Israel Poised to Challenge a U.N. Report on Gaza

January 24, 2010 By ETHAN BRONNER TEL AVIV — The Israeli military is completing a rebuttal to a United Nations report accusing it of grave v...

January 24, 2010

TEL AVIV — The Israeli military is completing a rebuttal to a United Nations report accusing it of grave violations of international and humanitarian law in its Gazainvasion a year ago. Its central aim is to dispel the report’s harsh conclusion — that the death of noncombatants and destruction of civilian infrastructure were part of an official plan to terrorize the Palestinian population.

The United Nations report, by a committee led by Richard Goldstone, an esteemed South African judge, was published in late September and called on Israel to carry out an independent investigation of its conduct of the three-week war.

Israel, which had refused to cooperate with the investigation, at first dismissed the report as unworthy of attention. But the government quickly found that the world took it quite seriously and found itself accused of premeditated war crimes. It now considers fighting that charge a priority.

“We face three major strategic challenges,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently. “The Iranian nuclear program, rockets aimed at our civilians and Goldstone.”

The rebuttal will be given to United Nations officials in the coming weeks and its contents will remain under wraps until then. But officers involved in writing the report gave some details.

One concerned the destruction of Gaza’s sole flour mill. The Goldstone report asserts that the Bader flour mill “was hit by an airstrike, possibly by an F-16.” The Israeli investigators say they have photographic proof that this is false, that the mill was accidentally hit by artillery in the course of a firefight with Hamas militiamen.

The dispute is significant since the United Nations report asserts that “the destruction of the mill was carried out for the purpose of denying sustenance to the civilian population,” an explicit war crime.

A second finding concerned the destruction of a wastewater plant, leading to an enormous outflow of raw sewage. The Goldstone report contended that it was hit by a powerful Israeli missile in a strike that was “deliberate and premeditated.” The Israelis say they had nothing to do with that plant’s collapse and suggest that it may have been the result of Hamas explosives.

The two cases, along with the destruction of chicken coops, water wells, a cement plant and some 4,000 homes, are crucial building blocks in the Goldstone case that Israel set out to eliminate infrastructure so as to cause intense civilian suffering.

The report stated that “the destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a deliberate and systematic policy by the Israeli armed forces.” It added that Israel waged “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”

Maj. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit, the Israeli military advocate general, said in an interview that those assertions went beyond anything of which others had accused Israel.

“I have read every report, from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Arab League,” he said at his desk in the military’s Tel Aviv headquarters. “We ourselves set up investigations into 140 complaints. It is when you read these other reports and complaints that you realize how truly vicious the Goldstone report is. He made it look like we set out to go after the economic infrastructure and civilians, that it was intentional. It’s a vicious lie.”

Another senior military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity following regular military practice, said that neither the military command structure nor the government wanted to invade Gaza in December 2008, but felt that the continual rocket attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians forced their hand. The war, he said, followed the least aggressive of three contemplated routes — conquer Gaza and occupy it again as was done in the West Bank in 2002, retake Hamas’s weapons supply routes and hold them to dry out the organization’s arsenal, or attack the Hamas military and state infrastructure and leave. It was the third that occurred.

That invasion killed some 1,400 Palestinians and destroyed a great deal of property, including buildings like the parliament’s offices that have no military function. There were accusations of inappropriate weapons use. All that led many human rights advocates, both foreign and Israeli, to accuse Israel of violating international norms.

So in November, Brig. Gen. Yuval Halamish, a former intelligence commander, led an investigation that involved scores of interviews of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian witnesses as well as reviewing military videotape and photographs. He submitted his findings to General Mandelblit, who is independent of the command structure but who wears a uniform, offered legal advice on targets before the operation and is widely seen as an insider.

The military investigation is expected to argue that while errors were made, Israel is not guilty of any serious crimes. It will argue that the rules of war need to be adapted to the kind of asymmetric warfare Israel increasingly faces: fighting a popular militia that intentionally mixes with the civilian population.

Mr. Netanyahu and his government have not decided whether to submit the findings to independent scrutiny, as the Goldstone report specifies. They may do so in a partial way — by asking a group of nonmilitary Israeli jurists to examine the rebuttal but without power to recall witnesses, an approach favored by the military and those close to it.

Others say there must be an independent, nonmilitary investigation.

“Israel owes it to its own citizens and soldiers, as well as to the victims, to carry out an independent investigation,” said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University and a co-author of the military’s code of ethics.

Mr. Halbertal said that he was concerned about persistent reports during the Gaza operation that commanders had a “no risk” policy for their soldiers, which led to the unnecessary destruction of property and the shooting of civilians who were feared dangerous.

This is also the view of the organization Breaking the Silence, a group of military reservists who have given testimony about receiving orders in the war to shoot or destroy in ways that violated ethical standards and the military’s own code.

General Halamish said in an interview that the army chose not to attack many leaders of Hamas because they lived among children and the elderly. He added that during the operation, Israel withheld fire for three hours a day so food and other aid supplies could be brought into Gaza. During those hours, he said, a quarter of the shooting from Hamas took place. Hamas also ambushed the civilian supply trucks.

While many here think that the Goldstone report failed to expose of the practices of Hamas, they are more concerned about their own army’s conduct. Still, virtually no one in Israel, including the leaders of Breaking the Silence and the human rights group B’Tselem, thinks that the Goldstone accusation of an assault on civilians is correct.

“I do not accept the Goldstone conclusion of a systematic attack on civilian infrastructure,” said Yael Stein, research director of B’Tselem. “It is not convincing. But every incident and every policy has to be checked by an independent body because the military cannot check itself. They need to explain why so many people were killed.”

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