses, schools, mosques and welfare institutions into weapons warehouses and booby-trapped them, explaining that they were attacked because they were legitimate military targets.
Jurists Tell Barak: Don’t Shell Gaza Population Centers
Amos Harel / Ha’aaretz
(December 17, 2008) — Israel should not use artillery fire to target rocket-launching militants in the Gaza Strip if the fire is aimed at populated areas, the defense establishment’s legal adviser recently told Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
“Artillery fire is permissible only in relatively open areas,” Ahaz Benari wrote in the legal opinion. “Artillery fire at urban areas is problematic, if the assessment is that the chance that the shell will hit the launchers is relatively low, while the risk that many civilians will be hurt is substantial.”
Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi have previously expressed doubts about an extensive Israel Defense Forces operation in Gaza now. Benari’s opinion appears to be backed by leading military prosecution officials, though Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has yet to express a firm opinion on the matter. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised to hold a cabinet meeting on the issue shortly.
Benari wrote the legal opinion December 7, after cabinet ministers called for a reexamination of the steps Israel is using to counter Qassam fire. The opinion reviews international law on the matter and finds that while there is no wholesale ban on artillery fire at sites from which rockets were launched, the fire should be aimed at military targets and be able to distinguish between the target and civilians or civilian property.
The opinion also states that if damage to civilians or their property is expected as a result of the artillery fire, the IDF must make sure the damage is not much greater than the expected military benefit – an expression of the legal principle known as proportionality.
Meanwhile, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired seven Qassam rockets and mortar shells on southern Israel yesterday, causing no injuries. Defense officials said last night that even though Hamas leaders are saying the cease-fire with Israel will not be extended past Friday, the organization has not completely given up on continuing the lull.
The IDF developed a detailed procedure for artillery fire in Gaza in 2006, which approves shooting only in open areas and mandates that a distance be kept from buildings. But the IDF halted its use of artillery fire altogether after accidentally killing 18 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza town of Beit Hanun in November 2006, even though the artillery fire was meant to target open areas.
The legal opinion also addressed the creation of ghost towns in Gaza, involving the eviction of Gazans from their homes in areas Palestinian militants use for launching rockets, as an Israeli response to the rocket fire. Benari said international law allows Israel to warn the residents of the intended IDF artillery response and evacuate a particular area for a short time.
But even then, he said, the IDF cannot engage in carpet bombing, which would lead to the intended massive destruction of property that does not constitute a legitimate target. He said Israel must also take into account that some civilians will remain in the area even if they are advised to leave.
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