Citing IDF Failure to Bring Soldiers to Justice, B'Tselem Stops Filing Complaints on Abuse of Palestinians

The human rights group says filing Palestinians’ complaints with the military justice system causes the plaintiffs more harm than good.

A tour held by the B'tselem human rights group in the West Bank.
Michal Fattal

B’Tselem has announced that it will stop filing Palestinians’ complaints against IDF soldiers with the military justice system, contending that these petitions cause the plaintiffs more harm than good.

In a report published by the Israeli human rights group, it claims that its filing petitions for investigating incidents in which soldiers harm Palestinians, and of assisting military police in collecting testimony or in submission of medical documents, has not brought justice to affected Palestinians.

“The organization does not wish to assist authorities in their attempts to create a false picture of justice being served. B’Tselem has decided to no longer approach the military law enforcement system. This also applies to cases in which soldiers are suspected of violating the law, even with the understanding that Palestinian victims have no other recourse for filing a complaint against those who harm them,” reads the NGO’s statement.

This decision follows an earlier one taken after the 2014 Gaza war, in which the organization decided not to cooperate with military attorneys regarding alleged crimes that occurred during the operation.

B’Tselem activists say that since the group’s founding in 1989, they have approached military legal authorities with requests to investigate hundreds of cases in which soldiers allegedly broke the law. According to figures published in a report called “A Fig Leaf for the Occupation,” B’Tselem filed 739 such requests since 2000. In 75 percent of these cases investigations were opened, but only in 25 percent were indictments filed against the soldiers involved. The actual number of soldiers prosecuted for transgressions against Palestinians is higher, since the report only refers to indictments made after a petition by B’Tselem.

According to the NGO, the military law enforcement system suffers from a systemic flaw which prevents the undertaking of more than a small number of prosecutions. The report notes as an example that in several cases, mainly until the policy regarding investigations was changed in 2011, a criminal investigation was opened only after a military debriefing. This reduced the chances of a successful investigation, by allowing soldiers to coordinate their testimonies.

The B’Tselem report also notes that military police investigators do not make independent contact with Palestinian plaintiffs, but rely on external agencies such as human rights groups and lawyers. Military prosecutors are criticized for this by the right wing, which claims that the system thereby colludes with human rights groups.

In some cases, says B’Tselem, the responsibility for the closing of files for lack of evidence was laid on the organization, when contact was facilitated with witnesses who later refused to testify. The report states that “military prosecutors give almost total credence to the soldiers, particularly in cases in which Palestinians were killed, when soldiers claim that they opened fire after they felt that their lives were in danger.”

B’Tselem’s announcement comes in the midst of the trial of IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot a subdued terrorist in Hebron. He claims that he shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif since he felt that his life was in danger. The video clip that brought the whole incident to light was taken by a B’Tselem volunteer. It serves as the main evidence in the case against Azaria.