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Law, Military Experts: Israel Not Guilty of War Crimes But Sets Bar Too High

June 15, 2015

“Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.”  (Deuteronomy 16:20)

An international group of high-ranking military personnel conducted an unprecedented mission to Israel on May 18–22, 2015 to uncover whether Israel was guilty of war crimes.  They found that Israel went above and beyond observing laws of armed conflict during the 2014 Gaza war.

“We were well aware of the allegations made by some governments, the United Nations, human rights groups and the media, that Israel acted outside the laws of armed conflict in Gaza.  Some have suggested that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] lacked restraint or even deliberately targeted innocent civilians,” the report states. “Our findings lead us to the opposite conclusion.”

“Israel not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard,” the group writes.

PM Netanyahu Visits IDF Base in the South

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits an IDF base in southern Israel during Operation Protective Edge.  (GPO photo by Kobi Gideon)

They could not say the same about Hamas.

Hamas’s rocket attacks deliberately and indiscriminately targeted Israeli civilian population centres in the south of the country,” they said.

“Hamas also constructed an array of tunnels, using materials diverted from humanitarian supplies, which penetrated the border between Gaza and Israel, in many cases emerging close to civilian communities,” they added.

The 11-member High Level International Military Group on the Gaza Conflict states that Hamas is culpable for numerous war crimes: its tunnel-penetration system, used “to attack, kill, and abduct Israeli civilians;” its rocket attacks toward Ben Gurion International Airport, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other civilian centers; and its use of civilian communities in Gaza to position weapons and military forces, “including in schools, hospitals and mosques.”

Jose Maria Aznar, former Prime Minister of Spain

Jose Maria Aznar, former Prime Minister of Spain

The High Level International Military Group, which was sponsored by the Friends of Israel Initiative and led by former Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, is made up of “former chiefs of staff, generals, senior officers, political leaders and officials from the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Holland, Spain, Italy, Australia and Colombia,” according to the group’s preliminary report, released on May 31.

The heavyweight Military Group affirmed that Israel did not want war with Gaza and “sought to avoid the conflict,” showing “great restraint over a period of months before the war when its citizens were targeted by sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza.”

Once the attacks boiled over into conflict, Israel also “made repeated efforts to terminate the fighting,” but were “compelled to fight against Hamas and other Gaza extremists” in what was “a legitimate war, necessary to defend its citizens and its territory against sustained attack from beyond its borders,” the report states.

The Military Group reported that Israel’s extreme carefulness to stay within the laws of armed conflict resulted in human losses in the Israeli camp.

“A measure of the seriousness with which Israel took its moral duties and its responsibilities under the laws of armed conflict is that in some cases Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war cost Israeli soldiers’ and civilians’ lives,” the Military Group states.  (UN Watch Blog)

The group sent their preliminary findings to the Paris-based chairperson of the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, Judge Mary McGowan Davis.  It requested that Davis — who will be finishing her own inquiry soon — “take into account the findings of this group of eminent military and civilian experts.”  (HLIMG)

Mary McGowan Davis, Chairman Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict 28th Session at the UNHRC March 2015

Mary McGowan Davis, Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict chairman (UN Photo by Jean Marc Ferre)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the group’s report at his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, saying, “This report shows the true facts and proves that the actions carried out by the IDF were made in accordance with international law.”

“Israel and the IDF are committed to the rules of international law even when fighting terrorist organizations that intentionally violated those rules,” Netanyahu said.  “Israel is a democratic, moral state that acts in accordance to international law.”  (JP)

Netanyahu added that the truth “that Israel has not committed war crimes” will be shown, saying, “We will work everywhere, for as much as it takes, to deal with false claims and anti-Israeli initiatives.”

IDF officers shield a 4-year-old boy, protecting him with their own bodies during a Hamas rocket attack

IDF officers shield a 4-year-old boy, protecting him with their own bodies during a Hamas rocket attack.  (IDF photo by Li Aviv Dadon)

Viadrina European University military law expert Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg also conducted analysis of Israel’s conduct in the Gaza conflict, suggesting that the IDF, with “many more precautions than are required, … is setting an unreasonable precedent for other democratic countries of the world who may also be fighting in asymmetric wars against brutal non-state actors who abuse these laws.”  (Israel National News)

From the United States’ Naval War College, the director of the Stockton Center for the Study for International Law, Michael Schmitt, says the IDF goes beyond both what the law requires and what “operational good sense” requires with its warning system to civilians that include thousands of telephone calls (as well as to influencers in the target area), TV and radio warnings, and leaflets.

“People are going to start thinking that the United States and other Western democracies should follow the same examples in different types of conflict. That’s a real risk,” Schmitt said.

The High Level International Military Group expects to release a detailed report in the coming months on “how civilians lives can be protected and military forces can fight effectively when operations must be conducted in a densely packed civilian area.”

In the report, it was noted that The Military Group had “received unprecedented access to the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Force.”  (High Level International Military Group)

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