A report quietly submitted by IDF Military Advocate General Avichai Mandelblit to the United Nations two weeks ago regarding Israel’s conduct during Operation Cast Lead confirms the key findings of the Goldstone Report. The report (full version here), which documents 150 ongoing investigations, has outraged the Israeli Army. “It looks as though they were frightened by Goldstone,” remarked an IDF officer. Another military official expressed anger that after a previous IDF report asserting the legality of shelling civilian areas with white phosphorous, a chemical weapon, the Mandelblit report has issued recommendations limiting the munition’s use. “It looks like tying your own hands behind your back. Why should a weapon with which there is no problem be limited?” the official asked.
Mandelblit’s confirmation of the IDF’s use of white phosphorous in Gaza against a UN compound is one of his report’s most remarkable admissions. He has directly contradicted a lie told over and over again to the Israeli public in the immediate aftermath of Cast Lead, and repeated in an April 2009 IDF report, that “no phosphorous munitions were used on built-up areas.”
Discussion of white phosphorous use is buried in the body of the report, on page 21 in a section on the UNRWA Field Office Compound:
One of the most widely reported incidents during the Gaza Operation involved the UNRWA field office compound, where three individuals were injured and significant property damage resulted from the use of smoke-screen munitions containing white phosphorous. Additional damage occurred due to the use of high explosive shells in the vicinity of the compound.
Besides the deployment of white phosphorous munitions, the Mandelblit Report acknowledges that the IDF Military Advocate General has launched a criminal investigation into the killing of 26 members of the Al-Samouni family (p. 6); that the army may have used human shields (pp. 9-11); knowingly shelled a UNRWA school filled with children in order to neutralize a single enemy mortar launcher, causing large-scale civilian deaths in the process; knowingly attacked a mosque with “powerful” missiles in order to kill two unknown terrorist “operatives” (p. 17); bombed a police graduation ceremony (p. 19), killing four civilians in the process (according to Goldstone the IDF killed 9 civilians and 99 cops); killed a civilian raising a white flag (p. 22); fired on a horse-drawn carriage carrying wounded civilians, killing a number of people in the process (p. 24); fired flechette-filled tank shells in the immediate vicinity of a “condolence tent,” killing civilians in the process (p. 25); bulldozed the Sawafeary Chicken Coops (pp. 27-28) in order to obtain “a clear line of sight” for soldiers in the area; destroyed a cement packaging plant in a vain search for tunnels (p. 29); destroyed a series of factories, claiming it “did not know the structures were used to produce food products” (p. 30); and implicitly acknowledged that it destroyed private property (p. 33).
Although Mandelblit lays the blame for many killings at the feet of IDF commanders, he invokes the army’s firing policy to justify the killings. So long as soldiers claimed in their testimonies that they may have seen enemy operatives in the area (Mandelblit acknowledges extreme difficulty gathering testimony from Palestinian victims), he was able to claim that the soldiers followed the “Law of Armed Conflict.”
What is the Law of Armed Conflict? It is a set of combat guidelines specially refined for IDF army operations by Israeli military philosopher Asa Kasher. In defining his version of the law, Kasher wrote, “the responsibility for distinguishing between terrorists and noncombatants is not placed upon [Israel’s] shoulders.” He added, “Sending a soldier [to Gaza] to fight terrorists is justified, but why should I force him to endanger himself much more than that so that the terrorist’s neighbor isn’t killed? From the standpoint of the state of Israel, the neighbor is much less important. I owe the soldier more. If it’s between the soldier and the terrorist’s neighbor, the priority is the soldier. Any country would do the same.” In other words, the killing of civilians is justified according to Israeli military regulations if a soldier is able to establish having felt a sense of danger.
It is unclear whether Mandelblit’s report will lead to a roll-back of Kasher’s rules of engagement. The report’s recommendations have already been met with fierce resentment from the IDF’s officer corps, so it might be unrealistic to expect that they will ever be put into practice, especially since Israel seems to be gearing up for a potentially bloody campaign in urban areas in Southern Lebanon. The report’s real value, then, is as a confirmation of Goldstone’s key findings. Even as the most conservative investigation of IDF conduct during Cast Lead, Mandelblit exposed a consistent pattern of destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure and disregard for civilian life.
Unfortunately, the devastating findings contained in the report have not reached the Israeli mainstream. Articles about the report are buried deep in Israeli newspapers while according to Yedioth Aharonoth, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has refused to make it available on its Hebrew website (it’s only on the English site).
Maariv columnist Ofer Shelakh was one of the few Israeli public figures to address the official silence following Mandeblit’s release. He wrote in a July 23 column about both the IDF’s Mandelblit report and Eiland report on the Gaza flotilla (no link; from a Hebrew only translation from p. 23 of the Maariv weekend supplement):
What is the truth and why suddenly do we reply to the UN in terms different from those offered to Israel’s citizens? The same applies to the legal procedures taken against IDF officers, the trial of the Commander of the Gaza brigade, the investigation of former Giv’ati brigade commander Ylan Malka, of which we hear only from Israeli replies to foreign authorities.
It seems that according to the decision-makers in Israel’s Defense system we don’t want to know, we don’t have to know or we agree that all this is merely for foreign consumption, to repel anti-Israel criticism. Israelis prefer to think that the IDF operates brilliantly, that its commanders make no mistakes, and that its firing policy is considerate and moral, and that the problem in “Cast Lead” was the firing policy rather than the decisions of the local commanders.
Maybe this cynical approach to the Israeli public is justified. It is a fact that no public outcry arose after the black picture emerging from [the Eiland Report], but in the IDF, certainly among its medium ranks, many understand the damage this causes to the standards of telling the truth, and of telling the whole truth.