As we mark the third anniversary of the end of Operation Cast Lead, the war in
Gaza seems like a distant memory. To be sure, for many people in Gaza and
southern Israel the scars of Cast Lead remain, and media reports that another
major IDF operation in the Gaza Strip could be in the cards in the coming months
are unsettling for all.
In Gaza, there are still visible signs of the
conflict on the landscape; due to Israeli restrictions on imports not everyone
has managed to rebuild what was destroyed. But on both sides the worst
damage is hidden; those who lost loved ones continue to grieve, and the people
of Gaza and southern Israel continue to suffer the long-term effects of
However, the importance of Cast Lead extends far beyond its
immediate victims. Extremely grave allegations were raised about Israeli
conduct in this operation, and these allegations have yet to be addressed. Among
the dead were 759 civilians who took no part in the hostilities – this includes
318 children. Over 5,300 Palestinians were wounded, more than 350
seriously. Our forces destroyed over 3,500 homes, leaving approximately 20,000
persons homeless. The Israeli military also struck industrial and agricultural
sites and electricity, sanitation and water facilities.
These figures do
not in themselves indicate that the Israeli military acted
improperly. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to conduct military
operations in a densely populated civilian area like Gaza. It is probably
inevitable that innocent people will suffer in such circumstances.
this does not mean that anything goes in war. The military is obligated to take
all feasible measures to shield civilians from harm, to only direct fire at
military targets, and even then to only use the minimal force necessary to
achieve its objectives.
The research by B’Tselem and other organizations
indicates that the Israeli military did not always respect these obligations.
There are compelling allegations of excessive force, use of indiscriminate
weapons, obstruction of ambulances and the directing of attacks at civilian
rather than military targets.
Some Palestinian civilians were killed when
the military fired mortar shells, a weapon that cannot be aimed accurately, into
densely populated areas. Others were killed or horribly injured by white
phosphorus shells. Children and adults were forced to serve as human shields,
made to walk in front of soldiers and sent first into buildings. The
military apparently targeted civilian buildings, like government ministries and
the parliament building, although there is no indication they had any military
function. These are only some of the very troubling issues raised.
point of this essay is not to re-hash old allegations, but rather to stress that
three years after Cast Lead, the Israeli public has yet to receive satisfactory
answers regarding many of these charges. In fact, most questions remain
Yes, IDF military police did initiate some 50 investigations
into specific incidents in Cast Lead. But the outstanding questions that linger
from Cast Lead can only be answered by an investigative mechanism external to
the IDF. Only a transparent, independent and credible body with the ability to
subpoena witnesses and with access to all other relevant information can be
considered credible. This was the sort of body B’Tselem, along with the
entire Israeli human rights community, called for immediately after Cast
Instead, the military investigated itself, and as a result almost
only low-ranking soldiers and field officers have been investigated for the
extensive harm to the civilian population. Even the fruits of these
investigations have been minimal. The process has not been
transparent. Despite numerous requests for information, B’Tselem has not
been able to ascertain what happened in the 20 cases we submitted, much less all
The main source of information is the reports the Foreign
Ministry has submitted to the United Nations, as well as press reports whenever
the IDF MAG Corps takes measures against a specific soldier. Piecing
together these sources, it appears that altogether, soldiers were indicted in
three incidents: one charge of manslaughter, two soldiers convicted of using a
nine-year old boy as a human shield and one soldier convicted of stealing a
And so major questions remain. Who determined the level of
force? Did this result in unnecessary harm to civilians? Who determined what
constituted a legitimate military target in Gaza? Were all those determinations
appropriate? Who authorized the use of white phosphorus, flechette darts and
mortar shells inside civilian neighborhoods? Were all necessary measures taken
to protect the civilian population? There has been even less accountability on
the Palestinian side. There is no doubt that during the operation – as well as
before and after – armed Palestinian organizations blatantly violated
international law by firing Kassam rockets at civilian population centers inside
Israel. They also endangered Gaza civilians by firing at soldiers from inside
civilian neighborhoods; and by storing weapons in civilian buildings.
its report to the UN following the Goldstone fact-finding mission, Hamas argued
that it only aimed rockets at military targets. However, since it does
not have technologically advanced weapons, it is not possible to ensure that
rockets will not go awry and strike civilians. This is a shamelessly cynical
argument indeed, factually as well as legally and morally.
continue to call for Hamas to be held accountable. This is a difficult
task given that states committed to such accountability, like Europe and the
United States, do not engage with Hamas as a matter of policy. It is possible
that the negotiations on unification between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority
offer some leverage.
Certainly Hamas authorities cannot be granted
legitimacy while they target Israeli civilians. However, Hamas’ disregard
for law and morality obviously does not relieve Israel of its obligations. Woe
to us if Hamas serves as the standard for Israeli behavior.
It cannot be
the case that what happens in Gaza stays in Gaza. Our soldiers were sent there
to protect us. They acted in our name. We have a right to know, in fact an
obligation to ask whether the military acted in accord with its legal and moral
This is not just a history question. With military leaders
talking about the need for another such operation in the Gaza Strip, it is vital
that we conduct an honest discussion about how to ensure genuine accountability
for past wrongs and full respect for international humanitarian law and
protection for civilians in any military operations in the future.
writer is Executive Director of B’Tselem.