The Israeli attorney general and military prosecutor have begun investigations of numerous incidents during Operation Protective Edge which may reach to the level of war crimes :
While fighting still raged, the government and IDF appointed special investigative staff to inquire into tens of incidents, among them invocation of the Hannibal Directive in Rafah, out of fear of claims by the UN [Human Rights panel] and human rights groups alleging war crimes.
During Hannibal, the IDF lays down immense destructive firepower to either kill captured Israeli soldiers (or frustrate their capture, depending on your viewpoint). As a result of this indiscriminate slaughter of enemy combatants and civilians, hundreds of Gazans were killed during the war. During the most infamous invocation of Hannibal, 160-190 were killed and large swaths of the Rafah neighborhood were totally obliterated (as was Shujaia before that). Human rights NGOs have filed protests against these military operations and characterized them as prospective war crimes violations.
One of the most notorious of the Hannibal commanders (there were at least two other invocations of the directive during the war) was Col. Ofer Winter, leader of the Givati brigade, which lost three soldiers in an ambush. During it, at least one of them being captured (or perhaps just his corpse) by Hamas. All three were killed, at least one and perhaps all as a result of IDF fire. Now, Israel is investigating Winter’s profligacy both in killing Palestinian civilians and his own troops through this procedure.
Lest any reader develop any sense of satisfaction from this news, you needn’t feel any sense of relief that Israel is concerned about following the international laws of war. In fact, these so-called investigation are a means of circumventing international law. Those who know something about the subject will remember that its premise is that countries themselves would have the obligation to investigate their own war crimes charges. Only if countries refused to investigate or charge violators, would the suspect events come under the jurisdiction of international criminal tribunals. So if Israel goes through the motions of mounting an investigation, it believes it will have satisfied the provisions of the law while avoiding any serious charges.
In line with this, the IDF chief of staff appointed the commander of the northern front, Noam Tibon, to head the panel. This is something like appointing Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay to investigate the firebombing of Dresden as a war crime. Benny Gantz established the panel from the first moment of the war, indicating that he expected that the IDF’s war fighting strategy would draw international condemnation. This is yet another indication that the wholesale slaughter and destruction of entire civilian neighborhoods was no accident, but pre-planned. Not perhaps in all its particulars, but in the overall take-no-prisoners scorched earth strategy that was implemented on the ground.
Don’t be fooled by seemingly balanced statements like this one:
“Even now, it’s fair to say that the deliberations will not be simple. But the IDF has been prepared for this for some time…
IDF soldiers were forced to operate in problematic situations and not only regarding terrorists [presumably a reference to the killings of civilians]. They fought under very complex conditions. Terror didn’t just hide within a civilian population, it [“terror”] used it against the army [IDF]. Soldiers face complex situations.
…Yet another source involved in military investigations indicated that there was room for self-criticism, but that often the charges involved little more than a carefully orchestrated campaign of incitement…Some of the claims have already been negated and found baseless and are related to standard attempts at de-legitimization of Israel.
The source emphasized that thousands of targets had already been vetted and approved by intelligence and military legal officials before the war and deemed appropriate. The IDF adopted a wide range of measures to avoid harming civilians. including putting itself in situations which endangered our forces.
Military sources said that justice officials were reluctant to approve, both before and during the fighting, a whole range of operations which the IDF carried out…There’s conflict between the military legal officials and the justice ministry concerning certain operations during Operation Protective Edge. This has happened before during previous military campaigns. And the IDF is prepared to explain its position [regarding suspected war crimes].
If you study the tea leaves in this statement, clearly the IDF is preparing to face criticism both from the international community and within the civilian justice ministry of its aggression and slaughter of civilian populations. It is prepared to combat these charges by mounting a robust defense that includes a fixed investigation whose result is known even before it begins.
In a further indication that the fix is in, the article indicates that Tibon has already met with Winter, something that seems strange before the panel has even begun taking testimony. It strikes me as preparing the potential witness so that he gives testimony that is most favorable to himself and the IDF.
In this AP story, the IDF continues the lies regarding the Rafah massacre:
It denied firing into a densely populated area without regard for civilians, saying precise airstrikes hit targets linked to militants and artillery — though inherently inaccurate — was only aimed at open fields.
Here the IDF takes us all to be fools. Media reports have previously indicated that the IDF fired at any vehicle that approached the neighborhood’s hospital hoping to kill both the captured IDF soldier and anyone accompanying him. You don’t kill 160 civilians in a matter of hours through “precise airstrikes” and artillery firing at “open fields.”
I find the AP account of the Rafah Hannibal operation to be deeply problematic since it accepts the Israeli premise that it is meant to free the soldier from captivity. You’ll see from the army’s own account of the firepower mustered that it couldn’t possibly have intended to free anything. Rather, the goal was annihilation–of Goldin, the cell that captured him, and the remaining civilian population of Rafah:
Over the next eight hours, soldiers fired about 500 artillery shells, he said. The military said it also launched about 100 airstrikes against targets in Rafah…
The priority was to rescue Goldin.
“That’s why we used all this force,” Winter told the newspaper. “Those who kidnap need to know they will pay a price. This was not revenge. They simply messed with the wrong brigade.”
Examine that last paragraph again. Winter does not say anything about rescuing Goldin. He talks about making the “kidnappers” pay a price. In other words, by killing the captured solider, Hamas would presumably lose the bargaining chip it had gained. Of course, when he says it was “not revenge,” he means precisely the opposite, since he didn’t care a whit about civilian casualties in mounting this onslaught.
Returning to the IDF PR offensive: its fool’s errand continues here with the perfuctory–“we’re sorry, but not really:”
“If we accidentally or mistakenly targeted a civilian situation, it was a mistake, and we are very sorry about that,” an officer from the army’s Southern Command said…
I’d guess that when nations first wrote the protocol for the International Criminal Court they hadn’t banked on a country like Israel which would violate the provisions of the law with impunity, all the while maintaining a straight face about respecting it. It’s no accident that Israel become an exemplar of the Yiddish term, chutzpah.
Finally, throughout this ghastly war I’ve harped on the Hannibal Directive as one of the most troubling of IDF procedures because it is largely secret, undebated, misunderstood (deliberately so), and led to so much carnage. Now, we see that Hannibal could become a focus for war crimes charges against the IDF and those who commanded it (including the civilian echelon). And justly so. Hannibal is anti-democratic, immoral, and an outrage. Those like Prof. Asa Kasher who render such immorality kosher (even in a comment thread here), are shameful apologists for IDF criminality.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.