B’Tselem: Gaza “cover-up” proof army can’t investigate itself

3 02 2010

Original Source

Bethlehem – Ma’an – The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has sent an urgent letter to Israel’s judge advocate general, Major General Avichai Mandelblit, demanding he immediately order a Military Police investigation into the circumstances of the firing of phosphorus shells at the UNWRA compound in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.

On Monday, Israeli media reported that the commander of the Gaza division, Brigadeer General Eyal Eizenberg, and the commander of the Givati brigade, Colonel Ilan Malka, were disciplined for authorized the shelling.

The report Israel submitted to the UN last weekend omitted details of the incident, stating only that the two officers had been brought before disciplinary hearings for exceeding their authority in a way that endangered lives, by permitting shelling of populated areas, contrary to the army’s regulations. Later statements from the army, however, denied there was any disciplinary action.

“The cover-up of this affair demonstrates, yet again, that the army cannot investigate itself,” B’Tselem said in a statement.

A comprehensive investigation of the incident conducted by Human Rights Watch indicates that on the morning of 15 January 2009, the army began firing artillery shells at an UNWRA facility in which the headquarters of the entire organization’s activities in the Middle East were located. At that time, 700 civilians who had fled from their homes had found shelter in the facility, which also housed storehouses containing food and medical supplies.

“Some of the shells contained white phosphorus and these started fires, which could very easily have spread to the facility’s diesel fuel reserve and two full fuel tankers. This danger placed the large numbers of civilians sheltering there at grave risk,” B’Tselem stated.

During the shelling, UNRWA workers, among them Gaza director John Ging, placed dozens of calls with senior army officials, warning them of the immense danger to civilians and demanding that the firing cease.

“The incident was particularly severe in that senior officers were well aware of the danger in continuing the shelling,” B’Tselem said, yet “the army continued to shell the facility, starting fires and causing great damage. The danger to civilians was enormous, and the fact that no lives were lost in the incident is nothing short of a miracle. Disciplinary hearings are clearly not an adequate punitive measure to such a severe incident.”

B’Tselem also alleged that Israel not only covered up the details of the incident but also refrained from stating in its report why measures had been taken against those responsible for this particular event, despite that many lives were lost in dozes of similar incidents throughout the assault on Gaza. Also, the Israeli report did not explain the decision to bring the two officers before disciplinary hearings, instead of opening criminal procedures against them, the human rights group said.

Its statement concluded by urging Israel to appoint an independent team to investigate the armed forces’ suspected violations of international humanitarian law in Operation Cast Lead. The team should be authorized to investigate not only officers and soldiers who took part in the operation, but also civilian officials who took part in shaping the policy of the operation, the group said.

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