Israel killed Palestinians waving white flags, report says

Human Rights Watch says IDF soldiers unlawfully shot 11 civilians dead during the Gaza war against Hamas, which HRW earlier accused of war crimes.

Khalil Hamra/AP/File
Members of a Palestinian Bedouin family hold white flags as a signal to Israeli troops after leaving their house near the area where Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants exchanged fire outside Jebaliya refugee camp northern Gaza Strip, on January 5.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday that during Israel's offensive in Gaza earlier this year, its soldiers unlawfully shot and killed 11 Palestinian civilians, including five women and four children, who were in groups waving white flags to convey their civilian status.

In a new 63-page report, the human rights watchdog called on Israel to investigate seven separate incidents in which it said Israeli troops shot and killed innocent Palestinian civilians who were flying white flags to try to escape to safety.

Earlier this month, HRW published a separate report criticizing Hamas' rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, indicating that these acts amounted to war crimes.

In a statement released Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded to the latest HRW report, saying the group's research was "based on unreliable witness reports" and that its forces are trained to avoid hurting anyone who waves a white flag as a sign of surrender.

The IDF criticized HRW for giving it inadequate time to respond, saying it "didn't bother to give the report to the IDF before releasing it to the public via the media, in order to allow for in-depth investigation."

For its part, HRW said that the IDF declined repeated requests for a meeting to discuss the cases and did not respond to questions submitted in writing.

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement along with the report that the Israeli military "is stonewalling in the face of evidence that its soldiers killed civilians waving white flags in areas it controlled and where there were no Palestinian fighters. These cases need thorough, independent investigations."

In the wake of repeated reports of wrongdoing during the three-week war that ended Jan. 18, including a highly controversial one reported by the Monitor last month that suggested a policy of maximum force to avoid Israeli casualties,the Israeli military has said that it is conducting its own internal investigations into the behavior of soldiers during the offensive. Mr. Stork called most of those investigations "inadequate."

"The Israel Defense Forces have for years permitted a pervasive culture of impunity regarding unlawful Palestinian deaths," Stork said in the release. "Field investigations may serve a useful military purpose, but they are inadequate to determine whether a soldier violated the laws of war, and serve as a pretext that a serious investigation is taking place."

U.N. reports to follow

Thursday's report also comes not far ahead of what are expected to be two critical United Nations reports about the Gaza war.

Israel has refused to cooperate in the investigation that is expected to yield the harsher of the two reports. That investigation is headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, a former war-crimes prosecutor from South Africa who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Israel has criticized the council, which has a rotating membership that currently includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kyrgyzstan, and Angola, as biased and thus unfit to accurately assess its actions.

Israel has provided assistance, however, to investigators working on a second report, being conducted by the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Drafts of the two reports are expected to be supplied to Israel by the end of August, before being presented to the UN's Human Rights Council in mid-September. The Israeli center-left newspaper Haaretz reported last month that some in Israel believe the reports could prompt legal action against Israel in The Hague; in preparation, the Foreign Ministry is said to be preparing an exhaustive defense brief.

Public questioning IDF commanders' integrity

The latest reports on the war in Gaza come amid a wave of public questioning of the behavior of senior IDF commanders, notes Eyal Ben-Ari, a Hebrew University sociologist whose specialties include the culture of the IDF and its relationship to Israeli society. This week, he noted, two senior officers have come under fire for private use of army vehicles.

"Today in general, there's more and more focus on soldiers' morality and the strength of the army being built on that," says Professor Ben-Ari, "and you cannot disconnect that from that the allegations of human rights abuses and all the other discussions about morality in the IDF, about lying and disinformation."

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