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The Israeli government should go beyond a military “field investigation” and conduct an impartial and thorough probe into the tank shelling that killed a Reuters cameraman and three other civilians in Gaza on April 16, Human Rights Watch said today.

In an April 30 letter to the Military Advocate General of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Human Rights Watch said that past military “field investigations” into civilian deaths were neither impartial nor thorough and have served as a pretext for Israel’s incorrect claims that it had undertaken a proper investigation. Field investigations typically rely only on the statements of officers and soldiers in the unit concerned and do not seek evidence from the scene or testimony from witnesses other the soldiers involved.

“Field investigations serve useful military purposes, but they are completely inadequate to determine whether there have been serious violations of the laws of war,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “That can only happen with a full and impartial investigation that is not limited to the military.”

In the April 16, 2008 incident, an IDF tank fired a shell that killed Fadel Shana’a, 23, a Reuters cameraman, along with Ahmad `Aref Farajallah, 14, Khassan Khaled `Otaiwi, 17, and Khalil Isma’il Dughmosh, 22. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that there had been no fighting in the immediate area of the attack that day, and that the tank crew had the opportunity to identify their target as civilian.

Human Rights Watch said that Israel should also conduct an impartial and thorough investigation into an incident on April 28 in Beit Hanun, in which a missile apparently fired by an Israeli aircraft at an armed Palestinian fighter killed a mother and her four children inside the house close to where he stood.

In its letter to the IDF Military Advocate General, Brig.-Gen. Avichai Mandelblit, Human Rights Watch said that its research into IDF investigations and prosecutions between 2000 and 2005 found that Israel’s military investigative practices and procedures were not thorough, impartial, or timely.

Human Rights Watch urged General Mandelblit to make public the results of IDF investigations into the April 16 and April 28 civilian deaths and, if warranted by the findings, to prosecute any persons found to be responsible for serious humanitarian law violations.

“We have documented that the IDF has a poor record of investigating itself,” Whitson said. “If it wants to spare civilian lives and show its commitment to the laws of war, Israel should allow independent investigations.”

International humanitarian law (or the laws of war), which applies to the fighting in Gaza, requires that armed forces distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians, and do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives. The laws of war prohibit deliberate attacks on civilians, attacks that do not discriminate between combatants and civilians, and attacks that cause disproportionate harm to civilians. Civilians may be deliberately attacked only when they are directly participating in hostilities.

Under the laws of war, states have an obligation to investigate serious violations allegedly committed by their forces. A thorough, impartial, and timely investigation is an essential step for holding military personnel accountable for their actions. This enforces discipline, maintains responsible command, and ensures compliance with the laws of war. Investigations carried out whenever there are civilian deaths are important for minimizing preventable or unjustifiable civilian casualties in the future. Such investigations are necessary when there are credible allegations of serious violations of the laws of war, including possible reckless or deliberate killings of civilians.

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