Anyone who cares about the rule of law and Israel's moral image, and is worried that its soldiers may have carried out war crimes in the Gaza Strip, can now sigh with relief. The military advocate general, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, ordered that the investigation into soldiers' testimonies on their experiences in Operation Cast Lead be closed. A flash operation of instant justice buried a story that had rocked worlds. There are judges in Jerusalem, and a military advocate general in Tel Aviv. All he needed was a day or two - no Palestinian testimonies were deemed necessary. There was no real investigation whatsoever - the case was instantly disposed of.
Mendelblit's effective and scandalously quick conduct proved beyond doubt what everyone already knew: His office is a propaganda machine, part of the Israel Defense Forces' information activities. It has the same relation to justice as military marches do to music, to borrow a phrase from French statesman Georges Clemenceau.
It is inconceivable that the IDF would investigate itself. It doesn't have the slightest intention to do so. Just as the police don't investigate suspicions against policemen, neither would the IDF investigate charges against its soldiers. Let the IDF have a body similar to the Justice Ministry's Police Investigation Department. Only an independent judicial system can consider the hard questions arising from the death and havoc in Gaza.
While half the world is still inquiring about suspicions of war crimes, the use of white phosphorous on civilians, disporportionate destruction, and attacks on medical teams and UNRWA installations, the military advocate general has cast his verdict: The soldiers' testimonies were "rumors." In other words, they lied, our army is pristine and our weapons pure. Mendelblit pleased his superiors. The prosecutor became an advocate, the investigator covered for his suspects.
Not that anything different could have been expected. From the day the military advocate general announced that unlike in the first intifada, not every killing in the territories would be investigated, battle ethics were condemned. When the killing of 4,747 Palestinians in the second intifada, 942 of them women and children, according to B'Tselem, is followed by 30 indictments, five convictions and only one prison sentence of any considerable length, the IDF is sending a clear message: The killing of Palestinian civilians is of no concern to the military justice system.
The message to soldiers is just as clear: Kill as much as you please, no wrong will come to you, the army won't even bother to look into it. Now, after 1,300 deaths in Gaza, the military advocate general confirmed this policy. Any adherent of the rule of law in Israel should have been shocked by this rash decision, but our army of lawyers is concerned with other things.
If the IDF had a truly independent justice system, it would have been the first to investigate what happened in Gaza. If the army cared about the morality of its soldiers, the story would not have waited for Haaretz. But the IDF doesn't want an inquiry, and the military advocate general does as he's told. Mendelblit's decision threw the doors open for the rest of the world. For want of a real inquiry in Israel, international institutions will have to investigate what happened in Gaza and who's to blame. With Israeli supporters of the rule of law receiving no legal aid, they have the right and duty to call for an international inquiry. Yes, Israel too has people concerned by what had been going on in Gaza, but the military advocate general's decision goes well beyond the killing fields. Anyone who thinks Israel's image as a country of the rule of law is based solely on the Supreme Court in Jerusalem is profoundly wrong. Mendelblit shapes our image no less than the court's president, Dorit Beinisch. Moreover, some of the graduates of the flawed and twisted military justice system go on to lead the civil justice system, contaminating it with the same flawed values of the IDF.
Israel cannot be considered a country of the rule of law if its backyard is occupied by this grotesque show called the military justice system. Only when it is segregated from the IDF and a civil justice system investigates the army will we know we have a legal army and a legal state. Until then, all we can do is look to The Hague.
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