Israel has shut down another internationally mandated investigation of its military actions. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his high-level fact-finding mission, authorized by the UN’s Human Rights Council, have been refused entry by Israel for so long that they have been forced to call off the visit. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mark Regev disingenuously claimed that Israel had not denied entry, but simply not yet reached a decision. The families of the 19 Palestinian civilians slain at Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on 8 November 2006 will apparently not see even an approximation of justice at this time.
Tutu and Professor Christine Chinkin noted in an 11 December 2006 statement:
…We find the lack of co-operation by the Israeli Government very distressing, as well as its failure to allow the Mission timely passage to Israel. This is a time in our history that neither allows for indifference to the plight of those suffering, nor a refusal to search for a solution to the present crisis in the region.
Tutu’s team also emphasized that it was unwilling to enter Gaza through Egypt. “That would be one-sided,” said Chinkin, a professor of international law at the London School of Economics and a faculty member at the University of Michigan Law School. “It would not give us the full picture. It would also look as though we were going in the back door. It was in no way at all a one-sided mission.”
Chinkin further stated in an email interview, “First our mandate was victim-oriented and human rights oriented. It was to:
a) assess the situation of victims;
b) address the needs of survivors; and
c) make recommendations on ways and means to protect Palestinian civilians against any further Israeli assaults (Paragraph 7 of Resolution S-3/1, the High Level Fact-Finding Mission).”
Chinkin further noted:
As I understand it, it was not in the first instance to look at the facts of the incident that we described as not in dispute (although it might have had to for the recommendations). Decisions about the scope and focus of our report have inevitably not been taken. This also explains why a visit is necessary; you cannot assess the needs of survivors without it. We have emphasized that the context is complex and that we therefore had hoped for meetings with members of the Israeli Government at a high level. I do not know if there will be any sort of report. As Archbishop Tutu explained at the press conference, sometimes to take no decision is to make a decision; we had been waiting for the go-ahead and did not receive it.
With Beit Hanoun, Israel followed a playbook similar to the one it used in 2002 regarding the killing of Palestinians in Jenin: Delay, delay, delay. Israel’s deputy UN ambassador, Aaron Jacob, used language in 2002 strikingly similar to that employed last week by Regev. “We did not decide to reject the team. But the government of Israel decided that the time was not ripe.” Why change what works?
Indeed, so effective was Israel in 2002 that it was able to change the conversation from the killing that did take place of approximately 52 Palestinians to talk of the killings that did not take place. Consequently, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s report of 1 August 2002 notes, “A senior Palestinian Authority official alleged in mid-April that some 500 were killed, a figure that has not been substantiated in the light of the evidence that has emerged.” Ali Abunimah, co-founder of electronicintifada.net, disputed the attributed context of the Palestinian official’s statement and rightly asserted at the time that as a result of the report, “Israel is crowing that the report exonerates it from charges that there was a ‘massacre’ in the camp.” Significantly downplayed were concerns from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that the IDF’s actions may constitute “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”
This time, however, Israel could only stop the visit. It was not able to pin responsibility on the Palestinians. The Rove-like strategy of going after the adversary’s clearest truths as was done with partial success in the case of this summer’s beach massacre could not be attempted here. There is simply too much evidence against the Israeli military.
Regev did, however, try to undermine the credibility of the mission’s platform, if not Tutu, when he noted it “advances a biased anti-Israeli agenda.” This is an obvious strategy as the Human Rights Council has only recently moved on a fact-finding mission to Darfur while focusing heavily to date on Israeli actions. Israeli human rights abuses are certainly very real, but the Council undoubtedly damages its credibility when it ignores abuses elsewhere in order to focus almost exclusively on Israel. The Council is right to attend to Beit Hanoun as the UN undoubtedly has an added responsibility for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it would be right and appropriate to give attention to a range of other abusers as well.
In addition to demeaning the Human Rights Council, the Israeli strategy in this particular case has been to keep one of the world’s most esteemed moral authorities at arm’s length. If Tutu does not get in then to some degree he loses his platform. If Tutu loses his platform then Israel is spared in the court of public opinion. A decision evidently has been reached that it is better for Israel to appear to be hiding something than to have its abuses fully brought to light. Of course, Israeli officials have little to worry about when The New York Times and Washington Post fail to even cover the inability of Tutu’s team to enter the area.
Actions and statements following the November massacre
The 8 November 2006 massacre of 19 Palestinian civilians in Beit Hanoun and the blocking of Tutu’s fact-finding team do raise profound questions about the willingness of the international community to stand up to brazen human rights violations carried out by Israeli occupation forces.
At the time, numerous foreign officials expressed deep concern. American officials did as well. White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe stated, “We deeply regret the injuries and loss of life in Gaza today.” He then added an additional comment, however, that suggested the White House has not been paying close attention to previous Israeli investigations amounting to whitewashes. “We have seen the Israeli government’s apology and hope their investigation will be completed quickly.”
The inquiry into the death of Rachel Corrie was one such whitewash and, more recently, the inquiry into the previously mentioned June shelling of a Palestinian family at the Gaza beach was not just a whitewash but a placing of responsibility for the entire incident on Palestinians. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Dan Halutz immediately placed Major General Meir Kalifi in charge of the Beit Hanoun investigation. Kalifi has a notable history with such inquiries: He headed up the whitewash of the June beach shelling.
In regard to the June incident, Human Rights Watch’s senior military analyst Marc Garlasco stated at the time, “The likelihood that the Ghalya family was killed by an explosive other than one of the shells fired by the IDF is remote.” He also asserted that new evidence located by Human Rights Watch gave an “urgent need for Israel to permit an independent, transparent investigation into the beach killings.” The IDF whitewash very likely would have succeeded even more than it did had it not been for the presence of Garlasco.
No such independent investigation ever occurred. Unsurprisingly, less than five months later came the deeply disturbing Israeli attack on civilians in Beit Hanoun, this time even worse than in June.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack in his 9 November 2006 press conference made clear the United States is unprepared to push Israel on its investigation:
Well, look, we or nobody else can do an investigation. Israel is a democracy and as such it will look into these matters and determine what exactly happened. They have done that in the past. We, as well as others, when there have been terrible accidents around the world because of military actions, have investigated these things. If there were mistakes that were made that contravene regulations, we have held our own people to account and I expect that that is the same type of approach that the Israeli Government would take. That is the way democracies work.
So it’s not up to the United States or anybody else to investigate this matter on the Israeli side. We have full faith that they will investigate it. They take this very seriously. They have-I think they understand exactly what happened and they are taking it seriously.
In other words, Israeli impunity seems certain to continue.
With American assurances such as those proffered by McCormack, there is little reason to doubt that Israeli officials thought they would be able to keep the international community out of any investigation. After all, in 2002 Israel successfully placed one impediment after another in front of the team of UN professionals that was supposed to investigate Israel’s military actions in Jenin. Eventually, an impotent UN was unable to carry out an investigation of suspected war crimes. In regard to Jenin, Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, declared in a 3 June 2002 press release:
The abuses we documented in Jenin are extremely serious, and in some cases appear to be war crimes. Criminal investigations are needed to ascertain individual responsibility for the most serious violations. Such investigations are first and foremost the duty of the Israeli government, but the international community needs to ensure that meaningful accountability occurs.
The international community never did hold Israel accountable. On 8 November more innocent Palestinian civilians paid a terrible cost for the ongoing failures of the international community.
Possible scenarios in Beit Hanoun
Preliminary reports from Gaza point to two possibilities (as this time it appears unlikely that the IDF will blame the victims):
1. The incident was an accident.
According to the Ha’aretz of 12 November, “The inquiry found that a malfunctioning electronic card in the artillery battery’s guidance system, which was replaced five days ago, was the cause of the errant fire.” The Ha’aretz article further elaborated, “The card fed the battery’s guidance system with wrong coordinates, as a result of which the battery errantly fired seven shells into Palestinian homes, instead of open areas from which Qassam rockets were being fired at Israeli communities.” The crew should also be queried on IDF-recommended margins of error and whether they were adhering to them and, if so, whether the crew thought the new loosening of firing restrictions had contributed to the deadly incident.
An important concern arose in an 8 November article on the Ha’aretz website, “An initial Israel Defense Forces investigation has found that the artillery shells that killed 19 Palestinians in northern Gaza on Wendesday [sic] were ‘aimed 500 meters away from where [they] hit,’ IDF GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant told Channel 2.” Galant continued, “Our estimate is that it was something connected with the aiming devices, or the alignment, or the balance between them, or our radar’s location of the shell hit…Our investigation is concentrating on these points.”
Yet on 14 June of this year, Ha’aretz posted the following article regarding the killing of Palestinian civilians on a Gaza beach:
The main hole in the army’s evidence is the missing sixth shell, the first to be fired whose landing site has not been determined. From an examination of the cannon, the army is convinced that the shell could not have fallen on the beach, almost half a kilometer from its intended target. But there is no firm proof of this, only an educated guess.
The peculiar aspect of the juxtaposed passages is that in November the IDF claimed that a shell really could fall 500 meters from the intended target. Yet in June the same IDF claimed it was convinced that a shell could not have landed on the beach and missed its mark by half a kilometer. Obviously, 500 meters in November is the same distance as half a kilometer in June. Consequently, in trying to explain what it termed an accident in November, the IDF is casting doubt on its own account of what happened in June.
2. Conversely, if the June account is accurate that a shell could not miss by such a distance then Tutu’s team would clearly have to look into the chilling possibility of a death squad shelling crew. Such lingering fears are precisely why an international inquiry benefits Israel. The obstacles placed before Tutu and his team only serve to set off new alarm bells about what transpired on 8 November.
Military experts note that it is possible because of topography that an artillery battery crew would not realize it was missing the mark and doing enormous harm to civilians. This is another reason Tutu’s group is needed. Members can address concerns the IDF clearly cannot allay. Additionally, they can see the topographical lay of the land, measure the distances for themselves to determine if the shells missed their mark by 500 meters or 300 meters, and determine whether the Israeli account makes physical sense.
Many who have watched the 39-year Israeli occupation will doubt an internal inquiry headed by a Major General, particularly one involved within the year in what is widely regarded as a cover-up. Furthermore, if some American forces in both Iraq and Vietnam can sink to deplorable lows then there is every reason to fear that an Israeli military-with a newly ascendant MK Avigdor Lieberman egging it on-could too. Israeli officials sometimes assert such allegations are repugnant blood libels-and historically many charges directed at Jews have been grotesque-yet they leave the international community with ample reason to doubt when UN-related inquiries are blocked. Had the IDF never lied before there would be little cause for continued insistence on an international fact-finding mission of this sort. But it has. For the Human Rights Council to stand down would be irresponsible and constitute an abandonment of both the aggrieved family members and the Palestinians as a whole. Nevertheless, this is a very real possibility despite the commitment of individual members of the fact-finding mission.
In the face of lies and previous cover-ups, the Tutu delegation and the Human Rights Council have a real responsibility not to be easily thwarted in their work. The deadly IDF incident with British citizen Tom Hurndall is a noteworthy precedent. In this instance, there was a definite initial cover-up. Lies were put forward as fact. Based on such previous recent experience, the remaining family members of the victims in Beit Hanoun deserve a serious inquiry of the artillery battery crew to determine whether these soldiers could or could not see the havoc they were wreaking. If they could, what possessed them to continue firing at desperate civilians? And were they acting alone or on the orders of someone else?
Basic questions such as these ought to be put to Israeli officials as the mission’s responsibility to make recommendations will turn (if it ever happens), at least in part, on an understanding as to whether this was or was not an accident. Unable to enter Israel, unable to speak to Israeli officials, and unable to explore the topography of the strike, the fact-finding mission may never get the opportunity to explore what did transpire that grim morning. This is a setback for truth, a subject about which Tutu has spent much of the post-apartheid years addressing and contemplating within South Africa. It is a setback for the victims of the attack. And it would be a setback for Israel’s standing before the American public were the American media actually to cover the Israeli stonewalling of the fact-finding mission.
Michael F. Brown is a fellow of The Palestine Center. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund. This report may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author.