By ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: July 6, 2010, NY Times.com
JERUSALEM — The Israeli military said Tuesday that it had indicted “a number of” officers and soldiers for their actions during Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9, including a staff sergeant accused of deliberately shooting at least one Palestinian civilian who was walking with a group of people waving a white flag.
The announcement came nearly 18 months after the end of the war, and on the day that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, met President Obama in what many saw as a fence-mending visit after months of strained ties. A spokesman for the Israeli military denied any link between the timing of the announcement and the prime minister’s trip.
According to the army statement, the chief military prosecutor has decided to take disciplinary and legal action in four separate cases, including some already highlighted by human rights groups and by a scathing United Nations report on the war. The report, by a committee led by Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, was published in September 2009 and pointed to evidence of possible war crimes.
The offensive came as a response to years of rocket fire against southern Israel from Gaza, and after Hamas, the Islamist militant group, won elections in 2006 and took full control of Gaza in mid-2007. Up to 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the war.
Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone mission, arguing that the mandate was biased from the outset, and it rejected the report. It also resisted calls by Israeli and international human rights organizations for an independent Israeli investigation outside the military framework.
The staff sergeant accused of killing at least one civilian faces a manslaughter charge. Beyond that, the military said a battalion commander was indicted on suspicion of deviating from “authorized and appropriate” army behavior and from an Israeli Supreme Court ruling when he authorized a Palestinian man to act as a kind of human shield by entering a house where militants were sheltering in order to persuade them to leave.
The Goldstone report accused Israel of several cases of using Palestinian civilians as human shields during the Gaza war, a practice forbidden by the Supreme Court. The Goldstone report stated that such practices violated international law.
In a third case, the chief of staff ordered disciplinary action against an officer who ordered an aerial strike on a militant involved in launching rockets. The man was standing outside the Ibrahim al-Maqadma mosque, the army said, and the shrapnel caused what it called unintentional injuries to civilians inside. The Goldstone report said that an Israeli projectile struck near the doorway of the mosque, in northern Gaza, during evening prayers, killing at least 15 civilians who were mostly inside.
The military said that the officer had “failed to exercise appropriate judgment,” adding that he would not serve in similar positions of command in the future and that he had been rebuked.
In addition, the chief military prosecutor ordered a criminal investigation by the military police into an airstrike on a house that held about 100 members of the extended Samouni family in Zeitoun, a district of Gaza City.
That case stirred particular outrage around the world as Palestinian paramedics were prevented by Israeli forces from reaching the house for days after the strike. Red Cross officials then publicized their discovery of four emaciated Samouni children who had been trapped in the home with their mothers’ bodies. In all, up to 30 Samounis died.
The white flag episode has been widely publicized. According to Palestinian witness testimony gathered by Human Rights Watch, the Goldstone mission and others, a group of 28 Palestinian civilians from two families set out on Jan. 4, 2009, in the Juhr al-Dik area, south of Gaza City, trying to evacuate the area after their homes were shelled.
According to the witnesses, the group was fired on from the direction of some Israeli tanks. They said that Majida Abu Hajjaj, in her 30s, was killed while waving a white flag. Her mother, Rayya, was also fatally shot.
The Israel military said that it had been unable to match the testimonies of the Palestinians with those of dozens of soldiers and commanders questioned, but that the soldiers testified that on Jan. 5, 2009, a man was shot and killed in the same location.
The military determined that “the two events are apparently one and the same,” and that after reviewing the evidence, the military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, ordered that a staff sergeant be indicted on charges of manslaughter by a military court.
“This decision is based on evidence,” the military said, “that the soldier, who was serving as a designated marksman, deliberately targeted an individual walking with a group of people waving a white flag without being ordered or authorized to do so.”
In Gaza on Tuesday, Majed Abu Hajjaj, the son of Rayya and a brother of Majida, said that the opening of the military investigation was “an achievement in itself,” but he expressed doubts that the soldier would receive adequate punishment.
He added that the soldier’s imprisonment would not be enough. “What about the chief who refused to let us evacuate the bodies, and the driver of the bulldozers who buried them near the house and kept them there until the end of the war?” he said. “All of those should be prosecuted.”
Earlier this year, the military said it had reprimanded a brigadier general and a colonel for the firing of artillery shells that hit a United Nations compound in Gaza, and two Israeli staff sergeants were charged with instructing a 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open several bags the soldiers suspected were booby-trapped during the war. Another soldier was convicted of stealing a Palestinian’s credit card.
The military says that more than 150 cases have been examined since the campaign, and nearly 50 criminal investigations have been started.
Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza. [courtesy: NY Times.com]