Israeli army must make public findings of its probe into Gaza conflict

The Israeli army is being pressed to make public the full details of its probe into the conduct of its forces during the 22-day military offensive in Gaza which began on 27 December 2008. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) concluded that its forces had committed no human rights violations and made only rare mistakes, some of which may have resulted in the killing of Palestinian civilians.

“There is a strikingly large gap between the ‘very small number’ of mistakes referred to in the IDF’s briefing paper and the killing by Israeli forces of some 300 Palestinian children and hundreds of other unarmed civilians,” said Donatella Rovera, Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories researcher at Amnesty International. “The army briefing does not even attempt to explain the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths nor the massive destruction caused to civilian buildings in Gaza.”

A briefing paper, distributed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to journalists on Wednesday, which states that “All findings are to be used as background information to be attributed to the reporter only”, lacks crucial details.

“The army briefing mostly repeats claims made by the army and the authorities many times since the early days of Operation Cast Lead, but without providing the necessary evidence to back up the allegations,” said Donatella Rovera.

“In the absence of the necessary evidence to substantiate its allegations, the army’s probe appears to be more an attempt to shirk its responsibilities than a genuine process to establish the truth. Such an approach lacks credibility.”

“Ultimately, it is up to those who carried out bombardments and artillery and other attacks to provide evidence that their strikes were indeed against legitimate military targets – not for the victims to prove that they were not involved in combat activities. The information provided by the army so far fails to do so.”

Regarding the incident which occurred near the UNRWA school (Fakhoura School) in Jabalia on 6 January 2009, the army briefing states that “the soldiers responded with minimal and proportionate retaliatory fire, using the most precise weapon available to them”. The reality is that the soldiers fired at least four mortars into a crowded street.

Mortars are area weapons, which cannot be directed at a specific target and have a wide margin of error. The use of such a notoriously imprecise weapon in a crowded civilian area was virtually certain to cause civilian deaths and injury and should have never been made. While the army contends that that a total of 12 people – five combatants and seven civilians – died in these strikes, in fact some 30 people, mostly civilians, were killed.

Regarding the use of white phosphorus and artillery strikes on the UNRWA headquarters in the centre of Gaza City on 15 January 2009, the army claims that “it appears that fragments of the smoke projectiles hit a warehouse located in the [UNRWA] headquarters”. In reality it was not only fragments which hit the UNRWA compound.

Amnesty International researchers saw several white phosphorus artillery shells which had landed and exploded inside the compound, together with at least one high explosive artillery shell. Amnesty International has no reason to doubt the army’s assurances that it did not target the UNRWA compound, as artillery is too imprecise to be used for pinpoint targeting.

“The issue at stake however is the unlawful use of a weapon as imprecise as artillery, and moreover artillery carrying a substance as dangerous as white phosphorus, in the middle of very densely populated residential areas,” said Donatella Rovera.

The army’s assertions that “no phosphorus munitions were used on built-up areas” and that the “pieces of felt dipped in phosphorus are not incendiary” is also contested by Amnesty International.

Amnesty International carried out a fact-finding mission to southern Israel and Gaza in January and February, during and after the military offensive. The organization’s researchers on the ground found hundreds of white phosphorus-impregnated felt wedges in residential areas all over Gaza, still smouldering weeks after they had been fired. They similarly found dozens of artillery shells which had delivered the white phosphorus all over Gaza.

“The deaths and injury of many civilians and the large-scale destruction in attacks which often violated international humanitarian law demand a full, independent and impartial investigation,” said Donatella Rovera.

“The Israeli army must provide specific, detailed information about why targets were chosen and the means and methods of attack used in order to assess their conclusion that the IDF complied fully with international humanitarian law. The information provided in the briefing is insufficient and, in parts, contradicts evidence gathered by Amnesty International and others.”

Since the beginning of February, Amnesty International has repeatedly asked to meet the Israeli army to discuss concerns about violations of international humanitarian law during Operation Cast Lead, and has also submitted a detailed list of cases and issues about which it has requested information. To date, the IDF has not responded to the organization’s requests.

Amnesty International has called on the Israeli authorities to reconsider their refusal to cooperate with the fact-finding mission set up by the UN Human Rights Council and headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, who has made clear its intention to investigate violations of international law by all parties to the conflict in Gaza and southern Israel.

The organization also renewed its call on the UN Security Council to set up an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes and other violations of international law by all parties.