Cases against soldiers have Israel wondering

A short but growing list of criminal indictments and disciplinary actions stemming from Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip 18 months ago is raising a prospect that many Israelis are likely to find unsettling: that the controversial Goldstone report might have been on the right track after all.

The conclusion last year by the United Nations-appointed panel that Israel committed war crimes, targeted civilians and used disproportionate force sent shockwaves through Israel. The facts and findings were dismissed by the government as deeply flawed, and panel chairman Richard Goldstone, a Jewish jurist from South Africa, was reviled in Israel as a traitor and even anti-Semitic.

The government says the recent disciplinary actions do not shake its opposition to the report’s sweeping conclusions. But the military’s own investigations during the last six months have now verified some of the panel’s findings.

In seven cases disclosed so far, the military found that a sniper “deliberately targeted” civilians; soldiers used Palestinians, including a 9-year-old boy, as human shields; and commanders authorized at least three separate bomb attacks that killed and injured several dozen civilians who were taking refuge in a family home, a U.N. compound and a mosque.

Some human rights experts regard Tuesday’s manslaughter indictment against the sniper, who confessed to firing into a crowd of civilians waving a white flag and killing at least one person, as an acknowledgement that Israeli forces had committed a minimum of one war crime.

In the case of the mosque attack, an officer was accused of ignoring last-minute intelligence that the religious facility was in the vicinity of an impending bomb strike, and of failing to alert his superiors. About a dozen people were killed. The officer was reprimanded but faced no criminal charges.

“The military is finding out that some of what Goldstone said is true, even though no one wants to admit it,” said Gershon Baskin, a political consultant and former Labor Party advisor. “This should indicate that there needs to be deeper investigation.”

The most serious criminal investigation still pending involves the Samouni family. During battles in January 2009, more than 100 members of the family were reportedly ordered by soldiers to gather in a house that was later attacked by Israeli bombs. As many as 30 people died, including women and children.

Israel launched the 22-day assault at the end of 2008 in an effort to crush Hamas militants in Gaza who had fired thousands of rockets into Israel for years. As many as 1,400 Palestinians died, as well as 13 Israelis. The Goldstone report also accused Hamas of war crimes, but focused more attention on Israel.

Yehuda Shaul, founder of a group of soldiers who went public last year with their concerns about overly aggressive military tactics in Operation Cast Lead, said the military inquiries vindicated their complaints, which at the time drew a blistering rebuke from the government.

“These are the same people who six months ago told us this never happened, that they never used human shields,” said Shaul of the group Breaking the Silence. “But they couldn’t cover it up. Now the military finds we were right.”

Israeli newspaper columnist Amos Harel said the debate over Operation Cast Lead may be shifting from a dispute over facts to an argument over how they should be interpreted.

“The problem, it turns out, was not false testimony by the Palestinians, but the way this testimony was distorted by the Goldstone committee to paint [Israeli] soldiers as war criminals,” he wrote Wednesday in Haaretz newspaper.

Military officials had previously acknowledged that there could be isolated cases of misconduct and criminal behavior, and declined to comment Wednesday. Supporters said the cases against soldiers demonstrate that, contrary to some outside criticism, Israel’s military is willing and capable of investigating itself.

“This proves that when there is a case that warrants investigation and punishment, the [Israeli military] knows how to investigate and punish soldiers found guilty,"said Ronen Shoval, founder of Im Tirtzu, an advocacy group. “We don’t need Goldstone or anyone for that.”

And although military officials have verified some allegations cited by the Goldstone panel, they have dismissed dozens of others as unfounded and inaccurate, according to local media reports.

Public reaction to the latest cases in Israel was muted Wednesday. None of the top three newspapers put the story on the front page. In a radio interview, Defense Minister Ehud Barak didn’t mention the cases and was not asked about them.

Few expect to see dramatic changes in public opinion, which has been highly critical of the Goldstone report and supportive of the military.

“But within certain circles, such as the army legal office, there is more of an understanding that something went wrong,” said Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that has documented alleged military abuses in Gaza.

Last year, the group came under heavy fire from Israeli citizens who accused it of betraying the country and by lawmakers threatening to block funding. On Tuesday, in a subtle change of tone, the military’s legal advocate publicly thanked B’Tselem for its assistance.

Michaeli said the criminal cases have dealt a blow to the military’s frequent claim that it is “the most moral army in the world.”

“We are chipping away at a very big wall,” she said.

But she also said the number of cases under review was too small and that officials were ignoring broader policy issues and political decision-making that led to the bulk of the civilian casualties.

Rather than focus on a few “rotten apples,” she said Israel should examine the rules of engagement, the weapons used and other factors that led to so many deaths.

“Three criminal cases are minuscule when you look at the degree of destruction,"she said.

Goldstone critics called the military’s crackdown on soldiers unfair, accusing the government of sacrificing soldiers in a bid to show the world it is taking action.

“Israel would not be putting these soldiers on trial if it were not for the report,” said Jacob Shrybman of the Sderot Media Center, an advocacy group representing victims of Palestinian rocket attacks. “They’re scapegoats.”

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.