Rights group: Israel failed to show it will conduct impartial Gaza war crimes probe

By Karin Laub, AP
Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rights group faults Israel’s Gaza war crimes probe

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel has failed to show it will conduct an impartial investigation of allegations that it committed war crimes during its Gaza offensive last year, an international human rights group said Sunday.

U.N. investigators leveled the war crimes allegations against Israel in an official report submitted last year. In its response last week, the Jewish state told the U.N. its current system of internal military probes with legal oversight is sufficient.

However, the New York-based Human Rights Watch rejected that argument, saying internal inquiries by Israel’s military have largely focused on possible wrongdoing by individual soldiers without looking into high-level decisions that led to large numbers of civilian casualties, such as artillery fire into populated areas.

Israeli investigators missed an important piece of evidence in one of the most contested incidents of the war, in which Gaza’s only flour mill was severely damaged by Israeli fire, said Human Rights Watch, which discussed the ongoing investigations with Israeli military lawyers last week.

“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. “An independent investigation is crucial to understand why so many civilians died and to bring justice for the victims of unlawful attacks.”

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor dismissed the group’s findings, saying that the military is investigating “in full transparency everything that needs to be investigated.”

Israeli human rights groups have also called for an independent probe. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far given no indication that he plans to authorize such an investigation.

A team of U.N. investigators, headed by veteran war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, said last year that it found evidence that both sides violated the laws of war. The team said Israel used disproportionate force and deliberately targeted civilians, while Hamas indiscriminately fired rockets at Israeli civilians. Both sides have denied the accusations.

Israel launched the three-week campaign after Gaza militants barraged southern Israel with thousands of rockets since 2002. About 1,400 Gazans, among them hundreds of civilians, were killed in the fighting, along with 13 Israelis.

On Sunday, Gaza militants fired a rocket that landed in an open field near the Israeli border town of Sderot, causing no damage or injuries, the military said.

Last November, the U.N. General Assembly ordered Israel and Hamas to launch credible investigations or face possible Security Council action.

Israel and Hamas submitted reports about their efforts last week, but U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he could not determine whether the investigations were credible. It’s unclear what the U.N.’s next move will be.

Human Rights Watch said it was still reviewing the Hamas response, but rejected the militant group’s assertion that it didn’t intend to harm Israeli civilians. Hamas fired hundreds of rockets toward Israeli towns and cities during the fighting, killing three Israeli civilians.

Israel has said it has conducted more than 140 inquiries connected to the war, including 36 criminal investigations. One resulted in a conviction, a relatively minor case of a soldier stealing a credit card and charging $400 on it. Twenty-nine cases remain open, the military has said.

Two high-ranking officers were reprimanded for approving the firing of artillery shells toward a U.N. compound.

The Goldstone report alleged that Israel bombed Gaza’s only flour mill from the air as part of a deliberate attempt to damage the civilian infrastructure in Gaza. Israel said the mill was struck inadvertently by a tank shell during fighting with Hamas militants.

Human Rights Watch said U.N. mine defusing experts visited the mill two days after the strike and found the front half of a 500-pound (220-kilogram) aircraft bomb on the upper floor. Human Rights Watch also released a video, taken by the mill’s owner, and said it appears to show the remains of an aerial bomb.

Also Sunday, Palestinian security officials in the West Bank said they arrested six alleged Islamic militants inspired by al-Qaida and who hoped to carry out an attack and win acceptance from the terror network.

The suspects stored weapons and assembled homemade explosives, but had not yet selected a target, a senior investigator said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

The official said the six are current or former students at the American University in the West Bank town of Jenin, and had no direct ties to al-Qaida.

Despite the key role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in al-Qaida rhetoric, the network is not believed to have a formal foothold in the Palestinian territories.

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Ramallah.

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