'Transparency key in war crimes probes'

US experts tell 'Post' that alleged IDF misconduct during Operation Cast Lead must be taken seriously.

IDF gaza wait 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
IDF gaza wait 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The allegations alone paint horrifying pictures of war: The neighbor of a suspected terrorist, taken from his family home in the dead of night and shot in a ditch by troops who said they wanted to "send a message." Four detained military-age males, executed amid the fog of battle after a squad leader insisted there wasn't time to transfer them to base. Two dozen people, including women and children, shot and killed in their homes after a roadside bomb blast tore through a military convoy. The claims - stemming from events in the Iraqi towns of Hamdania, Fallujah and Haditha - grew into some of the most high-profile war crimes cases prosecuted by the American military during the seven-year Iraq war, in trials aimed as much at establishing America's commitment to the rule of law as at punishing the guilty. Now, with the IDF investigating its own allegations about possible misconduct by soldiers during Operation Cast Lead, American military-law experts tell The Jerusalem Post that investigations must be transparent to achieve legitimacy in the court of public opinion. "There are at least three different constituencies that are interested and important to consider - one is world opinion, two is members of the IDF, and three is the local community, both Israelis and Gazans," said Tom Umberg, a former military prosecutor based in California. IDF sources have told the Post that allegations that IDF troops deliberately shot and killed Palestinians during the three-week offensive against Hamas have been found to be categorically untrue and based on rumors rather than firsthand experience, but official investigative reports have not yet been released. A pamphlet put out by the Rabin Premilitary Academy printed claims by one soldier that a marksman opened fire on a mother and two children after a commander told them to walk into a no-entry zone. Other claims involved the wanton destruction of property - claims far less gory than those that emerged against US marines in Iraq, but which nonetheless would violate the rules of engagement established by the IDF. The US Marines responded to allegations of a massacre in Haditha - first reported by Time magazine in 2006 - by court-martialing four officers and four enlisted men; all but one, who is still awaiting trial, were subsequently exonerated by military tribunals. Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law suggested that the US military, stung by the public outcry over events at Abu Ghraib, which were initially minimized by the Bush administration, may have "gone overboard" in its subsequent charging decisions. But Solis said that appearing to take the allegations seriously was still preferable to issuing a flat denial. "It presents a real problem when you have these kinds of allegations - either you ignore them and you're accused of covering up war crimes, or you prosecute them on thin evidence," Solis told the Post. Even if false, the allegations have now been widely reported in the Israeli and international press - much like claims, eventually proven untrue, about IAF strikes on a United Nations refugee facility in Gaza during the military operation. As a result, Umberg said, the key consideration for the military must be "the national security interest and the overall mission." "What mission do you want to convey?" Umberg asked. "Do they take it seriously? ...Does justice get done?" Israel's top brass have reiterated their commitment to the rules of engagement and have moved swiftly to condemn other perceived ethical breaches, including the private printing of squad T-shirts depicting a pregnant Arab woman in the crosshairs of a sniper sight - a design deemed "tasteless" by a military statement after a report in Ha'aretz. Yet the IDF's challenges are different from that of the American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Andrew Exum, a US Army veteran who served in both wars and is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "No matter what the IDF does or doesn't do, it's never going to be popular in the Gaza Strip," Exum told the Post. "Israel is not in competition for the hearts and minds of people in the Palestinian territories, but they may find that it might be in their best interests to be seen as virtuous from the perspective of the international community," Exum added, noting that Israel's ability to corral support from allies around the world for any future military actions depends heavily on international support. "There's an interest in Israel being seen as more moral," Exum told the Post. "So the process of investigating, of being seen to investigate, is in the IDF's best interests." Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.