Israel’s failure to investigate its gruesome wars
At a glance Israel appears to be a true democracy, but take a closer look and that facade dissipates. Feb. 28 was one of those moments, when an official Israeli State Comptroller issued another report on the government’s handling of the July 2014 war on Gaza. It chastized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, among others, for the lack of preparedness and for their mishandling of the 50-day conflict.
Netanyahu reacted angrily; Ya’alon took to Facebook to defend his record; the opposition in Israel’s Knesset (Parliament) went on the offensive; politicians lined up to take sides; a media frenzy followed; the country was in uproar. This is not a precedent but a recurring scenario. When such reports are issued, Israelis sort out their differences in fierce parliamentary and media battles.
While Israelis begin to examine the failures, demanding accountability from the government, Western mainstream media find the perfect opportunity to whitewash their own record of failing to criticize Israel’s military onslaught (more than 2,200 Palestinians, of whom over 70 percent were civilians, were killed and thousands wounded in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014).
According to US media logic, Israel’s investigation of its own actions is a tribute to its thriving democracy, often juxtaposed with Arab governments’ lack of self-examination. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, instigating a war that killed tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians and culminating in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, a familiar scenario ensued: The US did its utmost to prevent any international intervention or meaningful investigation, while Israel was allowed to investigate itself.
The outcome was the Kahan Commission Report, the conclusion of which was summarized by international law expert Professor Richard Falk as such: “The full measure of Israel’s victory is rather its vindication, despite all, as a moral force in the region — as a superior state, especially as compared to its Arab rivals.” The US media touted Israel’s “moral victory,” which somehow made everything alright, and with a magic wand wiped the record clean.
A Washington Post editorial led the congratulatory chorus: “The whole process of the Israeli reaction to the Beirut massacre is a tribute to the vitality of democracy in Israel and to the country’s moral character.” This sorry state of affairs has been in constant replay for nearly 70 years, ever since Israel declared its independence in 1948.
International law is clear regarding the legal responsibility of occupying powers, but since Israel is rarely an enthusiast of international law, it has forbidden any attempt at being investigated for its actions. In fact, it abhors the idea. Every attempt by the UN, or any other organization dedicated to upholding international law, has either been rejected or failed.
By Israel’s logic, it is a democracy and democratic countries cannot be investigated over their armies’ involvement in the deaths of civilians. This was the gist of the statement produced by Netanyahu’s office in June 2010, soon after army commandos intercepted a humanitarian aid flotilla on its way to Gaza and killed 10 unarmed activists in international waters.
Israel is an occupying power under international law, and is held accountable to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The international community is legally obliged to examine Israel’s conduct against Palestinian civilians, and against unarmed civilians in international waters. Israel’s record of investigating itself, aside from being spun to praise its moral superiority, has never been of any help for Palestinians.
In fact, the entire Israeli justice system is systematically unjust to occupied Palestinians. Israeli rights group Yesh Din reported that out “of the 186 criminal investigations opened by the Israeli Army into suspected offenses against Palestinians in 2015, just four yielded indictments.” Such indictments rarely yield prison sentences.
Any attempt to investigate Israel’s conduct will be thwarted, for it is a ‘democracy,’ and for some reason self-proclaimed democracies cannot be investigated. Only their sham investigations matter; only their dead count.
The recent indictment of army medic Elor Azarya, sentencing him to (now postponed) 18 months in prison for killing in cold blood an alleged Palestinian attacker, is an exception, not the norm. It has been years since an Israeli soldier was sentenced. Several thousand Palestinian civilians have been killed between the last manslaughter conviction of an Israeli soldier in 2005 and Azarya’s indictment.
Azarya, now perceived by many Israelis as a hero, has received such a light punishment that it is less than that of a Palestinian child throwing rocks at an Israeli occupation soldier. Some UN officials, although powerless before the US backing of Israel, are furious.
The 18-month verdict “stands in contrast to the sentences handed down by other Israeli courts for other less serious offenses, notably the sentencing of Palestinian children to more than three years’ imprisonment for throwing stones at cars,” UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in response to the Israeli court decision.
While pro-Israel social media activists and media pundits went on to praise Israel’s supposedly unmatched democracy, a campaign in Israel to pardon Azarya continues to garner momentum. Netanyahu is already on board.
Not only is Israel’s justice system unjust to Palestinians, it was never intended to be so. A careful reading of the recent comptroller’s remarks and findings would clarify that the intent was never to examine war against a besieged nation as a moral concept, but the government’s inability to win the war more effectively: The breakdown of intelligence; Netanyahu’s lack of political inclusiveness; and the death of an unprecedented number of Israeli soldiers.
Israel’s appetite for war is at an all-time high. Some commentators are arguing that Israel might launch yet another war so as to redeem its “mistakes” in the previous one, as stated in the report. War is a staple for Israel. Hard-hitting Israeli journalist Gideon Levy’s reaction to the comptroller’s report says it best. He argued that the report is almost a plagiarized copy of the Winograd Commission Report that followed the 2006 war against Lebanon.
All wars since 1948 “could have been avoided,” Levy wrote in Haaretz newspaper. But they were not because “Israel loves wars. Needs them. Does nothing to prevent them and, sometimes, instigates them.”
This is the only way to read the latest report and all such reports when war is used as a tool of control, to “downgrade” the defenses of a besieged enemy, to create distraction from political corruption, to help politicians win popular support, to play time and again the role of the embattled victim, and many other pretenses.
As for Palestinians, who are unable to instigate or sustain a war, they can only put up a fight, real or symbolic, whenever Israel decides to wage yet another bloody, avoidable war. No matter the outcome, Israel will boast of its military superiority, unmatched intelligence, transparent democracy and moral ascendancy. The US, Britain, France and other Europeans will enthusiastically agree, issuing Israel another blank check to “defend itself” by any means.
Meanwhile, any attempt to investigate Israel’s conduct will be thwarted, for it is a “democracy,” and for some reason self-proclaimed democracies cannot be investigated. Only their sham investigations matter; only their dead count.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.