RAMALLAH, July 24 (JMCC) - The Israeli military rarely blinks in the face of censure and public condemnation. Yet a blizzard of cumulative criticism that peaked over Israel’s 22-day offensive
in the Gaza Strip
has led to a series of accountability exercises. The “most moral army in the world” is letting the sunshine in -- but only where it won’t start a fire.
Since 2000, over 90 percent of internal investigations from the military have been closed without indictment, say human rights groups.
In recent years, results have worsened. In 2009, 236 investigations yielded four indictments.
But over the past month, Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit has handed down indictments and opened several criminal investigations. These cases have all been of serious, violent crimes against civilians, unlike the first conviction that came out of the Gaza war, which saw a soldier jailed for stealing a credit card.
Now a staff sergeant is on trial for manslaughter. A lieutenant colonel stands accused of recklessly endangering civilian lives during the Gaza offensive. The case of Tristan Anderson, an American activist irreversibly brain damaged after being shot in the head at a West Bank demonstration last year, will be reopened.
Most interesting of the recent announcements, however, are the cases of two brothers, Bassem and Ashraf Abu Rahmah, from the West Bank
village of Bilin
. In April 2009, Bassem was shot at a protest against the Wall
in his village. He was killed almost instantly by a high velocity tear gas canister fired at close range.
The army initially refused to pursue an investigation, claiming the protest had been violent and that the soldier had nothing to answer for.
Fifteen months later, however, following an exhaustive campaign by human rights groups and the village’s activists, the military has opened a criminal investigation.
The military has denied that lobbying made a difference, claiming in an interview that “in this unusual case it took longer than normal to gather the necessary evidence.” But video documentation shows Bassem’s death from three angles.
Jonathan Pollak, a leading anti-Wall activist, characterizes the army’s response to Bassem’s death as “negligent,” saying that the military interviewed the wrong border police and didn’t investigate the crime scene.
“Even with our meager resources, we could show such obvious flaws in the investigation,” he says.
Israeli peace groups Yesh Din and B’Tselem assisted Bilin’s Popular Committee in producing a forensic report. Before it was presented to Israel’s high court, however, the military’s advocate general announced that a criminal investigation would take place.
‘CULTURE OF COVER-UP’
Pollak cites flaws in the military justice system that could allow Bassem’s death to go unpunished. One is the practice of “operational debriefings,” where a case is discussed merely in terms of operational efficiency. Soldiers have immunity during this process and any evidence gathered is inadmissible in court.
“Even in this clear case, with Bassem’s death shown on video from three angles,” says Pollack, “they used the operational debriefing instead. It is a culture of cover up.”
Three days after the criminal investigation into Bassem’s case was announced, a soldier and an officer were convicted on charges of “illegal use of a weapon” and “unfit behavior.” They were caught on video shooting a bound and blindfolded prisoner in the foot with a rubber bullet at a 2008 demonstration in Nilin
village. The prisoner was Ashraf Abu Rahmah, Bassem’s brother.
Gaby Lasky, a lawyer who has represented many residents of the villages along the Wall, believes the Abu Rahmah cases represented an opportunity for the military.
“It’s a strategy to show the authorities are not partial,” he says, “so they have found two very easy cases. There is no reason not to have investigations -- there’s no way that shooting a handcuffed, blindfolded detainee can be legal and that people don’t need to be punished. We can’t say the authorities are trying to be transparent in general.”
Lasky believes the lengthy delays in both cases were deliberate. “Delaying an investigation for so long is always in the interest of the accused. Now no one can go to the scene. Evidence is unavailable, so it’s much more difficult.”
Yet the presence of video evidence in both cases provides some hope for the campaigners.
“The footage demonstrates the validity of our case conclusively,” says Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem. “For Bassem’s death, it shows there was no violence, that he was killed posing no threat, on the east side of the barrier. The military have now agreed he was doing nothing illegal. Our spatial imaging experts showed the military advocate general that the operational debriefing’s conclusions were unacceptable.”
The footage also shows Bassem was killed by a canister fired in a direct line, in breach of military regulations that state fire must be directed into the air, at a 30 degree angle.
But the Abu Rahmahs themselves are not confident. “The Israeli army is making a judgment on Israeli soldiers, so it is always against the Palestinians,” Ahmed, brother of Bassem and Ashraf, says.
Cousin Rateb Abu Rahmah of the Popular Committee agrees “there isn’t good trust in this court,” he says. “They don’t make judgments based on the law.”
Nevertheless, campaigners feel that public pressure has helped. The number of injuries at demonstrations has decreased, they say, and the weapon used to kill Bassem has been taken out of operation.
Further, pressure has forced the army to re-examine cases like Tristan Anderson’s, while US president Barack Obama has called for a new investigation into the death of Rachel Corrie, another high-profile international activist killed by the Israeli military.
Raja Abu Rahmah of Bilin believes the criticism that followed Israel’s May attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla
has contributed to these successes.
“All over the world people condemned it,” she says, “and now we have thousands more internationals coming here to see what is happening to us. People now question Israel’s sunny image as a peaceful democracy, and maybe now Israel will be scared enough to reduce its threats against Palestinians.”