Judge Advocate General Must Ensure Quality of Investigations, Not Just Quantity
The Israel Defense Forces’ top judicial officer should demonstrate his resolve to combat impunity by immediately ordering thorough and effective criminal investigations into the latest shooting deaths of Palestinian children by Israeli forces during policing operations, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Israeli military’s judge advocate general, Brigadier-General Avihai Mandelblit, in December told a gathering of Israeli nongovernmental organizations in Tel Aviv that the number of criminal investigations was increasing under his tenure, which began in July 2004. He asserted that the total number of criminal investigations since September 2000 had now reached 200.
In June 2005, the judge advocate general’s office announced that it had opened only 131 criminal investigations into the unlawful death and injury of Palestinians at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces since the current intifada began in September 2000. During that same period, outside any combat situation, Israeli soldiers killed at least 1,722 Palestinians – more than one-third of whom were children – and injured thousands more, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. But since September 2000, the judge advocate general’s office has announced only 28 indictments and seven convictions of Israeli soldiers on charges related to unlawful killing or injury.
“The Israeli military’s failure to conduct effective investigations into civilian killings has fostered impunity in its ranks,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Increasing the number of investigations is a step in the right direction and must continue, but the ultimate test is whether they bring wrongdoers to justice.”
On January 23, Israeli soldiers shot a 13-year-old Palestinian boy in the back as he walked along a West Bank road reserved for Jewish settlers. The boy, Munadel Abu Aalia, from the nearby village of El-Mughayer (near Ramallah), died the same day. After first telling the press that the boy and his friends were planning to throw stones at settler cars, Israeli military officials then told journalists that the boys were planting an explosive device.
The Israel Defense Forces’ allegation that the boy posed a threat should not preempt a criminal investigation since media accounts suggest that the incident occurred outside the context of any exchange of fire, he was shot in the back, he reportedly was far from any conceivable target when he was shot, and the incident occurred in broad daylight. The soldiers did not fire warning shots or attempt to question or arrest the boys first.
In a second incident, soldiers patrolling Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip on January 26 shot dead a 9-year-old Palestinian girl on the other side, not far from her home in Khan Younis. Gaza-based human rights organizations investigating the case found that Israeli forces had opened indiscriminate fire on Aya al-Astal without warning when they saw something moving near the border.
Afterwards, the Israeli military contacted Palestinian security officials in Gaza to announce that their “soldiers shot and hit a terrorist.” The girl’s mother told the press, however, that her daughter was small, unveiled and should have been easily identifiable as a child. Her father said that she was mentally disabled and had become lost after wandering from the house. According to the girl’s family and paramedics, the girl was shot multiple times in the neck, leg, arm and stomach. The Israel Defense Forces have not accounted for the mistaken identity or their rules of engagement at the border, warranting an immediate criminal investigation.
As noted above, both of these shooting deaths occurred outside the context of any armed conflict or exchange of fire. In such situations, even if the victim is engaged in criminal conduct, Israeli security forces should have been operating according to international law enforcement standards, which are governed by the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.
According to these international standards for policing, security forces should resort to the intentional use of lethal force only when it is “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” As noted above, eyewitness accounts and the pattern of lethal injuries on the two children indicate a serious breach of these standards.
While the Israel Defense Forces immediately announced their intention to open a probe into the death of the boy, the military’s spokesperson was unable to tell Human Rights Watch whether they had opened a similar probe in the case of the girl. However, the media reported that an internal probe was launched in the girl’s case, and that the judge advocate general’s office had already found no fault in the judgment used by the unit commander and found that the shooting was carried out according to open fire regulations.
However, the military’s spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that the inquiry into the boy’s death was an internal army probe, or “operational debrief.” In a report published in June, Human Rights Watch documented how these debriefs fall far short of international standards for criminal investigations, and fail to establish the truth and bring perpetrators to justice.
First, the debriefs rely solely on the testimony of the implicated soldiers and are often carried out by the soldiers’ peers in the same unit. International standards dictate that investigators must be effectively independent from those implicated. The debriefs do not seek or consider testimony from victims or non-military witnesses, and do not attempt to reconcile discrepancies between the soldiers’ accounts and evidence presented by eyewitnesses, medical authorities or video. In the past, these debriefs have seriously delayed and impeded any criminal investigation.
In addition, the Israeli government has failed to provide an effective remedy including fair and adequate compensation to victims of grave human rights violations. As Human Rights Watch outlined in a letter to members of the Israeli Knesset, the State Liability Law as amended by the Knesset in July now makes it extremely difficult for Palestinians injured by Israeli security forces to sue for compensation in Israeli courts.