Ex-IDF Legal Expert: World's Take on Israel's West Bank Operations Saps Our Self Defense

'We are paying a price in our ability to defend ourselves because of the way what we are doing in the territories is perceived,' said Col. (res.) Liron Liebman.

The way the world perceives Israel’s activity in the territories is detracting from the country’s ability to defend itself, the former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ International Law Department said Monday.

“We are paying a price in our ability to defend ourselves because of the way what we are doing in the territories is perceived,” said Col. (res.) Liron Liebman, at a conference at Tel Aviv University entitled “Israel and the Struggle Over the International Laws of War” that was sponsored by the university’s recently established Frances Brody Institute for Applied Diplomacy.

Liebman, who served in his post during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 and during the May 2010 raid on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in a flotilla trying to break the naval blockade on Gaza, addressed the influence of international law and its application in the IDF.

He also addressed complaints regarding the “legalization” of the battlefield, which expressed itself in the opening of investigations against IDF combat soldiers following Cast Lead, particularly against two Givati Brigade soldiers, who in October 2010 were convicted for unbecoming conduct for ordering a 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open suspicious bags during a ground operation in Gaza in January 2009.

“The uproar that ensued was very disappointing,” said Liebman. “I have no argument with the soldiers, their parents, or their friends, [but] unfortunately too many senior officers spoke out, saying ‘Since when does the Military Police investigate the laws of war?’”

Liebman added that the senior army brass responded only the following month, when graffiti reading “Traitor” and “Don’t get in the way when we fight” was sprayed near the home of then Military Advocate General Avihai Mandelblit – and even then it was “too little and too late.”

“There is no society in which there’s no crime,” said Liebman. “Even when the army tries its best, there are going to be deviations. If they erred, it should be [dealt with] at the command level. But it isn’t always an error. If there’s a suspicion of a crime, there must be an investigation and a criminal proceeding.”

In response to a Haaretz query about the influence of this year’s Levy Report, which determined that the West Bank outposts could be legalized because in effect, there is no occupation, Liebman said: “There’s a reason that the cabinet, in its wisdom, has not adopted the report.”

Liebman said that the Military Prosecution never argued that there is no occupation in the West Bank.

“It’s true that essentially it was meant [to last] a short time, and we are stuck with it or are sticking with it, each according to his definition,” he said. “But an approach that says ‘there’s no occupation,’ raises the question ‘so what exactly is going on here?’

“We are not an apartheid state,” said Liebman. “But until there is a peace agreement, there is apparently no choice but to hold these territories.”