19 Jun 2015

Israel’s Mark Regev: UN war crimes inquiry ‘a kangaroo court’

Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to hurl stones toward Israeli troops during clashes at Qalandia checkpoint
(A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to hurl stones toward Israeli troops during clashes, at a protest against Israeli offensive in Gaza, at Qalandia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah July 24, 2014. Credit: Reuters)

With its report expected in the next few days, Israel has repeated its claim that the United Nations inquiry investigating whether war crimes may have been committed in Gaza last summer is a “kangaroo court.”

The Israeli government has refused to cooperate with the inquiry and denied its investigators access to Gaza.

In a telephone interview, the Israeli prime minister’s chief spokesman, Mark Regev, dismissed the UN Human Rights Council, which set up the inquiry, as “institutionally biased”, saying its “treatment of Israel has been a travesty”.

“We fully expect another unbalanced report from this institutionally biased UN body, which treats Israel unfairly,” Mark Regev told Channel 4 News. “It’s a kangaroo court, yet its report will have the credibility of the United Nations behind it,” he said. “Israel has been singled out. It’s important we make our case.”


Israeli soldiers mourn next to the grave of Israeli soldier Daniel Kedmi during his funeral in Tel Aviv July 29, 2014. (Credit: Reuters.)

The remit of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the Conflict in Gaza is to investigate alleged violations of the laws of war by both sides. A source close to the inquiry told Channel 4 News that it will cover a wide range of incidents, including the allegedly deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools – and children – by Israel.

The UN says more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the 50-day conflict, most of them civilians – although Israel contests this. Of the 73 Israelis who were killed, 66 were soldiers.

Mark Regev’s comments are the latest salvo in what has become an increasingly heated and bellicose government public relations offensive as officials brace themselves for the UN report’s release. Israeli newspapers are reporting the widespread belief that the UN Inquiry will accuse the Israel Defence Force of war crimes.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has led the charge, releasing its own report into the conflict earlier this week. The 277-page tome claims that Operation Protective Edge – as the IDF called it – was both “legal” and “moral.” The government has also launched an attack on the foreign media, mocking what it casts as the gullibility of journalists covering the conflict in Gaza.

The Israeli report concluded that civilian deaths in Gaza were “unfortunate – yet lawful – incidental effects of legitimate military action”. It found that of the 2,125 fatalities in Gaza, just 761 were civilians – fewer than half the number cited by the UN.

An explosion during an Israeli strike in the northern Gaza Strip is pictured from the Israeli border with Gaza, before a cease-fire takes effect

An explosion during an Israeli strike in the northern Gaza Strip is pictured from the Israeli border with Gaza, early morning July 26, 2014, before a cease-fire takes effect. (Credit: Reuters)

Bill Van Esveld, of Human Rights Watch in Israel and Palestine, described the Israeli report as a pre-emptive strike and said Israel should stop boycotting and trying to undermine the credibility of UN human rights mechanisms.

“The report either blames Hamas abuses or discusses protocols, safeguards and legal compliance procedures – there is nothing useful about any of the cases involving alleged violations of the laws of war by the Israeli side.”

“Thus far,” he said, “Israel has failed to investigate itself and its poor record for accountability gives little cause for optimism.”

A leading Israeli Human Rights Group, B’Tselem, says the Israeli military’s own investigations into alleged military misconduct in last year’s Gaza conflict have been “a whitewash.” B’Tselem pointedly refused to cooperate with the Israeli military advocate general’s investigations into “exceptional incidents” in last year’s Gaza conflict. In the past, the group has provided evidence to military inquiries.

“The Israeli authorities are incapable of investigating, or unwilling to investigate alleged violations of international law,” Sarit Michaeli, B’Tselem spokesperson, told Channel 4 News. “We are extremely critical of the process. Israel cannot shirk its responsibilities for harm to Palestinians in Gaza. It basically just blames everything on Hamas.”

Both Israeli and international human rights groups have been highly critical of Hamas, which is among the armed Palestinian groups which the UN commission is also investigating over alleged war crimes. Amnesty International last month published a report which accused Hamas of waging a brutal campaign of abductions, torture and unlawful killings against alleged collaborators.

But the most recent ruling last week by the Military Advocate General last week  has caused widespread consternation, drawing gasps of disbelief from Palestinians in Gaza – and from journalists who witnessed the attack in question. The incident involved the killing of four children playing on the beach in Gaza City on 16 July 2014.

The military investigation exonerated the Israeli Defence Force commanders involved. They were found to have exercised “professional discretion”. The ruling stated that  “the attack process in question accorded with Israeli domestic law and international law requirements.” The judgement said “it would not have been possible for the operational entities involved to have identified these figures, via aerial surveillance, as children.”

The military advocate general currently has more than 20 possible criminal investigations pending, but there have been only three indictments over the Gaza war – all for the relatively minor crime of theft. After Operation Cast Lead, the last major conflict in Gaza in 2009, four soldiers were found guilty of wrongdoing. The longest jail sentence handed down was for seven and a half months, for the theft of a Palestinian’s credit card.

Mark Regev, the prime minister’s spokesman, defended the legal process, insisting that the military advocate general is independent of the IDF command structure and is under the aegis of the civilian advocate general of Israel. “The decision to close any case can be appealed,” he said. “We have a system of checks and balances, but for Palestinian groups, whatever we do will never be enough.”

An organisation for Israeli combat veterans, called Breaking the Silence, released a report in May in which soldiers who had served in the IDF in Gaza last summer described “permissive rules of engagement”. Around 60 soldiers testified anonymously. One said “There were no rules of engagement.” Others spoke of randomly firing artillery to avenge fallen comrades and shooting at civilians out of boredom.

“The high death toll wasn’t because of these so-called ‘exceptional cases’,” said B’Tselem’s Sarit Michaeli. “It was because of policy and the decisions made by the commanders of the security forces and the cabinet. The highest echelons.”

israel_tunnelAn Israeli army officer gives explanations to journalists during an army organised tour in a tunnel said to be used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, July 25, 2014. (Credit: Reuters)

While Israel refused to cooperate with the UN inquiry, citing the Human Rights Council’s “obsessive hostility towards Israel,” a pro-Israeli lobby group, UN Watch, last week published what it claimed was “a copy of a key submission” made to the UN commission of inquiry by what it called the “High-Level International Military Group.”

The group included an array of top brass from around the world, including former chairman of the Nato Military Committee and 10 other former chiefs of staff. One was Col Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan.

The generals praised “Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war” and reportedly concluded that “Israel not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard.” The military group did not visit Gaza and their visit to Israel was “sponsored by the Friends of Israel Initiative”, according to the final line in the UN Watch press release.

The publication of the UN inquiry is expected to coincide with a visit to Israel by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. She has opened a preliminary investigation into possible war crimes carried out by Israel, following the Palestinian Authority’s accession to the ICC earlier this year . ICC investigators are scheduled to arrive in Israel next week.

The findings of the UN independent commission of inquiry could be passed to ICC investigators and used as potential evidence. If the UN investigation concludes that war crimes were indeed committed – by either side – experts say it could open the way to universal jurisdiction cases, making it harder for those accused of command responsibility to travel.

Follow Jonathan Miller on Twitter: @millerC4

Palestinian firefighter reacts as he tries to put out a fire at Gaza's main power plant in the central Gaza Strip

A Palestinian firefighter reacts as he tries to put out a fire at Gaza’s main power plant, which witnesses said was hit in Israeli shelling, in the central Gaza Strip July 29, 2014. (Credit: Reuters)


Tweets by @millerc4