With Israeli officials facing war crimes charges abroad and the findings of the Goldstone Report continuing to make waves, the operations branch of the Military Prosecutor’s Office works hard to investigate and prosecute alleged wrongdoing by soldiers during military operations, all while dealing with a manpower shortage and a heavy workload.
“N.,” a senior IDF prosecutor, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the office has only eight officers to deal with around 1,000 complaints received every year, though the branch may receive another two or three officers this summer.
N. pointed out that every other branch of the prosecutor’s office, including those that handle non-operational criminal charges against soldiers and allegations of wrongdoing by senior officers, have the same manpower shortage.
The eight officers are the head of the operations branch, a lieutenant-colonel; a major who is its deputy head; and six officers who investigate allegations and gather evidence. All the officers are attorneys and career officers.
N. described the process in which complaints are examined as complicated and bureaucratic, beginning when a complaint is submitted, either directly to the Military Advocate-General’s Office or to the Military Police, followed by a “command investigation” to determine whether a crime or a violation of rules of engagement took place.
The MAG reviews these findings, and if there is suspicion of a criminal act, a criminal investigation is ordered. The MAG reviews the results and decides whether or not to present an indictment or call for disciplinary proceedings.
Allegations of the misuse of force during a military operation don’t always lead to criminal proceedings, N. said, because “the use of force in a military operation is a complicated thing.” Furthermore, N. noted, complainants and witnesses are often unable to identify the soldier accused of wrongdoing, making it difficult to compile enough evidence for an indictment.
A number of cases go directly to a Military Police criminal investigation if the allegations include something that cannot possibly have a military justification, such as the beating of a bound suspect, using human shields, or stealing money or valuables during a house search. Such cases do not require a command investigation to determine if the alleged wrongdoing was justified.
N. denied that the prosecutor’s office dismissed cases in order to protect the army or to lighten the office’s workload, saying it operated with complete transparency and was an independent body within the army.
“Today we already open a large number of cases; if we [were to] open another 200 or 300, it wouldn’t make a big difference,” N. said. “Besides, opening these cases when they call for it is a good thing, because it shows soldiers that there are laws, that the West Bank is not some no-man’s-land or the Wild West.”
N. said that prosecuting such cases was not easy and often carried a social cost. N. mentioned a case currently being prosecuted involving two Givati Brigade infantrymen accused of using an 11-year-old to check suspected explosive packages during Operation Cast Lead. During proceedings last week, N. said, the suspects’ relatives and friends from the army wore T-shirts saying, “We are the victims of Goldstone.”
It was obvious to N. that the suspects’ supporters “saw this trial as a betrayal, as them being stabbed in the back by the army. It’s very complicated, but we work based on legal requirements and based on the evidence we find.”
When asked if the Military Prosecutor’s Office had any sort of animosity toward NGOs that try to compile evidence of wrongdoing by soldiers, N. said that “at the end of the day, we’re partners on the same path. Some of them may be more extreme than other people, but the work deals with the same thing. And in those cases where they videotape abuse, it helps us do our job and is important.
“When we meet with people from NGOs, we don’t feel that they think we are trying to just close cases,” N. added. “We think they respect our work and we respect theirs.”
N. also mentioned how NGOs had helped the prosecutor’s office contact the 11-year-old boy in Gaza whom the Givati soldiers were accused of using as a human shield. This enabled the office to arrange the boy’s entry to Israel and transportation to the courthouse to give his testimony.
When asked if the UN’s Goldstone Report on the Gaza war had intensified the army’s efforts to prosecute soldiers, N. said, “The investigations we carried out before Goldstone were very serious. I have no doubt that we check things very well and better than someone from the outside can. We know the territory, and we aren’t influenced by any outside factors. I don’t think Goldstone has changed this; we were taking things very seriously before, and we’re taking them very seriously now.”
On Thursday, a legal representative of Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights, which provides legal assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank, said the often drawn-out process behind the MAG’s decisions on whether to open investigations against soldiers often made performing such probes especially difficult.
“By taking so long to decide whether to press charges, the prosecutor’s office makes it virtually impossible to hold an effective investigation into the allegations,” Yesh Din legal counsel Emily Schaeffer said.
In certain cases where the decision not to open criminal proceedings took as long as two years to make, an appeal was almost impossible, she said.
“In these cases, the decision has been made not to open an
investigation. Our next stage would be to appeal this decision, but even
if we were successful, we would be opening an investigation into
something that happened a year or two ago, something that basically
ensures that there is no chance of really getting to the truth,” she
Schaeffer agreed that manpower issues and a lack of resources were at
the root of the problem.
“The state needs to invest more in something so important, especially in
light of the Goldstone Report and the number of cases being pursued
against IDF soldiers abroad. Usually when people see that Israel is
investigating itself, they won’t push for legal proceedings abroad, so
this is in our own interests,” she said.