Israel Stuck in the Mud on Internal Gaza Probe

Year after Gaza war, pressure continues to mount for the formation of a commission of inquiry.

On February 5, more than a year after Operation Cast Lead ended, the UN General Assembly will hold a follow-up discussion of it, in light of the Goldstone report. Israel will submit in advance to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon a detailed document containing its responses to the report's allegations. Meanwhile, a consensus is emerging in Israel regarding the appointment of a limited commission of inquiry to investigate the events in Gaza, in the hopes of rebuffing the calls to try government leaders and Israel Defense Forces officers for alleged "war crimes."

The Gaza operation - which at the time was considered to be an effective remedy to the failures of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and was declared a smooth military victory immediately upon its conclusion (and intensively marketed as such even beforehand) - refuses to fade from the public agenda. This is not what the decision-makers envisioned when they launched Cast Lead. There is no question that the operation brought about an extended period of relative quiet to the country's south, but the damage done in the international realm continues to reverberate. Israel is waging a battle to minimize this damage, which in essence means beating a gradual retreat.

As the investigations of the operation continue (the IDF finished its inquiry into the much more intensive Second Lebanon War in just six months), the question of appointing a commission drags on. The idea was considered well before the publication of the Goldstone report last September. Only now, with a gun to its head, is Israel liable to implement it.

Although the defense minister and chief of staff are amenable to the idea of an inquest, the army is still wary.

"If the intention is for field commanders to find themselves in Courtroom C [i.e., before a commission of inquiry - A.H.] with a lawyer by their side, then the implications could be ruinous," says a senior officer in the General Staff. "It can't be a 'buy one get one free' kind of thing - you went to war, now get a commission of inquiry."

The fear in the army is that surrendering to UN pressure will lead to the establishment of a commission with vast authority, with the almost inevitable result that heads will roll. For his part, Ehud Barak is convinced that this trap can be circumvented if the authority of the panel is restricted to examining the quality of the IDF's own investigations and the decision-making process in the cabinet and the military leadership.

It's not clear whether this will be enough to satisfy the international community. In frequent conversations with officers in Western armies, IDF officials hear total understanding of the difficulties inherent in the kind of combat required in the mine field that is Gaza. The qualified U.S. support that Israel has received following the Goldstone report, despite the Obama administration's anger over the stalemate in the peace process, derives from this understanding - and from the fact that America and other Western countries are stuck in the same kind of mud in their own war on terror and guerrilla warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Internal debate

In the wake of the report - and with many officers canceling trips to European countries for fear of being arrested - an internal debate has been going on within the IDF concerning the role of the jurist in asymmetric combat. The military advocate general, Major General Avichai Mandelblit, with the support of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, is pushing for greater legal involvement. Indeed, since Cast Lead, legal advisers have been regularly assigned to the command headquarters of the combat divisions, even while fighting is occurring. The main justification for this is that combat that takes place amid a civilian population, generating countless real-time dilemmas, requires commanders to have recourse to legal advice.

However, Mandelblit goes one step beyond the American army, where lawyers have also been included at the brigade level (in the Marines, a lawyer is included in every battalion, but he must also have completed Marine combat training). The military advocate general's approach has been coolly received by the Winograd Committee, whose members felt that legal consultation should end with the preparatory stage of an operation and not extend into combat itself.

One senior commander insists that the military advocate general and the chief of staff have gone too far, saying: "The roles have become confused. Instead of the commanders deciding how the force will be used, and taking care to restrain their men when necessary, they're certain that the lawyer will do the work for them. I'm already hearing division commanders talking that way. It's very disturbing. And it creates another problem: The law's involvement during battles makes it hard for it to thoroughly investigate things afterward."

The Dahiya doctrine

The speakers at a conference last Sunday at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies agreed that in recent years, Israel has faced adversaries that employ a three-part strategy: rockets and missiles aimed at the home front; deployment amid a civilian population to achieve immunity from attack; and a growing dependence on international law.

The day before, Minister Yossi Peled had caused a small uproar when he said that Israel and Hezbollah were heading for another confrontation in the north. Peled's remarks at a Saturday afternoon gathering in Be'er Sheva immediately made top headlines. The Prime Minister's Office was so upset that it took the unusual step of issuing a quick clarification that very day, saying that Israel had no intention of launching any aggressive action against Lebanon.

The timing of Peled's off-the-cuff remarks was highly sensitive. Iran, fearing that the international push for sanctions spearheaded by the United States is about to be ratcheted up a notch, is urging its collaborators in the region to be more on guard than ever against potential Israeli schemes. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah frequently summons teams with cameras and microphones to his bunker to warn that his organization is prepared for any assault. By the summer, Hezbollah will likely have completed its recovery from the last war, and will be ready for a new round.

The main speaker at the conference, GOC Northern Command Gadi Eisenkot, called the tension in the north "virtual" and attributed it to the Arab media. But the remainder of his remarks was less reassuring. He described the close cooperation between the Syrians and Hezbollah, and the IDF's expectation that every sophisticated weapons system in Syria will eventually make its way to Lebanon. He also said that, since the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh two years ago, Iran has increased its control over what goes on inside Hezbollah. And on top of that, Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror said that there are hundreds of Iranian missiles capable of striking Israel (until now, local officials estimated the number of such missiles in the dozens). The current security situation may be relatively comfortable and the deterrence level may be high, but the potential threat is steadily intensifying.

Eisenkot, quite deliberately it seems, spoke of the response the IDF is preparing in rather general terms. It appears to comprise both a massive aerial attack and a ground maneuver that would breach the enemy's defenses. The Achilles' heel of such a plan is that it would require a lot of time and patience: from civilians on the home front, who would have to remain in shelters until the fighting subsides; from the political echelon, which would have to back up the generals even in the face of potentially heavy losses; and also from the international community, which would have to resist its impulse to intervene.

All of this relates directly to the Goldstone report, of course. A year and a half ago, Eisenkot came up with the "Dahiya doctrine." Israel, he threatened, would consider responding to any Hezbollah attack on its civilian population by destroying Shi'ite villages in South Lebanon, just as it destroyed Dahiya, the Shi'ite district of south Beirut in 2006. This would be a legitimate move, he said, since after the war Hezbollah moved its activity to the villages and built bunkers and command centers there. The Goldstone report, in its rather distorted fashion, linked Eisenkot's remarks to the conduct of the war in Gaza, citing them as proof that Israel perpetrated a deliberate punitive campaign against the civilians there.

Arab commentators and leaders say they hope the report will paralyze the IDF in the next round. Asked about it this week, a senior officer in the General Staff replied without hesitation: "When missiles fly at Tel Aviv in the next war, and we presume that they will, we will respond with all the necessary force. Don't delude yourselves that anyone's going to wait for the lawyers."