IDF ‘war crimes’ probe ends amid controversy

The IDF’s Military Advocate-General, Brigadier Avichai Mendelblit, has closed the investigation into the testimony of Israeli soldiers who reported shootings of civilians during the Gaza operation — but the public controversy is far from over.

Brigadier Mendelblit reviewed the results of the Military Police investigation that he ordered following the publication by Ha’aretz and Maariv of the stories told by alumni of the Oranim pre-military Academy. The soldiers had told of at least two cases in which civilians had been shot by soldiers for no apparent reason. In their questioning by the Military Police, the soldiers said that they had not witnessed the events but had repeated what they had heard. Other soldiers and officers in their units were also questioned to establish whether the events actually happened, and no direct evidence was found.

The Military Police did not collect information from Palestinian sources. In his legal opinion, Brigadier Mendelblit wrote that soldiers’ “testimony was not the result of personal knowledge, but of rumours and an exaggeration of events, which they presented in order to describe their personal feelings and messages they wanted to convey”.

He also accused them of causing damage to the IDF’s image in Israel and abroad. Defence Minister Ehud Barak expressed satisfaction at the closure of the investigation.

Meanwhile, five teams appointed by Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, are still collecting material on various aspects of the IDF’s conduct during Operation Cast Lead. The IDF has said it will address any allegations made by the Guardian and Amnesty International when the teams have finished their work.

A coalition of Israeli human rights groups criticised the decision, saying “the speed with which the Military Advocate General decided to close the file raises the suspicion it wasn’t meant to probe deeply into the facts but just to clear the army of responsibility”.

They called for the establishment of an independent inquiry. A debate on the soldiers’ stories in the Knesset on Wednesday quickly descended into a shouting match between Arab MKs and MKs from the right-wing National Union Party.

Last updated: 10:29am, April 2 2009