Mandelblit leads IDF battle to comply with international law

Analysis: Not just in Spain, UK and Belgium that lawyers, jurists using legal means to attack Israel.

gaza idf tank mud 248 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
gaza idf tank mud 248 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The fact that there are almost 100 internal probes into allegations of IDF misconduct during the last Gaza war shows three things: that there is concern some soldiers broke the law during their stay in the Strip; that mistakes may have been made during the fighting; and most importantly, that the army is taking all accusations leveled against it seriously. Judge Advocate General Brig.-Gen. Avihai Mandelblit is not always a popular figure in the military, especially when he punishes soldiers who break the law while fighting Israel's enemies in Gaza, Lebanon or the West Bank. For Mandelblit, there is no difference between routine security operations and full-fledged war, and no difference between Arabs and Jews. There is only the law. From his third-floor office at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, Mandelblit represents the core of Israel's defense against the legal onslaught by unfriendly countries and organizations across the world. While the shooting has stopped, Operation Cast Lead is not over yet - it has just moved to another front. The UN's Goldstone Commission is soon to present its findings on alleged Israeli "war crimes" in Gaza. Amnesty International has taken aim at IDF drones. The Red Cross is pounding away at the walls of "the Gaza prison," while "Free Gaza Ships" try to reach its shores. Human Rights Watch is raising money in Saudi Arabia by painting Israel as a pariah state. And it is not just in Spain, Britain and Belgium that lawyers and jurists are using legal means to attack Israel. Within Israel, too, Yesh Din, Gisha, Breaking the Silence and Rabbis for Human Rights (partly funded by European countries) are also chipping away at the IDF's legitimacy. The NGO approach is to take the sum total of Israeli operations during Cast Lead and paint the IDF as an immoral army that uses vastly disproportionate force. This approach doesn't look at individual actions and assess them on their proportionality but rather puts all of the IDF's actions together into one picture and argues that in the Gaza case, there were 1,400 people killed on the Palestinian side - mostly civilians, according to Palestinian figures vigorously disputed by Israel - while Israel lost 13 people in total, most of them soldiers in friendly-fire incidents. The view in Israel is that this NGO approach produces a deeply distorted picture. The Israeli concern, furthermore, is that the aim of all these groups is to create deterrence against a future use of force by the IDF in Gaza and Lebanon. It is no coincidence that Hizbullah is building a huge offensive array inside populated villages in southern Lebanon and that Syria has been beefing up its defenses inside its villages along the Golan Heights. Away from the battlefields, there are hundreds of petitions, cases, legal opinions and pending actions against Israel cropping up in courts across the world. The phenomenon is wide and growing. It is driven by a lot of money and support from countries and people not friendly to Israel. While Israel has been slow to array its forces on this battlefield, lately, there are signs that authorities here have now realized the scope of the problem and are starting to fight back. Just as Israel invests in good weaponry, research and development, it is starting to invest in the tools to fight on this legal front and in the right people for the job. It is gearing up to ensure that military commanders can call on real-time dynamic legal advice on the ground. And, just as important, every complaint and accusation leveled at the IDF from both inside and outside of Israel is increasingly recognized and must be thoroughly investigated. There is no need to be afraid of the truth, the army argues. Indeed, there is a strong belief within the military that every operation and attack during Cast Lead was limited to what is allowed. Millions of fliers were dropped, thousands of phone calls were made warning people to flee, and dozens of attacks were stopped because there was a chance civilians would be harmed. If a soldier did commit a crime, he will pay for it, and it is best he pays for it here in Israel rather than abroad, runs the thinking, where he could be at the mercy of legal systems hijacked by political activists. Mandelblit's role has become crucial in this intensifying war. The world needs to see that the IDF is seriously investigating itself; this counters the detractors' argument that the army cannot objectively investigate itself and, without outside oversight, would allow itself to get away with murder. As the cliché goes, justice needs not only to be done but also to be seen to be done. For the people who draw up the battle plans in the IDF's operations and planning branch, the moral imperative is sacrosanct. If this was not the case, it is argued, the army's wars would last a few minutes at most. It is deemed crucial for the IDF to fight and win its wars within the boundaries of international law. For this reason, the Military Prosecutor's unit has steadily increased its involvement across all levels of the army in an attempt to give commanders the tools they need to get the job done within the bounds of international humanitarian law. Legal officers have been attached to commanders from the brigade levels and up since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. There are more of them and they are getting much more involved. Legal officers are present when target banks are drawn up and when questions are asked about whether the target is purely military or dual purpose. There are almost no top officers who are not now deeply aware of the legal implications of their actions. If this awareness has not yet filtered down through all units, as the near-100 allegations would suggest, then the IDF is determined to rectify this immediately. For while it is recognized that nobody outside will tolerate the army operating beyond the bounds of international humanitarian law, the IDF is insistent that nobody inside will tolerate any such breaches either.