Israel's policy on how to deal with violations of the laws of war during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip has undergone a radical change during the year and half since the fighting ended. In the meantime, it seems, Israel has paid the full price for its original position without managing to reap any significant profits from its turnabout.
Right after the fighting ended, the Israel Defense Forces' approach was that everything done in Gaza was completely proper. Violations by individual soldiers, if they occurred at all, were very rare, and in any case, things like that happen in wartime.
The IDF's internal probes were also begun with a feeling there was no need for haste. The message that trickled down from the top, even if never stated explicitly, was that it was better to keep the probes low profile and avoid legal action whenever possible. If we don't say anything, the theory went, it will all blow over.
Testimony that contradicted the official line (such as that given by graduates of the Rabin premilitary academy and soldiers who spoke to the Breaking the Silence organization ) was publicly denounced as lies that aid the enemy. The United Nation's Goldstone Commission - which Israelis, with considerable justice, suspected from the start of blatant bias in the Palestinians' favor - received no official cooperation from Israel.
But international criticism of the Gaza operation just kept growing, reaching its crescendo with publication of the Goldstone report. In response, Israel changed its tune.
Many of the army's operational probes, which had been completed in the interim, were followed by criminal legal proceedings or at least disciplinary action against officers and soldiers involved in problematic incidents. The Foreign Ministry and the IDF were also careful to send periodic reports to the UN that detailed the steps Israel had taken since the last report. The latest of these bulletins was sent off on Tuesday.
Now, the time has come for the next, predictable, episode of this saga. Just as happened during the first intifada (and, to a lesser degree, during the second as well ), officers are growing increasingly frustrated with the intensive legal scrutiny of their actions. The military prosecution and the military police are just doing their assigned job, but many field officers feel as if the job is being done with excessive diligence, with no concern for the toll it takes on them.
A few weeks ago, Army Radio reported some astonishing statistics: The Military Police have thus far questioned more than 500 officers and soldiers who took part in the Gaza operation. Those questioned included almost every battalion commander involved in the fighting, and some of these commanders have been questioned around 10 times already. One division commander and one brigade commander have already been reprimanded, and another brigade commander is still under investigation for the accidental killing of 21 civilians in an aerial attack on Gaza City.
In conversations with battalion and brigade commanders in recent weeks, the following allegations have been heard repeatedly: Officers are being harassed by a plethora of interrogations that have no justification. Reports on the steps that have been taken, including indictments or the opening of investigations against senior officers, have been given to the UN and the media even before the army itself is informed. And the changes now being ordered in the IDF's combat doctrine have not been sufficiently explained to the troops.
These are all serious allegations. The IDF's high command must address them thoroughly if it wants to prevent a crisis of motivation among the troops on the front lines.
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