It's impossible to mistake the public sentiment as it has been reflected in recent weeks, in the media as well. Even though only the right's loony fringes justify the spraying of "traitor" on the home of Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit, the claim that Mendelblit has been excessive in prosecuting Israeli soldiers for violations during Operation Cast Lead is widely supported.
This attitude was apparent when arguments were made on the sentencing of the two Givati soldiers convicted of forcing a 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open bags during searches in a Gaza home. Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the soldiers outside the court, while reserve generals asked the court for leniency.
Except for unusually grave violations, the public will always view accused soldiers as "our" collective children who are abandoned to their fate while the senior command takes care of its own. The prosecutors, sitting under the lights in their office, will always be seen as trying to gain favor with the international community while trying to find themselves a cushy job at the Supreme Court.
It would seem that anyone who presents the situation this way simply refuses to allow facts to confuse them. Reality is starkly different. The prosecution and the Israel Defense Forces' leaders were slow to respond to the difficulties Israel found itself in, which peaked with the lethal Goldstone report, even if it is greatly exaggerated. Initial claims in the testimony of graduates of the Rabin Pre-Military Academy and the Breaking the Silence movement were rejected almost out of hand. A more thorough and intense probe was pressed forward only when the Goldstone tsunami struck here.
Meanwhile, on the basis of hundreds of complaints, some 200 probes into operations were initiated, as were about 50 Military Police investigations. The investigators collected testimony from about 600 officers and soldiers, but many of them were technical and focused on an effort to locate people involved in the incident being investigated. Some 20 witnesses were questioned under caution.
The military advocate general was appropriately careful in his decisions to indict. Indictments have been filed in three cases: the two soldiers who were convicted of stealing a credit card, a soldier charged with killing a Palestinian, and the two soldiers accused of using the child as a human shield. It can be debated whether they deserve a criminal indictment, but the latter two displayed, if nothing else, extremely poor judgment. These are not heroes who were left behind, but soldiers who made a child wet his pants when they forced him to open the bags when there were certified sappers on the scene, specially trained to dismantle bombs.
One major investigation is still underway, against a former Givati Brigade commander in an incident involving the bombing of a home in which 21 members of the Samouni family were killed. On the other hand, the military advocate general closed many cases without criminal proceedings. The commander of the Egoz unit was reprimanded for applying the "neighbor procedure" in which a neighbor is sent to convince a barricaded militant to surrender.
In another case, in a bombing that killed 20 civilians because of faulty intelligence from the Shin Bet security service, the military advocate general decided it was an honest mistake. No steps were taken against Golani soldiers who killed children riding a cart in east Gaza because the soldiers were told to be on the lookout for a booby-trapped cart. An armored-corps officer who fired at militiamen firing Katyusha rockets and mistakenly killed civilians at a mourners' tent was not punished for failing to identify civilians in the area. In all these cases the prosecution went out of its way to account for the soldiers' concerns under fire. This is a far cry from the claims that Mendelblit is out to punish soldiers.
Operation Cast Lead is not the last time the IDF will find itself in such combat situations. Hamas and Hezbollah have done well to identify Israeli weaknesses and will exploit them in the future. The IDF will be mistaken if it does not fully clarify the details in the incidents involving killings.
It's not merely a question of ethics. One of the most severe claims against Israel is that its legal system does not punish criminal soldiers. Whitewashing crimes and granting automatic and sweeping support to every soldier will result in a "zero tolerance" approach by the international community toward the IDF's actions. By this, Israel will only help strengthen the delegitimization campaign against it.
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