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HRW: Gaza inquiry fails war victims

Feb. 7, 2010 9:24 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 8, 2010 9:23 P.M.)
Bethlehem – Ma'an – Israel has failed to demonstrate that it will conduct thorough and impartial investigations into alleged laws-of-war violations by its forces during last year's Gaza conflict, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday.

An independent investigation is needed if perpetrators of abuse, including senior military and political officials who set policies that violated the laws of war, are to be held accountable, the New York-based group said.

On Thursday, HRW met with military lawyers from the Israeli military to discuss the investigations. While the military is conducting ongoing investigations, officials did not provide information showing that these will be thorough and impartial or that they will address the broader policy and command decisions that led to unlawful civilian deaths, the rights group alleged.

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

In one case, a military investigation apparently missed an important piece of evidence: remains of an aerial bomb found in the Al-Badr flour mill outside Jabaliya. Israel denied targeting the mill from the air, as alleged by the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. However, video footage obtained by HRW and released on Sunday shows the apparent remains of an Israeli MK-82 500-pound aerial bomb in the damaged mill, and UN de-miners say they defused the bomb.

Hamas: Coverup is typical Israeli behavior

Israel's rebuttal to the UN mission is just the latest its its "constant efforts to escape responsibility for committing war crimes in Gaza," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said on Sunday.

"Yet again, Israel seeks to mislead international human rights organizations by conducting investigations based on fabricated and forged evidence," Barhoum said in a statement. "Such obstruction, by either party, ... affirms involvement in these crimes."

He said evidence of Israel's efforts in this regard were confirmed in Sunday's report. HRW, meanwhile, has also accused Hamas and its forces of violating the laws of war.

More than 750 Palestinian civilians in Gaza were killed during the conflict, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. The UN has said that nearly 3,500 homes and 280 factories were completely destroyed.

HRW documented 53 civilian deaths in 19 incidents in which Israeli forces appeared to have violated the laws of war. Six of these incidents involved the unlawful use of white phosphorus munitions; six were attacks by drone-launched missiles that killed civilians; and seven involved soldiers reportedly shooting civilians who were in groups holding white flags.

Israel says army investigating 150 incidents

According to Israel, the military has conducted roughly 150 investigations of incidents in Gaza, but it has not provided a list of the cases. Nearly 90 of the 150 investigations are what the military calls an "operational debriefing" – tahkir mivza'i in Hebrew. These are after-action reports, not criminal investigations, in which an officer in the chain of command interviews the soldiers involved, with no testimony from victims or witnesses. Forty-five of these 90 cases have been closed.

However, the Israeli military also says that military police have opened 36 criminal investigations, in which a military police investigator takes statements from soldiers and seeks testimony from outside sources. Seven cases were closed due to lack of evidence or because the complainants were unwilling to testify. The remaining 28 are ongoing.

To date, military courts have convicted only one soldier of wartime abuse during the Gaza conflict, for theft of a credit card. The soldier incurred a seven and a half month prison sentence. According to HRW, the Israeli military has thus far examined specific incidents but not broader policies that may have caused civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war.

But neither is Hamas known to have prosecuted anyone for firing hundreds of rockets indiscriminately into Israel, HRW pointed out.

On 27 January, the Islamic movement issued a news statement and report summary, saying that rockets from Palestinian armed groups had only targeted Israeli military objects and that civilian casualties were accidental – a conclusion that HRW rejected as "legally and factually wrong." Hamas released a full report about its conduct during the war on 3 February that HRW said it was still reviewing.

Last September, the UN fact-finding mission, headed by South African justice Richard Goldstone, found evidence that Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity and called on both parties to conduct impartial investigations within six months.

On 5 November, the UN General Assembly endorsed the Goldstone report and asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for a progress report about domestic investigations. Ban gave his report on 4 February, passing on documents provided to him by Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, and reiterating his call for credible and impartial investigations by all sides.

"Secretary-General Ban merely passed on the parties' claims, but he also reasserted the importance of credible investigations in conformity with international standards," Stork said. "The pressure is still on Israel and Hamas to show that they will do it right."
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