Israeli military to prosecute, discipline soldiers for actions during Gaza war

By Matti Friedman, AP
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Israeli army: Gaza war troops to be disciplined

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military indicted a soldier Tuesday on a charge of manslaughter during last year’s war in the Gaza Strip — the most serious criminal charge to come out of an internal investigation into the devastating offensive in the Hamas-ruled territory.

The soldier was among three troops, including a field commander, to face new disciplinary action stemming from their conduct during the offensive, which has drawn international condemnation for its civilian death toll. An Israeli human rights group praised the announcement, but said the disciplinary measures announced by the army so far were insufficient.

The steps against the soldiers were linked to four specific incidents during the offensive, which Israel launched to halt years of rocket fire from Gaza.

Around 1,400 Gazans, many of them civilians, were killed in three weeks of fierce urban fighting and aerial bombardments. Thirteen Israelis were killed. A report commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians, a charge Israel rejects.

In a statement Tuesday, the military said its chief prosecutor would indict an infantry sergeant for manslaughter in connection with an incident in which two Palestinian women — a mother and daughter — were killed while reportedly holding white flags.

The military said there were discrepancies between the troops’ accounts of the incident and the details reported widely by human rights groups, The troops reported shooting one man at the site, not two women, and on a different date. Also, it was unclear exactly whom the soldier was charged with killing. Asked for clarification, the military did not offer further details.

The military said this was the first manslaughter indictment from the Gaza war.

The incident was mentioned in U.N. report, which accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes.

In addition, the military said a battalion commander was disciplined for allowing his troops to use a Palestinian civilian as a human shield. Soldiers sent the man toward a house where militants were holed up to persuade them to come out, a violation of army regulations, the announcement said.

In a third incident, the military said it disciplined an officer who ordered an airstrike near a mosque, an attack that the U.N. report said killed at least 15 civilians and wounded 40.

The military said the strike targeted a Palestinian militant outside the mosque and that the harm to those inside the building was unintentional, so it did not violate international law. But the military also said the officer was negligent and “failed to exercise appropriate judgment,” and he would be barred from serving in “similar positions of command” in the future.

In the fourth incident, the military prosecutor ordered a new investigation into the deaths of two dozen members of a family who were ordered by troops into a building that was shelled later in the fighting.

Israel says Hamas bears overall responsibility for the casualties because it fired rockets and fought from heavily populated towns and cities. An internal military investigation last year largely cleared the army of any systematic wrongdoing, while promising to prosecute individual cases of misconduct.

One soldier has been convicted of stealing and using a Palestinian’s credit card, while two others are being prosecuted for using a Palestinian boy as a human shield.

An army spokesperson said these indictments are part of an ongoing investigation of nearly 50 claims.

Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, praised the military for making progress in its investigations but said they were insufficient.

“The main questions about the Gaza war concern policy, and a military investigation can’t handle this,” she said. “There must be an external investigation that will deal with the whole chain of command and chiefly with the people at the top who approved the directives.”

Also Tuesday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Washington for talks with President Barack Obama, B’Tselem released a report showing that much of the West Bank, where Palestinians want to establish a state, is under the control of Israeli settlements.

Although the actual buildings of the settlements cover just 1 percent of the West Bank’s land area, they have jurisdiction over more than 42 percent, the B’Tselem report said. Much of that land was seized from Palestinian landowners in defiance of an Israeli Supreme Court ban, the group said.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future state.

Dani Dayan, chairman of a settler umbrella group, disputed the report, saying settlements control just 9.2 percent of the West Bank, and charged that the report was aimed to sabotage the Netanyahu-Obama meeting.

Israeli government officials would not comment.

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