Three years after Operation Cast Lead

Woe to us if Hamas serves as the standard for Israeli behavior.

IDF soldiers walking to Gaza during Operation Cast Lead 311R (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
IDF soldiers walking to Gaza during Operation Cast Lead 311R
(photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
As we mark the third anniversary of the end of Operation Cast Lead, the war in Gaza seems like a distant memory. To be sure, for many people in Gaza and southern Israel the scars of Cast Lead remain, and media reports that another major IDF operation in the Gaza Strip could be in the cards in the coming months are unsettling for all.
In Gaza, there are still visible signs of the conflict on the landscape; due to Israeli restrictions on imports not everyone has managed to rebuild what was destroyed. But on both sides the worst damage is hidden; those who lost loved ones continue to grieve, and the people of Gaza and southern Israel continue to suffer the long-term effects of trauma.
However, the importance of Cast Lead extends far beyond its immediate victims. Extremely grave allegations were raised about Israeli conduct in this operation, and these allegations have yet to be addressed. Among the dead were 759 civilians who took no part in the hostilities – this includes 318 children. Over 5,300 Palestinians were wounded, more than 350 seriously. Our forces destroyed over 3,500 homes, leaving approximately 20,000 persons homeless. The Israeli military also struck industrial and agricultural sites and electricity, sanitation and water facilities.
These figures do not in themselves indicate that the Israeli military acted improperly. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to conduct military operations in a densely populated civilian area like Gaza. It is probably inevitable that innocent people will suffer in such circumstances.
But this does not mean that anything goes in war. The military is obligated to take all feasible measures to shield civilians from harm, to only direct fire at military targets, and even then to only use the minimal force necessary to achieve its objectives.
The research by B’Tselem and other organizations indicates that the Israeli military did not always respect these obligations. There are compelling allegations of excessive force, use of indiscriminate weapons, obstruction of ambulances and the directing of attacks at civilian rather than military targets.
Some Palestinian civilians were killed when the military fired mortar shells, a weapon that cannot be aimed accurately, into densely populated areas. Others were killed or horribly injured by white phosphorus shells. Children and adults were forced to serve as human shields, made to walk in front of soldiers and sent first into buildings. The military apparently targeted civilian buildings, like government ministries and the parliament building, although there is no indication they had any military function. These are only some of the very troubling issues raised.
The point of this essay is not to re-hash old allegations, but rather to stress that three years after Cast Lead, the Israeli public has yet to receive satisfactory answers regarding many of these charges. In fact, most questions remain unanswered.
Yes, IDF military police did initiate some 50 investigations into specific incidents in Cast Lead. But the outstanding questions that linger from Cast Lead can only be answered by an investigative mechanism external to the IDF. Only a transparent, independent and credible body with the ability to subpoena witnesses and with access to all other relevant information can be considered credible. This was the sort of body B’Tselem, along with the entire Israeli human rights community, called for immediately after Cast Lead.
Instead, the military investigated itself, and as a result almost only low-ranking soldiers and field officers have been investigated for the extensive harm to the civilian population. Even the fruits of these investigations have been minimal. The process has not been transparent. Despite numerous requests for information, B’Tselem has not been able to ascertain what happened in the 20 cases we submitted, much less all the others.
The main source of information is the reports the Foreign Ministry has submitted to the United Nations, as well as press reports whenever the IDF MAG Corps takes measures against a specific soldier. Piecing together these sources, it appears that altogether, soldiers were indicted in three incidents: one charge of manslaughter, two soldiers convicted of using a nine-year old boy as a human shield and one soldier convicted of stealing a credit card.
And so major questions remain. Who determined the level of force? Did this result in unnecessary harm to civilians? Who determined what constituted a legitimate military target in Gaza? Were all those determinations appropriate? Who authorized the use of white phosphorus, flechette darts and mortar shells inside civilian neighborhoods? Were all necessary measures taken to protect the civilian population? There has been even less accountability on the Palestinian side. There is no doubt that during the operation – as well as before and after – armed Palestinian organizations blatantly violated international law by firing Kassam rockets at civilian population centers inside Israel. They also endangered Gaza civilians by firing at soldiers from inside civilian neighborhoods; and by storing weapons in civilian buildings.
In its report to the UN following the Goldstone fact-finding mission, Hamas argued that it only aimed rockets at military targets. However, since it does not have technologically advanced weapons, it is not possible to ensure that rockets will not go awry and strike civilians. This is a shamelessly cynical argument indeed, factually as well as legally and morally.
We must continue to call for Hamas to be held accountable. This is a difficult task given that states committed to such accountability, like Europe and the United States, do not engage with Hamas as a matter of policy. It is possible that the negotiations on unification between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority offer some leverage.
Certainly Hamas authorities cannot be granted legitimacy while they target Israeli civilians. However, Hamas’ disregard for law and morality obviously does not relieve Israel of its obligations. Woe to us if Hamas serves as the standard for Israeli behavior.
It cannot be the case that what happens in Gaza stays in Gaza. Our soldiers were sent there to protect us. They acted in our name. We have a right to know, in fact an obligation to ask whether the military acted in accord with its legal and moral obligations.
This is not just a history question. With military leaders talking about the need for another such operation in the Gaza Strip, it is vital that we conduct an honest discussion about how to ensure genuine accountability for past wrongs and full respect for international humanitarian law and protection for civilians in any military operations in the future.
The writer is Executive Director of B’Tselem.