Orphaned War Crimes, Coming Back to Haunt Us

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Shimon Peres, then-prime minister, talking to soldiers during Operation Grapes of Wrath in southern Lebanon, 1996.
Shimon Peres, then-prime minister, talking to soldiers during Operation Grapes of Wrath in southern Lebanon, 1996.Credit: Ofer Yizhar

That’s the way it is with orphaned war crimes, those for which no one was ever punished or at least took responsibility; they keep on pursuing us like ghosts. And that’s the way it is with politicians who brag, “I’ve killed a lot of Arabs and there’s no problem with that,” (Naftali Bennett).

The massacre by the Israel Defense Forces at Kafr Qana has again arisen, as if from the depths, nearly 20 years after it occurred. Two respected journalists, Yigal Sarna and Raviv Drucker, criticized the performance of young company commander Bennett, whose behavior, they say, indirectly led to the massacre. Almost immediately the “how do they dare?” assaults began.

How do “keyboard heroes” dare rummage through the military past of a heroic officer, the head of a rising political party who will soon be the next defense minister? To ask a politician if he smoked grass if fine, but to ask if he bore any responsibility for a massacre is forbidden.

“Today we’re asking to leave the IDF out of politics,” reads a statement by army officers, a request that accompanies every military episode anyone tries to touch; the officers, who are “unaffiliated with political views or parties” as if there even is such a thing, went on to defend Bennett.

There was a massacre at Kafr Qana, a village in southern Lebanon, during Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996. A hundred and two people were killed, among them many women and children, by five shells that the IDF fired on them in a United Nations facility. Someone is responsible for that. It could be that the killings were not deliberate, but those who kill others on the roads who didn’t mean to still get put on trial and are severely punished.

Israel expressed regret but didn’t apologize. Israel never apologizes, not in Bennett’s day, and not under Shimon Peres, either. Peres’ Israel didn’t prosecute anyone for the crime in Kafr Qana, and the crime remains orphaned. The shells fell out of the sky. Now an aura of suspicion clings to Bennett, justifiably or not; the suspicion will only garner him sympathy (and Knesset seats).

If Kafr Qana wasn’t a war crime, what could be considered one? Could it be that the IDF never has, never does and never will commit a war crime, and there simply is no such thing as an Israeli war crime? The settlements, the occupation, the killing of children and of those waving white flags, the fire on schools and clinics, the bombing of apartment buildings and the destruction of homes, the torture and transfer of prisoners from the occupied areas to Israeli prisons – none of these are considered violations of international law, let alone war crimes.

Whoever believes this is welcome to continue doing so. But those who are somewhat more connected to reality and concerned about the State of Israel’s reputation know that war crimes must be investigated and those responsible brought to justice. And yes, war crimes are generally committed by soldiers or officers, pilots or gunners, all of them devoted and heroic. In Israel they are never named or blamed, whether it’s a soldier who shot a fleeing child in the back or an officer who ordered the shelling of a shelter. They walk among us.

These things take on added significance with the Palestinian Authority’s joining the International Criminal Court. While this means that from now on the only thing that can save Israel from international investigations and having its soldiers and officers brought to trial is if Israel does it itself, a cry has arisen – some 250 reserve officers have already signed a petition – not to investigate incidents that occurred during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. Bennett has also called to “leave [the] Givati [Brigade] alone.”

But we cannot leave the IDF alone. There is no way that we can leave it “out of politics,” as those sanctimonious officers supporting Bennett demand. Nor can we let the military investigate itself, just as we wouldn’t think of letting Yisrael Beiteinu investigate itself.

At Kafr Qana, during Operation Cast Lead, during Operation Protective Edge and in the occupied territories, war crimes were and continue to be committed. Someone, someday will have to account for them, and Bennett won’t be able to save them.

Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz

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