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Israel admission on white phosphorus doesn't settle larger debate

In its response to the Goldstone report, Israel revealed that two senior military officers have been reprimanded for using white phosphorus in Gaza. But that doesn't settle the larger debate over launching an independent commission.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / February 1, 2010

A piece of alleged white phosphorus burned at a UN Relief and Works Agency primary school in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on Jan. 24, 2009. The use of the chemical, which causes severe burns, is not banned under international law, but international human rights groups argued that its use in populated areas should be considered criminal.

Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/FILE



The revelation by Israel that two senior military officers have been reprimanded for using white phosphorus in last year’s Gaza war has been met with both criticism and measured applause; Haaretz columnist Amos Harel welcomed it under the headline, “At Last, A Real Response.”

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But Israel’s 46-page response to one of the most controversial allegations in the UN-sponsored Goldstone report did not settle a more fundamental debate: whether Israel should launch an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the numerous allegations of war crimes in the controversial United Nations report spearheaded by South African jurist Richard Goldstone.

With Israeli officials facing widespread international criticism, and even some arrest warrants in Britain in recent months, the country has faced strong global pressure to defend its conduct in the three-week Gaza offensive waged to stop Hamas rocket attacks.

Israel’s report, prepared by the Foreign Ministry, supported the case Israeli officials have been making for the better part of a year: that it does not need an independent commission of inquiry to investigate, because the proper legal bodies for doing so already exist.

“Israel’s system for investigating allegations of violations of the Law of Armed Conflict is comparable to the systems adopted by other democratic nations, including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Its commitment and ability to investigate and prosecute violations of international law has been confirmed by outside observers and foreign legal systems,” the foreign ministry stated.

“Israel’s investigative system, like that of many states, includes a range of checks and balances and multiple layers of review to ensure impartiality and independence.”

Among these, the statement said, are the Military Advocate General Corps, not subject to the military chain of command; the civilian Attorney General, who can review the decisions of the Military Advocate General as to whether to investigate or indict specific individuals; and the Israeli Supreme Court, which can be prompted to review those decisions by any interested party, including nongovernmental organizations and Palestinians.

The ministry, whose report drew on statements taken from almost 100 Palestinian complainants and witnesses and approximately 500 Israeli soldiers and commanders, also said that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had launched investigations into 150 separate incidents arising from the war in Gaza; of these, 36 have been referred for criminal investigation thus far.