The Israeli military has fostered a climate of impunity in its ranks by failing to thoroughly investigate whether soldiers have killed and injured Palestinian civilians unlawfully or failed to protect them from harm, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Since the current Palestinian uprising began in 2000, Israeli forces have killed or seriously injured thousands of Palestinians who were not taking part in the hostilities. However, the Israeli authorities have investigated fewer than five percent of the fatal incidents to determine whether soldiers were responsible for using force unlawfully. The investigations they did conduct fell far short of international standards for independent and impartial inquiries.
The 126-page report, “Promoting Impunity: The Israeli Military’s Failure to Investigate Wrongdoing,” documents how Israel has failed in its legal obligation to investigate civilian deaths and injuries that result from the use of lethal force in policing and law enforcement contexts, such as controlling demonstrations or enforcing curfews, and in combat situations when there is prima facie evidence or credible allegations that soldiers deliberately harmed civilians or failed to take all feasible precautions to protect them from harm.
The report examines in detail more than a dozen cases of civilian deaths and serious injury caused to Palestinians and foreigners by Israel Defense Forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, most of which clearly occurred in law enforcement rather than armed conflict situations.
“Most of Israel’s investigations of civilian casualties have been a sham,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s failure to investigate the deaths of innocent civilians has created an atmosphere that encourages soldiers to think they can literally get away with murder.”
In its most recent communication to Human Rights Watch on the subject, in May 2004, the Israel Defense Forces said they had conducted Military Police investigations into 74 alleged cases of unlawful use of lethal force, fewer than five percent of the civilian deaths recorded at the time.
As of May 22, the Israeli military had initiated 108 investigations resulting in 19 indictments and six convictions, according to Israeli human rights organizations. Two soldiers were convicted for manslaughter, two for causing grave harm, and 2 for illegal use of a weapon.
The longest prison sentence in these cases, handed down on May 18 for causing grave harm, was for 20 months. However, most of the convictions have drawn penalties less severe than those handed down for petty theft or to conscientious objectors.
In the earlier Palestinian uprising of 1988-93, Israel’s policy was to open investigations in all civilian deaths and injuries. The quality of those investigations also was often poor, however.
Following the outbreak of clashes in September 2000, the Israeli military said it would no longer routinely investigate civilian deaths because the situation was “approaching armed conflict,” and that investigations would be limited to “exceptional cases.”
However, even in armed conflict situations, military authorities must investigate credible allegations or prima facie evidence of serious violations of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said, and many of the deaths and injuries occurred in situations that clearly did not amount to armed conflict but were situations of law enforcement.
“Even when Israeli soldiers have killed and maimed civilians in law enforcement situations, the military has failed to meet its obligation to investigate,” Whitson said.
Human Rights Watch said that the heart of the problem was a military justice system that relies on the debriefing of soldiers—often misleadingly called “operational investigations”—to determine whether a Military Police investigation is warranted. These “investigations” do not seek or consider testimony from victims or non-military witnesses, and do not attempt to reconcile discrepancies between soldiers’ accounts and video, medical or eyewitness evidence.
“While rapid ‘operational investigations’ may serve a useful military purpose, the Israeli military should stop using them as a pretext to avoid serious and impartial inquiries,” said Whitson.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, armies are obliged to investigate, prosecute and appropriately punish those responsible for serious violations of the law. Israel’s duty to investigate wrongdoing is reinforced by international human rights treaties that the government has ratified.
These obligations include the duty to investigate serious abuses and provide an effective remedy by bringing perpetrators to justice, providing fair and adequate compensation to victims and their relatives, and establishing the truth about what happened.
“The Israeli army should investigate allegations of wrongdoing out of self-interest as well,” said Whitson. “Holding soldiers accountable upholds the integrity of the armed forces.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Israeli government to monitor civilian casualties throughout the occupied Palestinian territories and make such information publicly available. The Israeli military should end the practice of using “operational investigations” to determine whether to open a criminal investigation into possible unlawful use of force, and set up an independent body to receive and investigate complaints of serious human rights abuses by Israeli soldiers and other security forces.
To download the full report Promoting Impunity: The Israeli Military’s Failure to Investigate Wrongdoing (PDF) click here.