In a move designed to blunt the impact of an upcoming UN report on last summer’s Gaza conflict expected to castigate Israel, Jerusalem on Sunday rolled out its own 277- page report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said presented the “true picture” of Operation Protective Edge.
“The report proves unequivocally that the actions carried out by the IDF and the security forces during the operation were in accordance with international law,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting, where he was presented the report.
The IDF acted “out of the need to defend the citizens of the state from a murderous terrorist organization that perpetrated a double war crime.
It deliberately fired at civilians while intentionally hiding behind civilians,” he said.
Operation Protective Edge
The preparation of this document, as well as its presentation just days before the UN Human Rights Council is expected to release its own report on the conflict, is one of the lessons learned from the damning Goldstone Report in 2009 that investigated the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.
Then, as now, Israel refused to cooperate with a body that received its mandate from what it perceives as a wildly anti-Israel forum, and whose mandate of investigation makes its conclusions a foregone conclusion.
But this time, according to one government official who has been following the preparation of the document for months, the idea was to get Israel’s argument “out there” before the UN document so it becomes “an integral part of the conversation.”
Netanyahu said the report was “especially important” now because Israel “is under an unprecedented attack of delegitimization. This attack is not substantive, it is political.
Its goal is to blacken the State of Israel and we are preparing to respond. This is one response. We will act wherever necessary in order to deal with mendacious claims and anti-Israel initiatives.”
The government has been working on the report, and debating the timing of its release, for weeks. It was originally scheduled to be released in March, when the UNHRC report was set to be released, but was postponed after the UN report was delayed since the commission’s first head, William Schabas, was forced to step down after it was revealed that he had worked briefly as a paid consultant for the PLO in 2012.
The UNHRC report is expected to be the basis of any Palestinian war crimes case against Israel before the International Criminal Court. Dore Gold, the Foreign Ministry’s director- general, said at a press conference that Israel has not yet decided whether to cooperate with the ICC’s preliminary investigation.
Titled “The 2014 Gaza Conflict: Factual and Legal Aspects,” the report is an inter-agency effort that includes input from the Foreign, Justice and Defense ministries, as well as from the Prime Minister’s Office and the IDF.
It takes pains to put Operation Protective Edge within the context of the ongoing war with Hamas and other terrorist organizations.
“Since its inception,” the report read, “Hamas has launched thousands of attacks designed to kill, injure and terrorize the Israeli population, destroy Israeli property, and thwart any attempt to reach a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Since 2000, the report read, some 1,265 Israelis have been killed, and thousands more wounded by Hamas and other terrorist organizations.
It divided the 50-day military operation into three stages: an aerial campaign to reduce the ongoing and imminent threat of rocket fire, a limited ground incursion to destroy cross-border assault tunnels, and a final stage of mostly aerial attacks.
According to the report, some 74 people were killed on the Israeli side, of whom 67 were soldiers, and approximately 2,125 people were killed on the Palestinian side.
While an oft-quoted figure places the number of Palestinian civilian casualties at 2,000, according to this report 936 combatants were killed, or 44 percent of the total. Thirty-six percent of those killed, or 761 people, were civilians, and another 20% of the casualties, or 428, have not yet been determined, with the IDF and the intelligence services still going name by name to determine whether they were combatants or civilians.
Israel, according to the report, “did not intend, and deeply regrets, the harm caused to the Palestinian civilian population and surroundings” during the conflict.
Yet, it said, this resulted because Hamas intentionally wanted the conflict to take place in an urban environment, and Hamas combat manuals and training materials shown in the report demonstrate that its strategy “was to deliberately draw the hostilities into the urban terrain, and to use built-up areas and the presence of the civilian population for tactical advantage and political gain.”
It is against that background, as well as Hamas’s “intertwining their military operations in a civilian environment” that led to the harm caused to the civilians, the report asserted.
“In all armed conflicts, the application of military force almost inevitably causes residual and incidental harm, this is even more so when the hostilities occur in the urban environment,” it read. Some of the civilian damage, furthermore, was caused by rockets and mortars launched from Gaza that “fell short.”
“Furthermore, much of what may have appeared to external parties to be indiscriminate harm to civilians or purely civilian objects was in fact legitimate attacks against military targets that merely appear civilian, but were actually part of military operations of these terrorist organizations.”
The report, replete with photographs and graphs, spelled out how targets were selected and vetted, pointing out that in the IDF – unlike other armies in the world – military lawyers can take a target off the table, even though the commander in the field may think otherwise.
In addition, the report detailed Hamas war crimes, including incidents where the terrorists disguised themselves as civilians or IDF soldiers, operated from civilian homes and mosques, and forced civilians to remain in their homes even after the IDF gave warnings of an imminent attack.
The report also spells out the layers of judicial supervision over the IDF’s activities.
Israel, it said, “maintains a multi-layered investigations system, with numerous checks and balances to ensure impartiality before investigative, administrative and judicial authorities.”
Netanyahu, at the cabinet meeting, said Israel and the IDF were “indeed committed to the rules of international law, even as we fight against terrorist organizations that deliberately violate these rules.”
He said this obligation “does not stem from this or that report or this or that UN committee, it stems from the fact that Israel is a democracy and a moral country with values, which operates in accordance with international law.”
Netanyahu said that those who “want to know the truth” about last summer’s confrontation in Gaza should read this report, as well as another one released over the weekend by an international blue-ribbon panel of former diplomats and generals – affiliated with a pro-Israel organization – that also determined Israel acted well within the bounds of international law.
“Whoever wants to automatically – and without foundation – blame Israel, let them waste their time with the UN Human Rights Council report,” Netanyahu said. “For our part, we will continue to defend our soldiers and they will continue to defend us.”
Responding the the report with a different take, Israel Bar Association International Section Head Gidon Fisher said, "the Israeli report as strong, encouraging and objective as it is is like trying to stop up a dam which has already burst. From conversations with lawyers around the world, there is a worrying picture. According to them, Israel's central problem is not Operation Protective Edge or a different specific incident, but rather the rising suspicion that we are losing our legitimacy."
Fisher added that to stop the delegitimization process, Israel must wage a strong public relations campaign over not just Israel's legal rights, but it's basic necessity of self-defense.
Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.