Rafah report adds to ugly history of Israeli inquiries
Like sneaking out bad news in the midst of a major catastrophe, mid-August is a ripe time to timetable controversial announcements. What better time of year to put to rest and shut up shop on a controversial Israeli military investigation that somehow had already taken four years? Politicians across the democratic nations are largely tanning themselves and taking time out from politics, including the world of online posts and comment. Can anyone, even the most sophisticated of activist opponents, escalate public reaction at this time of year? It is verging on the impossible.
This is what the Israeli military advocate general has done in winding up his four-year preliminary investigation into the Aug. 1, 2014, battle in Rafah, Gaza, during Operation Protective Edge. On that day, 72 Palestinian civilians were killed, and the circumstances of 16 of the deaths have yet to be explained. Seven other incidents were also investigated, yet, unsurprisingly, the Israeli army committed no crimes at all, apparently. The inquiry has done its job, taken the heat out of the issue and taken such an inordinate amount of time that further evidence gathering is compromised.
Perhaps the military advocate general has done a meticulous and scrupulous job. It is possible. Yet it follows the same pattern of Israeli investigations that are typically at odds with all other reports and findings. The testimonies of 60 serving Israeli soldiers given to the Breaking the Silence organization are totally at odds with what the Israeli authorities claim, demonstrating that the guiding military principle was “minimum risk to our forces, even at the cost of harming innocent civilians.”
All this has an ugly history. Perhaps the most famous inquiry in Israel’s history, the Kahan Commission into the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, found Ariel Sharon to be personally responsible. Sharon did get shifted from being defense minister but remained a minister without portfolio and was still able to get elected as prime minister in 2001. What sort of accountability was this for a massacre of some 2,000 to 3,000 Palestinian civilians? By the way, that inquiry took four months — a sprint compared to the Rafah investigation.
Twelve years ago this summer, Israel was in the midst of yet another war on Gaza and one on Lebanon. Since then, it has conducted another three wars on Gaza. In every case, the scale of the onslaught and the destruction only increased.
The most devastating part of Israel’s desecration of Gaza and its two million Palestinian inhabitants was during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. The overwhelming evidence, as supplied by the UN, international and local non-governmental organizations, journalists and also Israeli human rights groups, was that massive violations of international law took place. Various parts of Gaza city were left as moonscapes, little different on the eye than the worst of the devastating pounding suffered by Syria.
Since the start of Operation Cast Lead in 2008, according to figures from the Israeli rights group B’tselem, Israel has killed a total of 4,557 Palestinians, including more than 1,000 children. In the same period, Palestinians killed 184 Israelis, of whom 96 were soldiers and 12 children. This means Israel has killed 25 times more Palestinians — a staggering 96 percent of all the fatalities in this period. Imagine a pop quiz of US Congressmen, British parliamentarians or Israeli Knesset members: Do you think they would get anywhere close to these figures?
Israel has demonstrated it is completely unwilling or incapable of mounting a credible independent inquiry into its own actions, yet the international community just wants to airbrush this away.
This conflict is one of the most asymmetrical anywhere on the planet. A regional superpower holds a population captive, under occupation and blockade. Whenever that population challenges this, through legitimate protest, actions against military targets or illegal targeting of civilians, the punishment meted out is overwhelming.
This makes the issue of accountability key. The international community, based on the rules-based system put in place over the last 100 years and more, is meant to ensure that violations of international law do not take place. Israel has freely and without hesitation violated the Fourth Geneva Convention every minute and every hour of every day for five decades through its settlement building and also home demolitions, amongst other issues.
What happens? Nothing. Increasingly, the international community has accepted Israel having the right to investigate its own actions with no oversight. At the same time, Israel remains a huge recipient of largesse, even from the Trump administration, which takes a dim view of overseas aid. The EU grants it special trading rights and access to research programs.
Investigations matter. Israel has demonstrated it is completely unwilling or incapable of mounting a credible independent inquiry into its own actions. To be honest, very few states would have the moral integrity to be able to investigate themselves; the domestic pressures to shield their own soldiers no matter what are far too high. Britain was guilty of a botched inquiry cover-up over the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, and it took until 2010 before the Saville Inquiry, the second into the massacre, found that the killings were “unjustified” and “unjustifiable.”
This is why a fair international, independent inquiry is always needed. Israel has done everything to prevent such eventualities, including an enormous lobbying effort to trash the UN’s Goldstone Report that looked into Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
The proper process now should be to determine whether Israel’s investigation was a proper and thorough one. Will any international body do this? Human rights groups scream whitewash again, whereas the great powers just want to airbrush this away.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech