While Israel and Hamas are still looking for ways to end their Gaza war, the UN Human Rights Council appointed a three-member panel to investigate allegations that humanitarian law was violated in the Gaza Strip during the fighting, in a manner that could amount to war crimes. Close to 2,000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, a majority of them civilians, while the Israelis lost 64 soldiers and three civilians.
On past precedent, Israel is highly unlikely to co-operate with any UN investigation. That was Israel’s position with the Goldstone inquiry into Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed. What the Israelis will do is to conduct their own investigations, insisting that as Israel investigates itself, there is no need for an external body to do the same. But there are serious deficiencies in the Israeli self-investigation practice, as the tendency there is not to take disciplinary or criminal actions against those involved in wrongdoings, and the inquiries are not transparent.
The UN team, no doubt, will look into IDF attacks on schools and hospitals during the Gaza war, but I strongly believe that their first priority, and top on their list of incidents-to-be-investigated should be the events that took place in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Friday, August 1.
On that day, a humanitarian truce was due to start at 8am. Israeli forces, however, continued to search for Hamas tunnels and on one occasion troops of the infantry Givati brigade approached a house from where they were fired at. A battle ensued in the course of which two Israeli troops were killed and a third, Hadar Goldin, could not be seen and it was assumed that he was abducted by Hamas.
In the Israeli psyche, since their Lebanon wars, an abducted soldier is a nightmare, as the captors often manage to use the soldier as a bargaining chip to squeeze major concessions from Israel, mainly the release of many prisoners from Israeli jails. As a result, in Lebanon, in the 1980s, the Israeli army came up with its “Hannibal Protocol”, which allowed the army, in the minutes and hours immediately after an abduction of a soldier, to use massive fire to prevent the abductors from disappearing with their captured soldier.
This procedure was fine for Lebanon, as the areas where it was activated in the past were open lands and sparsely populated. But on August 1, when the Israelis wished to thwart Goldin’s capture (later it turned out that he was killed) and they activated the Hannibal Protocol in Rafah, which is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, the results were devastating.
Not issuing the Palestinians of Rafah with any warning which could have enabled them to get out of the way, Israeli forces took extreme measures by embarking on their most aggressive bombardment during the entire Gaza war. Airplanes struck Rafah 40 times, dropping massive bombs on its civilian neighbourhoods, heavy artillery pumped more than 1,000 shells into the area, tanks invaded, firing in all directions and heavy bulldozers moved in to flatten scores of houses on the heads of people who were still inside.
Palestinians who did manage to jump into cars to escape the inferno were shot at, and cars carrying injured civilians trying to approach the Rafah hospital were also attacked. The Israeli blitz which lasted three hours killed more than 150 Palestinian, injured hundreds, many of whom were buried under the rubble.
The colonel who orchestrated the assault on Rafah was Ofer Winter, the commander of the Givati Brigade. A religious settler, he dispatched, on the eve of the Gaza war, a letter to his troops, laden with biblical references, which perhaps explains the ferocity with which they attacked Rafah. What Colonel Winter called on his troops to do was, effectively, to conduct a religious war on Gaza. Here are some quotes from his letter:
History has chosen us to be the sharp edge of the bayonet of fighting the terrorist enemy from Gaza which curses, defames and abuses the God of Israel’s battles … We will … wipe out the enemy … Using all means at our disposal and with all required force … I turn my eyes to the sky and call with you ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.’ God, the Lord of Israel, make our path successful, as we are about to fight for Your People, Israel, against an enemy who defames your name.
Colonel Winter managed to wipe out many Palestinians, but alas they were non-combatant civilians. His actions, and those working with him, must be thoroughly investigated by the UN team to establish whether it amounted to war crimes.
Ahron Bregman is the author of Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories (Allen Lane, 2014)