Media Mention of Hussein Ibish in The National - March 26, 2009 - 12:00am

NEW YORK // Accused of firing white phosphorous shells over densely packed communities and using a child as a human shield, Israeli troops are increasingly fielding allegations of war crimes committed during the Gaza onslaught.

While the Jewish state was accused of violations even during its three-week invasion that caused the deaths of more than 1,400, allegations of military misconduct have mounted since the unilateral Jan 18 ceasefire. Investigations into alleged atrocities launched by both Israel and the United Nations are due to report back within weeks, opening up the possibility of any war criminals being tried by a global tribunal.

This week saw Israel face allegations from many quarters, with Human Rights Watch accusing the military of a war crime by indiscriminately firing white phosphorous shells over densely packed Gaza districts. The New York-based advocacy group said Israel fired shells that burst across a wide area into more than 100 flaming wedges, burning and killing civilians while setting homes ablaze.

Fred Abrahams, the group’s researcher, said Israeli forces “knew perfectly well what danger white phosphorous poses to civilians … yet they fired it not once, not twice, but repeatedly into densely populated areas”.

The campaign group’s condemnation follows a series of allegations made in newspapers and at the UN’s Human Rights Council that suggest Israeli violators should face justice for meting out atrocities on Palestinians.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, a UN human rights expert, accused Israeli soldiers of “violations … too numerous to list” including shooting Palestinian children, bulldozing a home with a woman and child inside and shelling a building they had ordered civilians into a day earlier.

Soldiers used a Palestinian boy as a human shield while being fired on in the Gaza neighbourhood of Tel al-Hawa on Jan 15, forcing the 11-year-old to enter buildings before them during their war against Hamas, the expert claimed.

Another report presented to the UN’s Geneva-based council this week came from Robert Falk, an American academic and the body’s special rapporteur on human rights in the territories.

Mr Falk, whom Israel barred from entry last year after accusing him of bias and prejudice, said Israel had subjected civilians in Gaza to “an inhuman form of warfare that kills, maims and inflicts mental harm”.

He called for an independent experts’ group to investigate possible war crimes by Israel and Hamas and also suggested that the UN Security Council set up an ad hoc criminal tribunal.

The experts echo concerns raised this month by 16 of the world’s leading war crimes investigators and judges, who demanded a full inquiry into violations of the laws of war committed by both sides to the conflict. Signed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the UN’s former high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, the open letter to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, called for a “comprehensive international investigation” into alleged atrocities.

Meanwhile, newspapers have published testimonies from Israeli soldiers about atrocities and a pervasive attitude among commanding officers that devalued the lives of Palestinians. In one published account, an Israeli sniper killed a Palestinian woman and her two children after they misunderstood another soldier’s order and turned the wrong way. In another account, an elderly woman was shot dead while walking on a road, even though she was close enough for the soldiers to see whether she posed a threat.

“The climate in general, from what I understood from most of my men whom I talked to, was ... the lives of Palestinians, let’s say, are far less important than the lives of our soldier,” an infantry squad leader was quoted as saying.

The fractious debate reached Security Council members on Wednesday, with Qatar’s envoy, Abdulaziz al Nasser, calling for a “comprehensive and fair investigation” of all allegations and prosecutions against “perpetrators of such violations”.

But Israel defends itself, describing the use of white phosphorous as “legal” and its army as the world’s “most moral”, while pressing ahead with its own investigations and prosecutions of soldiers who broke the rules.

“The true targets of Israeli actions were Hamas terrorists, not the citizens of Gaza,” Israel’s UN envoy, Gabriela Shalev, told the 15-nation body in Manhattan. Ordinary Gazans were used as human shields by these terrorists, who deliberately staged attacks from, and hid, in heavily populated civilian areas.”

Nevertheless, Arab League diplomats have sought to have Gaza war crimes investigated by either the International Criminal Court (ICC) or a bespoke tribunal like those that handled atrocities in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia.

The ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, said he was willing to investigate Gaza war crimes but cannot initiate an investigation at the Netherlands-based court without an order from the Security Council.

Establishing a separate Gaza war crimes tribunal would likewise require a Security Council mandate, and analysts predict the veto-wielding United States would quash either option.

“Either way, you have to problem of Israel’s allies’ reluctance to subject Israel to an international judicial process which, in the eyes of Israel’s supporters – especially the US – would be biased and unfair,” said Jeffrey Laurenti.

Israel could also sidestep proceedings from any global judiciary by launching their own “rigorous and internationally credible” court cases against soldiers, added the director of foreign policy programmes at The Century Foundation.

Other analysts, such as Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, question whether the current system of international justice is powerful enough to prosecute defendants from robust states such as Israel.

“It doesn’t look like even Sudan’s president, Omar al Bashir, will be landing in the dock at any time in the foreseeable future,” said Mr Ibish. “It’s even less likely that the Israeli military, with stronger connections to various western governments, would find themselves exposed in an analogous way.”

James Reinl, United Nations Correspondent

  • Last Updated: March 26. 2009 11:39PM UAE / March 26. 2009 7:39PM GMT



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