Unlike the last UN report published by the Goldstone Commission in 2009, the writers of the latest UN report, published on Monday, have gone to great lengths to avoid being seen as biased toward the Palestinians. In contrast to Richard Goldstone, Justice Mary McGowan Davis, the new commission’s American chairwoman, has not been dragged into sweeping generalizations, sanctimonious preaching or unfounded conspiracy theories regarding Israeli plots. Her committee, which examined the events pertaining to the war in Gaza last summer, finds serious fault with both sides, Israel and Hamas. Still, Israel – as the stronger party, and the one that caused much more casualties (though the committee didn’t accuse Israel of intentionally killing civilians) — is the target of most of the criticism.
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Fighting a terrorist organization operating among a civilian population directing most of its firepower at Israel’s civilian population could be nothing but a brutal, dirty war. No conventional army can hunt terrorists that shoot Katyusha rockets or anti-tank rockets from residential neighborhoods without harming the women and children who live there. It’s doubtful that faced with similar circumstances, other Western armies would have abided by more stringent procedures for protecting lives (the American invasion of Iraq and the targeted airstrikes on terrorist operatives through the Middle East in recent years attest to the contrary).
Still, the committee, appointed by the UN Human Rights Commission, has made serious claims against Israel’s conduct during the war. Some of those claims were already made during the fighting – making the Israeli military's adherence to the same tactics right up until the end of the fighting an additional basis for criticism. The committee raises claims of war crimes pertaining to Israel’s systematic use of airstrikes on Hamas command centers (strikes that killed hundreds of civilians); the ease with which it ordered civilians to evacuate neighborhoods in order to carry out operations without any limitations; and the massive use of firepower during the attempt to thwart the kidnapping of Israel Defense Forces officer, Lt. Hadar Goldin, on what has since been called “Black Friday” in Rafah [because of the many civilians killed].
The reports’ authors also point out that the use of precautionary measures, such as broadcast announcements, phone calls to residents and the “knock on the roof” tactic (by which families were warned to evacuate their home before a bombing), does not absolve Israel of responsibility for civilians’ deaths. At the same time, the committee pointed out that the IDF’s actions led to the killing of 1,462 civilians (65 percent of casualties as opposed to the 36 percent figure that the IDF reported), damage to 18,000 housing units, and the fact that 28 percent of Gazans were forced to leave their homes during the fighting.
From the Israeli perspective, there are also serious gaps in the report, evident upon first glance. The committee completely ignores Egypt’s role, following its decision to tighten its own blockade on Gaza, placing sole responsibility for the blockade on Israel. The report does not give appropriate consideration to the difficulty of fighting an enemy embedded within a civilian population, and mostly evades two issues which were thought to have been of obvious importance – Hamas’ plans for using its attack tunnels to launch terror attacks in Israeli territory, and its massive barrage of rocket fire launched from civilian areas within the Strip.
Despite all this, if Israel keeps with tradition and launches a self-righteous frenzy labeling the UN as anti-Semitic, this too, would be a mistake. In recent years, primarily after the Mavi Marmara affair in 2010 [when nine activists aboard a Turkish ship trying to break the blockade on Gaza were killed in an Israeli naval raid] — and the subsequent Turkel Comission, Israel has gone to great lengths to improve its own policy and the investigative capabilities of both the Military Police and the Military Advocate General, in attempts to preempt international accusations of war crimes or atrocities. This latest UN report highlights the efforts of Military Advocate General, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni on this front, though it also points out that the relatively small number of court martials and criminal investigations attests to Israel’s failure to follow international law to the letter.
But when the prime minister explains beforehand that the UN report is biased and therefore superfluous, when the defense minister publicly criticizes Efroni’s decisions to investigate operational events that took place during the fighting, when IDF senior officers blast the Military Advocate General in interviews with the media, and when the IDF is called, without question “the most moral army in the world,” and social media are full of fiery discussions, it’s hard to expect Efroni to take additional action. And herein lies the trap, as the report clearly states that failure to adhere to the law by the Israeli authorities will only speed up the process of referring claims about war crimes to the International Criminal Court in The Hague (which the report recommends anyway).
It’s certainly possible that when compared to the shock expressed by the Goldstone report, the ramifications of the McGowan Davis report will be less severe. This is likely perhaps because there are worse atrocities currently plaguing the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen, while the West is engaged in similar challenges while launching airstrikes on Islamic State [also known as ISIS or ISIL] in Iraq and Syria. Even so, Israel should not underestimate the possible long-term effects of the report.
Today, it’s already clear that any war against Hezbollah will be a more intense version of the conflict in Gaza, and that the number of casualties on both sides will be much higher. Under such circumstances, Israel is likely to find that even if it defeats the enemy on the battlefield (which it didn’t exactly do in Gaza), it can never be victorious or even inflict serious damage in the struggle after the war, due to international criticism – and later, the likelihood of legal steps in response to its actions in the field.