Lt.-Col. Neria Yeshurun is expected to be questioned under caution by military police on Monday, the first high-ranking IDF commander to undergo a serious criminal investigation for war crimes allegedly committed during the summer 2014 Gaza war.
The questioning follows the army’s June 11 decision to open a full criminal investigation into a July 23, 2014, incident in which Yeshurun ordered the shelling of a medical center in the northern Gazan neighborhood of Shejaiya under disputed circumstances.
The dispute concerns whether Yeshurun ordered the shelling improperly or whether it even was within his authority to do so. There have been no claims of civilians being hurt during the incident.
Those alleging that the shelling was ordered improperly claim it was done so as revenge for the killing of an officer under Yeshurun’s command, Capt.
Dmitri Levitas, who was killed the day before when Hamas terrorists attacked him from within the pharmacy building.
According to a letter from Military Advocate-General Danny Efroni’s bureau chief, Maj.
Matan Solmos, the authority decided to order a full criminal investigation after, among other things, hearing an audio recording of internal army communication during the incident being investigated.
The recording included a eulogy delivered by Yeshurun during which he ordered his soldiers to shell the pharmacy, allegedly saying it was in his slain colleague’s honor to avenge his death.
The law of armed conflict prohibits combatants from firing at soldiers from a civilian location such as a pharmacy, but would authorize return fire on the pharmacy in real-time if fighters were firing from it because it would then be considered a military target.
The law, however, would not necessarily have allowed the army to target the pharmacy at a later date if it was no longer being used militarily.
Yeshurun’s lawyer, Lt.-Col.
(res.) Shlomo Tzipori, said Sunday Efroni made a mistake in ordering a full criminal investigation of the incident and had been “fooled by the [audio] recording,” which he said tells only a snippet of the story and that Yeshurun’s order to shell was a “military necessity” as part of the ongoing war effort.
Tzipori argued that Yeshurun’s order was justified and that the eulogy recording was simply encouragement to the troops who were distracted by Levitas’s death to help them stay focused and not the reason for the shelling order.
The attorney said a Hamas tunnel under the pharmacy comprised part of the military’s primary objective of destroying the terrorist group’s tunnel infrastructure, and argued that that mission sometimes required firing on objects hiding the tunnels. He argued that Hamas’s firing from the pharmacy the previous day caused it to lose its protected civilian status and that the IDF, therefore, could not risk or wait for it to be reused for ambushes.
Pressed on whether anyone was firing from the pharmacy at the IDF when it was hit, Tzipori demurred, but said there was firing “in the area.”
The lawyer also challenged the process of opening a full criminal investigation into the matter without first conducting a full preliminary review or command investigation as the army has done with many other incidents.
Tzipori said the military’s ordering of a full criminal investigation into the incident violated the recommendations of the Turkel Commission, which recognized the need to only order full criminal investigations of high-ranking officers after first conducting an extensive review of the evidence.
Such a review is necessary because questioning commanders like Yeshurun “negatively impacts the level of combat readiness” and the general morale of the soldiers.
The IDF Spokesman’s office did not respond to the lawyer’s claim, but the letter from the advocate general’s bureau chief indicated that the unit’s head, Efroni, found the recording so problematic that he felt he had no choice but to launch a criminal investigation, even without conducting an initial review, and even if he ultimately closes the case without issuing an indictment.
Preliminary reviews often are reserved for investigations into cases where many soldiers were involved in complex and interconnected “sub-incidents.”
Maj. (res.) Amichai Charach, one of the two deputies under Yeshurun, was angered by the army’s investigation.
“We all feel that something is not right here. The man was doing his job,” he said.
“We were in combat. There was a threat to our soldiers.
Despite the death of Dmitri Levitas, we had to complete the mission. We had to fire at the clinic to make sure it was neutralized,” the soldier stated.
Referring to the eulogy, he added, “He [Yeshurun] added this moral speech and tied it together with actions. It made the soldiers more focused on the mission they had been assigned to,” adding that Yeshurun “is not the type of person to ‘lose it,’ even if there’s a tragedy in the conflict.”Shani Shahmoon contributed to this report.