MilitaryAdvocate General Maj. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit
MilitaryAdvocate General Maj. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit Photo by Alon Ron
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If Staff Sgt. S. of the Givati Brigade is charged with the killing of two Palestinian women, as expected, it will be the third and most serious indictment to emerge from Operation Cast Lead. No soldier has yet been prosecuted for acts resulting in the deaths of Palestinian civilians during the operation.

The exact nature of the charges will depend on the degree of S.'s cognizance of the scene unfolding before him and of the deputy battalion commander's instructions when he fired. After the soldier's hearing next week he will probably be charged with either manslaughter or negligent manslaughter.

The Arab side sees the incident, which took place on January 4, 2009, south of Gaza City, as evidence of the intentional murder of civilians by the Israel Defense Forces during the operation. That claim has not been proved. According to the military investigation, the deputy battalion commander ordered soldiers to fire warning shots but not to hit anyone. The soldiers said they did not see any white flags among the civilians. The incident seems like the kind of thing that can happen during the heat of combat in a dangerous, densely populated area.

Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit is to be commended for his determination to discover the truth of what happened, 18 months after the fact. But the long delay before the army began a thorough investigation helped create the vacuum that the Goldstone committee filled. The report it produced not only harmed Israel's international standing but could hamper the IDF's performance in future operations. Mendelblit and military police investigators depended largely on evidence collected by B'Tselem. Without the work of this and other human rights organizations in interviewing Palestinian witnesses, it would have been impossible to verify the facts of the case. It is not surprising that Mendelblit often praises B'Tselem in interviews, even if some senior officers do not like it.

After the Gaza operation some officers and politicians said they did not believe Israeli soldiers were capable of intentionally shooting at civilians. In the case at hand it's not clear whether the shooting was intentional or the result of misinterpreting a command. But such things have happened. In the second intifada at least three similar cases were tried.

The affair makes it difficult to ignore the testimonies of graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin Pre-military Academy describing a similar incident during Operation Cast Lead. The investigation ended after just 11 days. The latest affair suggests that these soldiers' statements, for which they were roundly criticized by the media and the public, were not based on hallucinations. How is it that what was "inconceivable" in one case is basis for an indictment in another?

The lesson of the academy and the Gaza flotilla affairs is that pointing out shortcomings in a military operation is not tantamount to betraying soldiers. The IDF must investigate itself thoroughly in order to maintain its moral standards and correct its mistakes.