In the past two years the Military Police has begun more criminal investigations against soldiers suspected of killing non-combatants in military operations linked to the intifada than it did in the first four years of the violence, Shai Nitzan of the State Attorney's Office told the High Court of Justice on Sunday.
Nitzan was responding to a petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, demanding that, as a matter of policy, the IDF Judge Advocate-General's Office launch an investigation that does not involve members of a field unit involved in a fatal incident. The petition was filed in 2003.
Nitzan told the court that from October 2000 until July 2004, the army conducted 80 criminal investigations of soldiers. Between July 2004 and July 2005, 55 new cases were opened. Since then, another 40 investigations have begun.
He added that in response to the petition and the court's instructions, the army had added a new regulation stating that a unit involved in such an incident must send its battle diary and photos within 48 hours. The regulation went into effect in November 2005. Since then, the Military Police have conducted investigations in 17 cases, 13 involving the deaths and four the wounding, of non-combatants. Of the 17, investigations have been completed in 12 cases.
Nitzan added that the reason the number of investigations had increased over the past two years was not because of the effect of the ACRI petition but because Palestinian violence has dropped. Therefore, there appeared to be less reason for civilians to be hurt.
Nitzan denied the charges of ACRI attorney Limor Yehuda, who told the court that the Judge Advocate-General decides whether or not to open an investigation solely on the basis of the report filed by the officers of the field unit involved in the killing.
"The JAG receives the military report from the field, he receives complaints from the public and human rights organizations and he receives information from the media," said Nitzan. "He decides whether to open an investigation on the basis of all the above."
Nitzan added that the field investigation was not carried out by junior officers but by the most senior officers in the unit, including division and brigade commanders. Furthermore, the field unit has 21 days to submit the report to the JAG. If it does not do so by deadline, the JAG may order a Military Police investigation without further delay.
Nitzan also rejected Yehuda's argument that failure to investigate virtually every case of death or serious wounding of non-combatants was a violation of international law. He pointed out that during the NATO battle against Yugoslavia, 500 Yugoslav civilians were killed but not a single investigation of NATO forces was held. In all of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, only one soldier has been investigated on suspicion that he killed a non-combatant.
Nitzan also argued that in many cases it was impossible to take evidence from the "crime scene." Some civilians are hurt when Israel bombs Palestinian rocket launchers located in the heart of civilian neighborhoods, or in a targeted assassination or during a raid into Palestinian territory to root out fugitives. It is not possible for the IDF to study the site of a fatality in any of these cases to gather information.
According to Nitzan, the army investigates an increasing number of deaths of non-combatants but asked the court to reject ACRI's demand to have all, or almost all, such incidents investigated.
The court is likely to hand down its ruling on the petition without further hearings.