For as long as Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has documented human rights violations by Israel in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, it has also referred complaints to the Israeli military’s internal investigative unit.
But this week, the nearly three-decade old human rights organization announced it will end its cooperation with Israel’s military law enforcement system.
“As of today,” executive director Hagai El-Ad wrote in an emailed statement on 25 May, “we will no longer refer complaints to this system, and we will call on the Palestinian public not to do so either.”
“We will no longer aid a system that whitewashes investigations and serves as a fig leaf for the occupation.”
B’Tselem’s cooperation with the military’s investigations was not confined to filing complaints with the office of the Military Advocate General. The organization also assisted investigators to speak to Palestinians and Palestinian victims and obtain documents and medical records.
The decision to cease such work was announced alongside the publication of “The Occupation’s Fig Leaf: Israel’s Military Law Enforcement System as a Whitewash Mechanism.”
The report examines the paucity of the army’s investigative efforts, that by design only probe the conduct of low-ranking soldiers. Orders are never placed under investigation, B’Tselem explains, only alleged breaches of orders.
“B’Tselem’s cooperation with the military investigation and enforcement systems has not achieved justice, instead lending legitimacy to the occupation regime and aiding to whitewash it,” the report states.
The decision has been percolating for some time. B’Tselem first broke with its usual practice in 2014, when it refused to provide information to the military unit investigating “irregular” incidents during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza that summer.
Since the second intifada, B’Tselem has demanded investigations into 739 cases in which Palestinians were killed, injured, used as human shields or subjected to other abuses.
Only 25 led to charges against soldiers. Of the rest, in nearly 75 percent of cases, investigations were either never opened or closed without further action.
The outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000 marked a change in how Israel viewed the legality of soldiers killing Palestinians.
Whereas before Israel would investigate every case in which a soldier killed a Palestinian, until 2011 Israel “permitted the use of force – even lethal force – against those identified as being involved in the fighting or in terror activity in certain circumstances,” as former Military Advocate General Avichai Mandelblit wrote in 2010.
Removing the fig leaf
B’Tselem says that years of working within the system have given the organization an intimate familiarity and understanding of why it fails. Their report reveals an internal process whose default is to absolve military actions, and which is further legitimized by a civilian system that keeps the military insulated from any intervention.
Israel has established multiple commissions to make recommendations for improving the investigative system. But even these, B’Tselem writes, just end up shielding the army from accountability.
“Report after report, committee after committee, the discourse in itself creates the illusion of movement toward changing and improving the system,” the report states.
“This illusory movement allows officials both inside and outside the system to make statements about the importance of the stated goal of enforcing the law on soldiers, while the substantive failures remain as they were and most cases continue to be closed with no measures taken.”
This is the fig leaf which B’Tselem is now stripping away.
At home and abroad, Israeli officials have pointed to their military law enforcement system as evidence of their military’s higher ethics and values.
State Attorney Shai Nitzan describes the Israeli army’s legal system as “one of the most modern in the world” which “was founded and operates from the State’s commitment to morality and the Purity of Arms which has been an integral part of it since its formation, as well as to the principles of international law.”
But the reality B’Tselem reveals is very different from such lofty claims.
One of the eight sample cases B’Tselem details in the report is the shooting of 21-year-old Lubna Hanash, a university student who was walking with a relative one afternoon in January 2013, when the two women were fired on by soldiers in a civilian vehicle. Hanash was shot in the head and pronounced dead within the hour.
The shooters, Lieutenant-Colonel Shahar Safda and Corporal Ram, reported protesters were throwing Molotov cocktails at the road.
But though investigators collected an unusually large number of testimonies from Palestinian witnesses, according to B’Tselem, including those that contradicted Safda’s account, the investigation was closed without further action.
The Military Advocate General stated, “in general, the firing carried out during the incident did not deviate from [open-fire] regulations, but regrettably the deceased, who was standing near the escape route taken by the terrorists, was hit by the gunfire. It appeared that the soldier who fired did not notice the deceased when firing.”
In the short video at the top of this article, produced by B’Tselem, Lubna Hanash’s father says, “When the case is closed and I don’t get the justice coming to my daughter, it remains a tragedy. You stay in turmoil. Confused and unsettled, with justice not done. Your daughter is killed and you don’t get justice.”
“Is she no more than a mosquito?” he asks, “Are our lives worth so little?”
B’Tselem also published this video detailing how Israel’s military investigation system whitewashed an ambush by soldiers who brutally beat 66-year-old shepherd Sharif Abu Hayah.