Israel hides behind 'armed conflict' By Julia Romasevych

17 September, 2010 — Radio Netherlands Worldwide

The Israeli military failed to investigate the killings of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories between 2006 and 2009, according to a report by an Israeli human rights group.

B’Tselem claims that Israeli soldiers who kill Palestinian civilians are almost never held accountable which creates a climate of impunity.

The problem is largely created by the Israeli Supreme Court, which classified the situation in the occupied territories as an ‘armed conflict’. This is in contradiction with the principles of international law.

The report, entitled Void of Responsibility: Israel Military Policy not to investigate Killings of Palestinians by Soldiers, analyses the policy of the Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAG), which is the main legal body of the Israeli army.

In that period, Israeli troops killed 1,510 Palestinians, including 617 civilians, the group said. The figures do not include the December 2008 to January 2009 war in Gaza, in which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed.

B’Tselem spokesperson, Sarit Michaeli, told IJT: “This policy permits soldiers and officers to act in violation of the law, creates a culture of impunity and shows a flagrant disregard for human life.”

Investigations

The military had opened investigations into just 23 of 148 cases which were submitted by B’Tselem. The cases concern the killing of 288 civilians. As yet, no criminal charges have been brought.

The Israeli authorities confirmed that most cases were “still under examination in accordance with standard investigative policies.”

The human rights group’s analysis also shows that the authorities’ interpretation of events is often solely based on the statements of soldiers, while neglecting contradictory evidence or eyewitness testimony.

‘Armed conflict’

Michaeli said the problem was largely due to the official classification of the situation in the occupied territories as an “armed conflict”, implemented by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2000, at the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada.

The classification allows an investigation by the Military Police Investigation Unit (MPIU) to be opened only in exceptional cases, when there is a ‘suspicion’ that a criminal offense had been committed. Thus every act of the soldiers is considered a combat action and does not require investigation.

“Because of the changed character of the conflict and the low level of violence, we think Israel should suspend this classification”, Michaeli said. “Even in an armed conflict civilian casualties need to be investigated.”

Contradiction

Chantal Meloni, an international criminal law expert of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), does not agree that the ‘armed conflict’ classification is the main problem.

“The ruling of the Supreme Court is in contradiction with international law, because even in a war, there are certain rules that should be respected. For example, there is always a distinction between civilians and combatants.”

Meloni says very often, the Israeli position on matters of international law is not consistent with the general, internationally accepted definition. She adds:

“An international justice mechanism is needed in the occupied territories. In the best scenario, the Security Council would refer the situation to the ICC. This is quite unlikely, but there are technical possibilities for Ocampo to open an investigation and we are going to push for that”.

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