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(photo credit: AP [file])
A Human Rights Watch report claiming IDF soldiers killed 11 Palestinian civilians holding white flags in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead is "based on unreliable witness reports," the IDF said in a statement released Thursday.
"Moreover," the statement continued, the international human rights organization "didn't bother to give the report to the IDF before releasing it to the public via the media, to allow for in-depth investigation."
The army stressed that soldiers were under orders to "honor the 'white flag' as a sign of surrender... and to avoid harming" anyone raising such a flag.
HRW presented its report at a press conference on Thursday morning, alleging that most of the 11 were women and children and that they were killed in seven separate incidents during Operation Cast Lead.
"In each case, the victims were standing, walking, or in a slow-moving vehicle with other unarmed civilians who were trying to convey their non-combatant status by waving a white flag," the 61-page report entitled "White Flags Death," said.
"All available evidence indicates that Israeli forces had control of the area in question, no fighting was taking place there at the time and Palestinian fighters were not hiding among the civilians who were shot."
According to Human Rights Watch, even if the victims had not been waving white flags, they were civilians who were not taking part in acts of war and should therefore not have been attacked, according to the laws of war.
Either the soldiers who took part in the shootings had failed to take necessary precautions, as required by the laws of war, to distinguish between civilians and combatants, or they deliberately fired at them, HRW charged. In the latter case, they had committed war crimes and should face criminal charges.
Human Rights Watch reported that it had not found in any of the incidents that the civilians were used as human shields and that in each case, at least one person had been waving a white flag.
In one of the cases mentioned in the report, on January 7, four days after the IDF land incursion into Gaza, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Amal Abd Rabbo, 2, and Su'ad Abd Rabbo, 7, wounded Su'ad Abd Rabbo, 54 and seriously wounded Samar Abd Rabbo, 4.
The grandmother, Su'ad, told HRW, "We saw one tank and we saw others behind. We were with the white flags in order to make them see that we were civilians. We spent seven to nine minutes waving the flags and we were looking right at them. And suddenly they opened fire and the girls fell to the ground."
HRW concluded that "eyewitness accounts, tank tracks, an ammunition box and bullet casings found at the scene, and an examination of the grandmother by forensic experts indicate that an Israeli soldier fired upon identifiable and unarmed women and children."
The organization called for an independent and impartial investigation into violations committed by Israel and Hamas during the fighting and charged that neither side until now had conducted credible investigations. Human Rights Watch has accused Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza of committing war crimes by firing rockets and mortars at Israel's civilian population and said there was evidence that some terrorists committed war crimes by using Palestinian civilians as human shields.
It called on UN member states to establish a UN mechanism that would monitor and report on efforts by Israel and Hamas to conduct transparent and impartial investigations into war crimes and prosecute those responsible. If they failed to do so, the UN should press for international prosecutions, the group said.
HRW said it conducted extensive investigations into each of the incidents by visiting the sites of the attacks, examining ballistic evidence, collecting medical records and interviewing at least three witnesses, separately, for each attack. In one case, forensic pathologists examined a survivor.
The army, in its statement, stressed that "the IDF did everything in its power to warn the civilian population... by distributing more than two million announcements, including 300,000 phone calls to residential houses and media in the Strip, in order to keep civilians away from battle zones."
The IDF also said it was already investigating several similar allegations, including an incident that occurred on January 13 when four civilians were reportedly killed even though they were waving a white flag. Another incident took place on January 4, when a tank crew allegedly fired a shell at a group of civilians that were carrying white flags.
The incidents were brought to the IDF's attention by HRW as well as other NGOs, and even by Palestinians themselves.
The IDF is conducting more than 100 investigations of soldiers involved in Operation Cast Lead.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev responded to the report by saying, "Human Rights Watch's public admission that it raised money in Saudi Arabia in tandem with official representatives of that authoritarian government, raises serious questions concerning the organization's objectivity, professionalism, integrity and credibility."
Also responding to the HRW report was Gerald Steinberg, the director of NGO Monitor, who said there was a fundamental problem with HRW's methodology.
"HRW had no people in Gaza during the war, so therefore everything they have to say is by definition based on hearsay and speculation - it is all based on secondary and tertiary reports," he said.
"A Palestinian says he took a white flag out, and says Israelis shot him. We don't know if that was part of tactics Hamas used, like Hizbullah did in Lebanon. Remember, Hamas used ambulances to smuggle in and launch rockets. HRW doesn't know," Steinberg continued.
Steinberg noted that all the organization's reports on Gaza were based on what Palestinians said, or what other NGOs reported, or on what some journalists - who for the most part were also not in Gaza during the war - heard about afterward.
"This is a basic methodological problem," he said. "If you are looking for a target, you will find people who will tell you what you are looking for."
Steinberg said that after it ended, HRW made similar allegations about the IDF firing at people waving white flags during the Second Lebanon War, but that these turned out to be false.