Thirteen months after Operation Cast Lead ended, the IDF is bracing itself for a new round of demands to set up an independent commission of inquiry into its actions. Meanwhile, Israel’s diplomats are gearing up to ward off new attempts to use the Goldstone Report as a lever for putting the country in the dock.
By the end of next week, the Israeli government has to let the UN know whether it plans to set up an investigation into Judge Goldstone’s allegations that it committed war crimes in Gaza last year. This time, they are determined not to be caught unprepared on the media, legal and diplomatic fronts.
The IDF’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, put all his credibility on the line six months ago when he adamantly opposed those in the cabinet who favoured a commission, saying that he would not allow an independent body to call up officers and question them.
The IDF had carried out a mission and defended the country from the threat of Hamas rockets, he said. Now it was the government’s job to defend the IDF from its critics.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak were both leaning at some stage towards forming a commission but in face of General Ashkenazi’s stiff opposition, they folded. The IDF’s internal investigations would be sufficient, they announced.
But the critics, in Israel and out, were not silenced. The diplomatic pressure piled up and the arrest warrants against Israeli politicians and officers in London also played a part. Some kind of compromise was still called for.
The result is that Israel will tell UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon next week that it is setting up a committee of senior legal experts to examine not the operation itself, but the validity of the investigation process within the IDF.
The members will be selected by the Prime Minister’s Office and are expected to include at least one foreign jurist. The committee’s mandate will be to study the mountain of protocols, briefing notes and evidence accumulated by the teams set up by IDF General Staff to look into the allegations. It will also examine the files of the Military Police’s investigative branch, which has been pursuing over 100 individual cases, interviewing soldiers, officers and Palestinian civilians.
The committee will meet with the heads of the military but will not be allowed to call before it IDF officers who were actually involved in leading the operation in the field.
Few have any illusions that the committee, long before it even delivers its report, will be enough to silence the critics. That is why the IDF is already embarking on a PR offensive. The first shot was fired over the weekend in an interview with IDF Military Advocate General, Major General Avichai Mandelblit, in the New York Times. General Mandelblit has been preparing for the last few months, along with other senior officers, a detailed rebuttal of the Goldstone allegations that will be presented to the UN and to the international media.
The report painstakingly refutes 36 separate charges made by the Goldstone Commission but, above all, it tries to counter the central accusation that Israel deliberately attacked Palestinian civilians and the civil infrastructure in Gaza.
“We don’t have many illusions” said one senior officer. “The committee and the counter-report will not convince those who are determined to see our commanders in the dock, but regrettably, this is a battle we also have to fight.”