A multinational military group visited Israel and Gaza to investigate claims of war crimes during last summer’s Gaza conflict and concluded that Israel did everything it could to prevent civilian deaths. Hamas, on the other hand, committed various acts that would be considered war crimes.
The High Level International Military Group, made up of 11 former chiefs of staff, generals, senior officers, political leaders and officials from the US, Australia, Germany, the UK, Holland, Spain, Italy and Colombia, came to Israel last month for a five-day fact-finding mission, led by General Klaus Naumann, former Chief of Staff of the Bundeswehr and Chairman of the NATO Military Committee.
According to the key preliminary findings the group presented to the UN’s Human Rights Council, they were “granted a level of access to the Israeli government and Defence Force that has not been afforded to any other group.”
Recognizing that some governments and UN members allege Israel committed war crimes during the 50-day Operation Protective Edge, the group stated, “Our findings lead us to the opposite conclusion.” The group determined that Israel “sought to avoid the conflict and exercised great restraint,” employing “a series of precautionary measures to reduce civilian casualties…in some instances costing, Israeli lives.”
Hamas, on the other hand, followed a policy that targeted Israeli civilians and put its own civilians in harm’s way. The report noted rocket fire aimed at civilian centers, including Ben Gurion International Airport; the construction of tunnels under the border for attack purposes; the positioning of munitions and military forces among Gazan civilian populations; using civilians as human shields; and the prevention of civilian evacuations, saying, “these actions clearly amount to war crimes.”
The report also addressed the tragically high death toll on the Gaza side of the conflict. While any loss of life is unfortunate, the group noted that some of the deaths would have occurred in any case during that time, unrelated to the conflict. Other casualties fell due to Hamas attacks which went wrong. Citing a recent Amnesty International report, the group agreed at least 23 people were murdered by Hamas during the operation, and the IDF’s assessment that at least half those killed were combatants.
The group acknowledged that as in life, sometimes in war “mistakes are made, including errors of judgement, confusion and technical failure.” It noted, “[I]ndividual soldiers sometimes act unlawfully, against military policy, rules of engagement and military law.” However, “where transgressions and errors are alleged these cases are subject to rigorous, transparent investigation and if necessary criminal proceedings and punishment. The Israeli military legal system includes a number of robust checks and balances, on which we were briefed; including oversight by the country’s widely respected supreme civil judiciary.”
Ultimately, the report placed the blame for the conflict and overall loss of life on Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups, “as the aggressors and the users of human shields”.
According to Hamas figures, some 2,100 Gazans died during Operation Protective Edge. 73 Israelis, of which 66 were soldiers, also lost their lives.
Israel continues to probe its own conduct in the operation, announcing last week it was opening three new criminal investigations while closing several others, The Times of Israel reported. At the end of the month, a team of investigators from the International Criminal Court (ICC) will also be arriving in Israel and Gaza to conduct their own preliminary examination of the viability of a case against Israel. Should a case be opened, the court may also look into allegations that Hamas committed war crimes.