A History of Impunity
by Yousef Munayyer
Last week the government of Israel announced the launch of an investigation into the events surrounding the deadly Memorial Day flotilla raid which left nine activists dead. Many international bodies including the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), as well as human rights groups like Amnesty International, are calling for an independent and impartial, international investigation into the incident. In fact, The UN Human Rights Council has already called for an investigation and chosen a principle investigator. Turkey too has decided to launch its own investigation. The Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, which can in no way be construed as a pro-Hamas entity, also slammed the Israeli investigation.
There are obvious questions that arise when an alleged perpetrator, in this case the government of Israel, is left in charge of investigating themselves. To mitigate such concerns, Israel has allowed two international observers to participate. One of them, David Trimble, raises questions on his own. He has a Nobel Peace Prize on his resume, but he is also known for having antipathy towards human rights groups whom he has accused of aiding terrorists, and was recently part of an initiative to launch a pro-Israel campaign in his native land. The other observer, Ken Watkin, is the former head of Canada’s military judiciary.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the international observers can keep any biases they may have out of their deliberations. Will they be able to come up with an accurate assessment of the events? It’s not likely, since any information “almost certain to cause substantial harm to [Israel’s] national security or to the State's foreign relations”1 will not be made available to the international observers. Basically, the international observers, hand-picked by the state of Israel, are only permitted to observe what the state of Israel wants them to observe. A farce, if there ever was one.
Despite this, and a vast international outcry for an impartial, international investigation, the United States has come out in support of Israel’s commission, calling it an “important step” and stating that Israel’s “independent public commission can meet the standard of a prompt, impartial, credible, and transparent investigation.”
Many around the globe do not share these sentiments and are deeply skeptical of Israel’s investigation. But this skepticism does not lie in anti-Semitism or an anti-Israel sentiment, as many Israeli government spokespeople would have us believe. Rather, a long history of flawed or non-existent investigations into the killings of civilians at the hands of Israel’s soldiers has led many to the conclusion that Israel is incapable of independently reaching justice. A brief review of some of these investigations in is order:
1953 – Qibya – As a punitive and vengeful response to cross-border raids, the Israeli government decided to send a message to the Palestinians. This village, just over the Green Line, became the target. The death toll of 70 Palestinians was made up mostly of women and children, and 45 homes were destroyed. Operational orders included commands for maximal killing and driving the inhabitants from their homes. International condemnation followed what was known to the Israeli military as Operation Rose. The United States expressed its regret for the loss of life and demanded that perpetrators “be brought to account and that effective measures should be taken to prevent such incidents in the future.”2 No credible public independent investigation was held. Those responsible included Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, Deputy Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, and Chief of Staff Mordechai Meklaf. The latter appointed Ariel Sharon who was the commander of the brigade responsible for the raid. He would go on to have a long and controversial career in Israeli political and military life. None of these officials were charged and all continued careers in public life.
1956 – Kufr Qasem – In this village of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, 47 were killed of which fifteen were women, and eleven were children under the age of fifteen. Thirteen others were wounded. The IDF swiftly changed curfew hours as villagers were returning to their homes. Major Shmuel Melinki gave the order to “shoot to kill” anyone outside of their homes. During trial, Melinki claimed the order “conformed to the spirit of the times.” Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion ordered an investigation. To the surprise of many Palestinians the initial court martial found Melinki guilty of killing 43 civilians and sentenced him to 17 years in prison. Others found guilty included Lieutenant Joubral Dahan and Sergeant Shalom Ofer, both sentenced to fifteen years. Privates Hreish and Abraham, among others, were sentenced to seven years imprisonment for killing 17 citizens. The brigadier who directed Melinki to crack down on those breaking the curfew was found guilty of a mere technical error, and was sentenced to a reprimand and a fine of one piaster (ten cents!). Those initially sentenced by court martial for the killings had their sentences commuted by a series of civilian courts and politicians. No one found guilty for the murders ultimately served more than three years in prison. After their release, Melinki was promoted into the ranks of military intelligence and Dahan received a position in a city municipality.
1967 – The USS Liberty – During the war in 1967, Israeli military aircraft and navy bombarded a United States Navy reconnaissance ship killing 34 noncombatant sailors and injuring approximately 170 others. The United States reacted with outrage. At the time, Secretary of State Dean Rusk stated that the attack must be condemned and that the U. S. government expects the government of Israel to take the disciplinary measures required by international law. The Israeli position was that this was a mistake. The IDF Chief Military Prosecutor filed charges against select military personnel, but an examining judge ruled that nothing in the incident deviated “from the standard of reasonable conduct which would justify the committal of anyone for trial.”3 No official proceedings ensued.
1976 – ‘Land Day’ Shootings – After announcing the confiscation of thousands of dunams of land that fell between two Palestinian villages in the Galilee, Israel braced for a reaction by declaring immediate curfews and that protests would be illegal. Palestinian citizens of Israel in the area organized strikes and demonstrations in protest of the land confiscation, part of which was privately owned Palestinian land. The crackdown that ensued involved thousands of Israeli police and tactical forces, and resulted in the killing of six unarmed Palestinian Arabs, the injury of approximately 100 more and the mass arrests of hundreds of others. No credible public investigation took place. No one was prosecuted in connection with the killings.
1978 – Operation Litani – Following a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) bus hijacking that left 37 Israelis dead, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in March 1978. The result of the operation was a stunningly disproportionate response that left 1,100 Palestinian and Lebanese dead. Most of the causalities were civilians. The operation solicited ire from U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Carter noted in his book, The Blood of Abraham, that he instructed the State Department to push for condemnation of the killings in the UN Security Council, and that if the Israelis refused to cease the operation, he would be compelled to notify congress that U.S. weapons were being used illegally. No credible public independent investigation into the killings of civilians was held.
1982 – Sabra and Shatila – The number of deaths at these Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon is disputed to be between 400 to upwards of 3,000, mostly civilians. This massacre drew international condemnation and the UN General Assembly termed it an act of genocide by a vote of 123-0 with 22 abstentions (the United States abstained). An outcry in Israel led to the establishment of an investigation led by Yitzhak Kahan, then President of the Israeli Supreme Court. The Kahan Commission found that Israel was indirectly responsible for the massacre and that Ariel Sharon (whose career continued unabated after the Qibya massacre) bore personal responsibility. The Kahan Commission recommended Sharon be dismissed from his post as defense minister and never hold a ministerial position again. After much debate, Sharon stepped down as defense minister but maintained a minister-without-portfolio position in the government. It was during these years that President Ronald Reagan drew the conclusion that Sharon was a “bad guy who seemingly looks forward to a war.” Sharon would go on to be elected prime minister.
1996 – Qana – During fighting in southern Lebanon between Israel and Hizballah, approximately 800 Lebanese civilians sought shelter in a United Nations compound in Qana. Israeli forces shelled the UN compound killing 106 and injuring 116 more. Israel claimed that the attack was a grave error. The investigation conducted by the Israeli Army determined mapping errors were behind the shelling. The United Nations disagreed, stating that evidence from the scene of the massacre shows that the Israeli claims are untrue and that “it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors.”4 While the international outcry that followed the killings led to increased diplomatic efforts to end the fighting in southern Lebanon, no one was prosecuted in connection with the massacre.
2000 – October Events – After Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the Temple Mount, an event thought to have sparked the second intifada, numerous protests throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories took place. The Israeli repression of these protests led to several incidents of killings of unarmed, Palestinian, civilian protesters. Within a few weeks, twelve Palestinian citizens of Israel and a Palestinian from Gaza were killed. An Israeli commission was established to investigate the killings headed by Israeli Supreme Court Judge Theodor Or. The Or Commission’s 860 page report released in 2003 found that the demonstrators were merely exercising their rights as citizens to protest. The report criticized Israeli commands to authorize the use of snipers without a security threat and criticized Israeli police for failing to collect evidence surrounding the killings. As a result, no officers were prosecuted.
2002 – Jenin – During the second intifada and under the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel declared Jenin a closed military zone on 1 April. Raids and fighting in the camp left many dead and wounded as well as significant damage to civilian infrastructure. The death toll is in dispute and media and observers were not permitted into the camp until nearly a week after the battle ended, leading to widespread accusations of a massacre cover-up. The United Nations puts the death toll at 52 of “whom up to half may have been civilians.”5 Much international uproar followed, and the United States pressured Israel to account for their actions through an international investigation. Initially Israel complied with a UN investigation before retracting. No Israeli investigations took place, and Israel did not cooperate with the UN investigation. No prosecutions followed the events in Jenin.
2008-09 – Operation Cast Lead – A 23-day Israeli Operation in the Gaza Strip with the stated objective of halting Hamas rocket fire, resulted in the deaths of approximately 1400 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians. The scores of civilian dead, the use of controversial weapons such as white phosphorus in civilian areas and the destruction of UN facilities and civilian infrastructure, led to an international outcry. A now infamous UN investigation led by Justice Richard Goldstone found that Israeli actions may amount to war crimes. Israel refused to cooperate with the UN commission, and, to date, one Israeli soldier has been prosecuted for stealing and charging items on a Palestinian’s credit card. Other recent reports indicate that one or two more soldiers may be charged in connection with shooting unarmed civilians. No other charges have been brought forth. The Israeli defense minister that oversaw the operation, Ehud Barak, remains in the same position today.
A number of other events could be added to this list, but the trend is clear. Where there have been allegations of war crimes or the killing of civilians, Israel has often failed to carry out or cooperate with independent investigations. In the instances where Israeli investigations have been carried out and soldiers or commanders have been found responsible, sentences were significantly commuted and/or the recommendations of the commission have been completely ignored by the heads of state empowered to enforce them. One must wonder how the course of history may have been altered had Ariel Sharon, who played a role in a number of these events, been discharged and imprisoned after Qibya in 1953, or even prevented from holding a ministerial level position as the Kahan Commission had recommended after the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Instead, Sharon went on to ascend to the premiership and presided over the most significant expansion of illegal Israeli settlements since the Menachem Begin era in the late 1970s. Indeed, it was only failed health, not the Israeli judicial system, that ended Sharon’s long career in public life.
It’s in this historical context that Israel begins an investigation into the raid on the flotilla that left nine dead. Pardon me for not holding my breath.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This policy brief may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center.
The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.
1. See: “Government establishes independent public commission,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 June 2010 (http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Government/Communiques/2010/Independent_Public...)
2. See: “The Qibya (Israel-Jordan) Incident: United Nations Security Council Resolution, November 24, 1953” (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/mid009.asp)
3. See: “Exhibit 21” (http://ussliberty.org/report/exhibit%252021.pdf)
4. See: “Letter dated 7 May 1996 from the Secretary-General addressed to the President of the Security Council” (http://domino.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/62d5aa740c14293b85256324005179be?Open...)
5. See: “Report of the Secretary-General prepared pursuant to General Assembly resolution ES-10/10” (http://www.un.org/peace/jenin/index.html)
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