Israel's unreported war

The Jewish state’s battle to probe wartime misconduct makes no headlines in the West

By Alex Brummer, October 7, 2010

One of the great features of a civilised state is the willingness to accept that mistakes can be made and investigate them.

At times, the Israeli authorities may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into probes - as in the celebrated case of the shooting of student photographer Tom Hurndall in 2006. But, like all democracies, Israel is sensitive to political and diplomatic pressure.

The Israeli government (many think wrongly) declined to co-operate with the United Nations Human Rights inquiry conducted by Judge Richard Goldstone into the Gaza offensive on the grounds that any report produced by UNHRC was likely to be one-sided. However, some Israeli-based human rights groups did provide evidence.

But this did not mean that Jerusalem has not taken the allegations of abuse by the IDF seriously. Some might say more seriously than complaints made against some of the Nato forces in Afghanistan.

The military authorities have responded to criticisms of the Gaza campaign and have looked at 48 cases, of which a third are still under investigation

Cases continue interminably - this is a feature of a vibrant democracy

The willingness to take action was reflected in the Western media with both the Guardian and the New York Times (International Herald Tribune in Europe) carrying full accounts of the conviction of an Israeli soldier for using a Palestinian boy in Gaza as a human shield and forcing him to check bags for explosives.

According to the report by Ethan Bronner in the NYT, the two sergeants convicted had taken part in an operation to seize an apartment in the Tel al-Hawa district of Gaza City. In the course of the operation, the soldiers had rounded up civilians and come across two bags in a bathroom suspected of being booby traps.

The NYT quoted the judgment which said: "The boy, who feared for his fate and was pressured by the situation, wet his pants". Eventually the boy was returned terrified and unharmed to his family. The paper said the convictions - which could carry a jail sentence - are the most serious so far to emerge from military inquiries into alleged excesses by the IDF.

Several prosecutions already have taken place, such as the indictment in July of several officers and soldiers during the Gaza campaign, including one staff sergeant who shot a Palestinian even though he was with a group of civilians waving a white flag.

A BBC website report noted that in the case of the Palestinian child the soldiers were found guilty of "reckless endangerment and conduct unbecoming" for Israel soldiers.

The reporting of the incident, such as it is, was straightforward and made no wider political points. But while the Western media is often quick to excoriate Israel, it is slow to see the virtue in a country which pays so much attention to the finer detail of how to conduct an ethical war.

One of the features of a vibrant democracy and active judicial system is that cases can continue interminably. An article in Ha'aretz earlier this week, based on a study by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), found that three cases against police officers who shot dead Arabs during rioting in October 200 - a decade ago - were closed improperly.

The cases have long been a cause célèbre for Israel's human rights lobby and have been extensively written about by the Nazareth-based British journalist Jonathan Cook. The study by IDI argues that the closing of the three cases by then Attorney General Menachem Mazuz was due to biased conduct on behalf of the prosecution.

What is remarkable about this is that it is still a live enough political issue in Israel, a decade after the event, to command headlines.

Israel's military, judiciary and human rights groups have an honourable record of pursuing alleged abuses and probing the evidence - over and over again if necessary.

Yet for much of the Western media this relentless pursuit of the truth, even in wartime, is largely ignored. But it provides a far better insight into the values of the Jewish state and the respect for justice and life than is ever recorded in the numerous UN allegations of Israeli wrongdoing.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 10:35am, October 7 2010