The Israeli army has decided not to indict a colonel who ordered the shelling of a clinic in Gaza City’s Shujaiya neighborhood to “honor” a soldier who had been killed by sniper fire.
Instead, the senior officer, Nerya Yeshurun, will merely be reprimanded, a penalty that does not preclude promotions.
In May 2015, The Electronic Intifada revealed a recording of Yeshurun instructing his unit to shell the clinic on 23 July 2014, five days after Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza.
Yeshurun commanded his troops to “shoot a fusillade to honor and salute” Dima Levitas, the 26-year-old captain allegedly killed by sniper fire the previous day. Yeshurun instructed that the “fusillade” be directed “at the clinic from which the villains shot at him and took his life.”
The recording was broadcast by the Israeli media at the time. In addition, an Israeli military journal published an interview with Yeshurun in October 2014 in which he said, “Personally, I loved Dima dearly … I was sorry that his company and I could not be at [the military graveyard on] Mount Herzl when he was being brought to burial, so we decided to fire a fusillade of shells toward the spot through which he lost his life during the funeral.”
Little attention was paid to either apparent admission of a war crime. Deliberate attacks on civilians, specifically attacks on hospitals and medical facilities, are prohibited under international humanitarian law.
Attacks conducted as reprisals or revenge are also prohibited under international law.
Only after media reports emerged last summer did the army launch a criminal investigation into the incident, making Yeshurun the first senior commander to be placed under investigation.
According to the World Health Organization, 17 hospitals and 56 primary healthcare centers were either destroyed or damaged during Israel’s 51-day attack on Gaza in 2014.
On Tuesday, Haaretz reported that the army had closed the criminal investigation without an indictment because there was not sufficient evidence to disprove the claim that the shelling had “operational” merit.
Yeshurun’s deputy, Amihai Harach, told Israel army radio that Yeshurun was not a “bully” but that he had to “take down this clinic” because Hamas fighters had positioned themselves inside it.
“The only unusual thing he [Yeshurun] did was that he put the incident on top of the eulogy to Dima, the company commander who was killed,” Harach added. “That was certainly to raise [morale]. And I say to you on the level of facts – that raised morale and encouraged the soldiers to continue the mission.”
But an anonymous soldier in the same armored brigade as Yeshurun testified to the Israeli nongovernmental organization Breaking the Silence that his commanders ordered the soldiers to fire shells at houses “in memory” of a killed soldier.
According to his testimony, his commander instructed the unit to “pick the farthest one so it does the most damage.” The soldier described the shelling as a “revenge of sorts.”
“The main purpose of what they did,” Shawan Jabarin, the director of the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, told The Electronic Intifada last year, “is how to terrorize and teach Palestinians a lesson. How to use civilians to pressure the resistance, without taking care of any legal principles or international laws.”
Last month, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem formally ended its cooperation with the Israeli military’s internal investigation unit, describing it as a “fig leaf for the occupation” that “whitewashes investigations.”
Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, opened a preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine in January 2015, and last November announced her office was assessing whether to take further action. One of the issues the prosecutor will assess is whether Israel’s investigations are credible and genuine.
According to the Rome Statute, the founding document of the ICC, the court has no jurisdiction where there is already an investigation or prosecution being carried out by a “state that has jurisdiction over it, unless the state is unwilling or unable to genuinely carry out the investigation or prosecution.”
Israel has opened a handful of criminal investigations into incidents during its 2014 assault on Gaza that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including more than 550 children, but all indictments have focused on low ranking soldiers charged with the crimes of looting and covering it up.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch called on the ICC to open a formal investigation into human rights abuses committed in Palestine by Israelis and Palestinians, arguing that Israel had not made any “meaningful progress in providing justice” for violations in Gaza in 2014.