Better Late Than Never

The army's failure to investigate allegations for crimes in the Gaza War have shown how much Israel needs groups like B'Tselem to expose the truth.

The military advocate general is poised to file a grave indictment against an Israel Defense Forces soldier from the Givati Brigade who allegedly shot and killed two Palestinian women carrying white flags in an open field during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. Riyeh and Majda Abu Hajaj, a mother and daughter, were killed while fleeing their home after the IDF had ordered them to leave it.

An IDF soldier during the Gaza war

This severe incident of killing was first exposed by B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and by Haaretz reporter Amira Hass - both of whom investigated the suspicions and collected testimony from eyewitnesses shortly after the incident. The IDF Spokesman's response to Haaretz's query at the time was, "the event was examined over the course of several days, and these checks found that the IDF is unaware of any such case."

About a year and a half have gone by, and now Military Police investigators and army prosecutors have concluded that Staff Sgt. S. opened fire on the two women contrary to regulations. After a hearing for the suspect next week, the MAG will decide what charge to indict him on - manslaughter or causing death by negligence.

The army prosecution should be commended for its courageous and necessary decision to put the soldier on trial. Shooting at civilians who are carrying white flags and pose no threat to the soldiers is a war crime. If it transpires that the soldier did so, he must be severely punished.

However, one must wonder why the IDF initially tried to ignore and deny the story, and why the investigation dragged on for so long. A more vigorous investigation into this and other serious incidents could have warded off some of the international criticism hurled at Israel following the army's operation in Gaza. It could also have helped the IDF and the Israeli public discover the truth, so that they could learn the required lessons to prevent similar incidents from recurring in the future.

The slaying of the two women is included in the Goldstone Committee's report. Instead of slamming the report, as the Israeli government did, it should have studied its contents. Perhaps its pages hide other incidents that require thorough investigation and whose perpetrators should be brought to justice.

But Israel's fury was not directed at Goldstone alone. Since Operation Cast Lead, Israeli human rights groups, first and foremost B'Tselem, have been subjected to an unbridled public onslaught. Even graduates of the Rabin premilitary academy, who testified about a similar killing, were harshly castigated.

Now, after the IDF has admitted that the investigation into the women's slaying was based on testimonies it received from B'Tselem, all the slanderers and mudslingers must retract their deplorable smear campaign. The IDF needed the human-rights organization's investigators in order to probe its soldiers' conduct, and Israeli society needs organizations like B'Tselem to expose that which must be exposed, to investigate what must be investigated and to draw the necessary conclusions. Without such organizations, there is no real democracy.

Now it is time to praise the army prosecution, make sure the truth comes out and conduct a swift trial. And it is also time to repent the sin of having slandered and smeared nongovernmental groups that are doing sacred work on behalf of democracy.