Last week the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) published its preliminary findings into the conduct of its forces during its Gaza offensive (Operation Cast Lead). A more detailed investigation is scheduled to be completed by June. This initial report is not comprehensive and incidents are still being investigated.

The findings will not be unexpected either from those who are inclined to to believe that the IDF did not commit any crimes and those who believe it definitely did.

The former group, although disturbed by many reports which came out of Gaza at the time and subsequent stories from Israeli soldiers, would characterise the IDF as a predominantly moral army which like any army has some soldiers whose actions may be immoral, reprehensible or worse. They would not, however, characterise the IDF and, therefore, Israel, as intent on criminal acts or anything other than displaying the greatest possible care to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. I would include myself in this group.

The latter group, which, like the first, will probably have already made up its mind, will see the report as a whitewash.

So let’s examine the findings.

Five investigation teams were set up and headed by senior officers who had not been directly involved in the operation.

The teams looked at incidents where UN facilities were fired on, incidents involving medical facilities and vehicles, deaths and injuries to uninvolved civilians, the use of white phosphorous and damage to buildings and infrastructure.

The first finding was:

The investigations showed that throughout the fighting in Gaza, the IDF operated in accordance with international law.

Secondly, the IDF operating to very high moral standards against an enemy which used human shields.

The report now goes on to justify the operation as a response to eight years of rocket and mortar fire including three years of such attacks since Israel withdrew from Gaza and abandoned its settlements. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis lived in constant fear of these attacks which were indiscriminate by their very nature and, therefore, contrary to all norms of international law.

Thee battlefied is described:

The fighting in Gaza took place in a complex battlefield against an enemy who chose, as a conscious part of its doctrine, to locate itself in the midst of the civilian population. The enemy booby trapped its houses with explosives, fired from the schools attended by its own children and used its own people as human shields while cynically abusing the IDF’s legal and ethical commitment to avoid injuring uninvolved civilians. 

This is an aspect of the conflict that is barely reported in the Westerm media and was overwhelmed by the concentration of civilian suffering without regard to the true background to that suffering.

Now the extreme lengths the IDF went to to avoid civilian casualties are described:

In order to ensure compliance with the IDF’s obligations under international law, the IDF invested an enormous effort and huge resources to warn civilians in the Gaza Strip away from harm. The IDF dropped more than 2,250,000 leaflets during the fighting, used Palestinian radio, made personal telephone warnings to more than 165,000 Gaza residents and carried out a special warning shot procedure (“A knock on the roof”), in order to ensure that Palestinian civilians could avoid harm. Additionally, the IDF made extensive use of accurate munitions, wherever and whenever possible, to minimize harm to civilians. In addition, during the operation the IDF authorized humanitarian convoys to enter the Gaza and employed a humanitarian recess for several hours a day….

Like other militaries that are forced to fight a terrorist enemy that hides and operates under a civilian cover, the IDF had to face difficult moral dilemmas as a result of the illegitimate approach of Hamas. This approach turned Gaza’s urban areas into a battle field and intentionally made use of uninvolved civilians, civilian buildings and sensitive humanitarian facilities (i.e. hospitals, religious and educational institutions and facilities associated with the UN and other international organizations). …

In some of the incidents the IDF even placed more limits on its actions than required under international law, and acted with restraint in order to avoid harming civilians.

Crucially, mistakes are given very little coverage:

Notwithstanding this, the investigations revealed a very small number of incidents in which intelligence or operational errors took place during the fighting. These unfortunate incidents were unavoidable and occur in all combat situations, in particular of the type which Hamas forced on the IDF, by choosing to fight from within the civilian population.

In other words, mistakes happen in war, Hamas chose to use the civilian infrastructure etc. etc. But where’s the substance. This is precisely the area where the IDF has been criticised, indeed, demonised, by the world’s press. Is this really adequate? Some well-reported incidents have been explained elsewhere. Should these not be repeated in this report? 

Anshel Pfeffer in the London Jewish Chronicle ends a piece about this report with this:

In the absence of an investigation by an objective party, trusted by all sides (and, no, the United Nations does not fit the bill), this is the best we are going to get.

I would have been very surprised if a group investigating itself would have come to any other set of conclusions. The problem with all such investigations, whatever the reputation of the investigators, is that those inclined to cynicism will be cynical. On the other hand, the report is hardly likely to change anyone’s overall opinion of Operation Cast Lead or the IDF’s conduct. The use of  white phosphorous is not addressed at all although other reports have stated that many of the images purporting to show WP were in fact other smokescreen producers. 

Sadly, there is no sign of a totally impartial investigation. The UN team is made up of members who had previously condemned Operation Cast Lead and, therefore, its impartiality is compromised.

The report lacks specifics and witness testimony. In particular, I’d like to see more information on the use of WP and an explanation for images which appear to show WP in a schoolyard after the conflict ended. Perhaps the June report will provide more information on all thse matters. Maybe the IDF knows that the UN report is likely to be damaging and will only give more detail when it decides to rebut future accusations. Who knows.

What has become clear is that the IDF were determined to minimise their own casualties. This would be the attitude of any army in the world. To do so in the conditions that pertained in Gaza entailed an aggressive operation in an urban area. Hamas had thought, and announced beforehand, that they had created a killing field for IDF soldiers. The entire Gaza strip had been turned into one huge booby-trap with over a million civilians embedded in this network of terror. Hamas’ perverted ideology requires that the lives of  their own civilians be used as part of the propaganda battle. In that battle, Israel and the IDF were clear losers.

No report will erase the memory of the media images coming from Gaza during the operation. And no report will retrospectively be able to make the Israeli case or provide the rebuttals  that were so absent or poorly presented at the time.

This video is an attempt by the IDF to describe the conditions they encountered. I believe it is too weak and should show more graphically, with photographic evidence the conditions which pertained in Gaza in December and January.