In the summer of 2014, during the Israeli military action in Gaza known as Operation Protective Edge, the Abu Nijem family tried to keep things normal. One night at their home in the Jabalya refugee camp, they ate dinner, cleared the table, prayed, and then sat and talked for a while. Maryam, 23, put her two children to bed, and her father-in-law took up a cup of tea to his father, who lived on the second floor.
Then, a bomb that had been dropped from an Israeli aircraft hit the house. “I cried out to my husband. I turned on a flashlight and heard my daughter Raw’ah screaming. She’s a year old,” Maryam told B’Tselem. “I looked for her and found her under the blankets. I grabbed her and my son Muhammad, who’s three years old, and ran out of the room. I saw Ahmad, my husband’s brother, lying dead next to the bedroom door. I saw rocks and everything in shambles.”
The bomb destroyed their house and a neighboring one, killing 10 people—a woman and two girls next door, and seven in the Abu Nijem home, including two Islamic Jihad operatives who were in the house.
At first glance, one could plausibly see this as tragic: an extremely unusual and unfortunate outcome, but one that may take place in times of war. Indeed, armies are neither expected nor required to avoid all civilian casualties, and mistakes, even terrible ones, can happen.
To examine what happened, context is key. Operation Protective Edge lasted 50 days, during which time Israeli forces killed 2,202 Palestinians. Of these, 63 percent (1,391) were not involved at all in the hostilities, including 180 children under five and 346 aged six to seventeen. About 18,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, and more than 100,000 Palestinians were left homeless.
Yet today, more than two years after the operation ended, only one investigation has led to an indictment—two soldiers were charged with looting and a third with aiding and abetting them.
How has it come to this?
First, the Israeli investigations never extended to government officials or senior military commanders. Even before the fighting ended, officials claimed that the army respects international humanitarian law (IHL) and is doing everything possible to prevent civilian casualties, stressing that in “exceptional cases” investigations would be conducted. From the start, then, the investigation of those responsible for designing policies and approving open-fire regulations was never on the agenda.
Second, the only body in Israel that investigates IHL violations is the Military Attorney General (MAG), which faces a built-in conflict of interest. It provided legal counsel to the army prior to the operation and worked closely with military personnel on the ground throughout it. Yet it is now expected to decide which cases merit investigation and what measures should be taken in response. In other words, this body is essentially tasked with ordering an investigation into itself or its direct subordinates.
Third, the way the MAG interprets IHL can rarely lead to the conclusion that a soldier has violated the law. In its view, when making decisions, soldiers and officers do not need to take into account the horrific results of dozens of similar attacks conducted in previous days. By allowing them to do so, the MAG absolves everyone involved in the attacks—from the prime minister, through the MAG himself, down to those who dropped the bomb—of the duty to do everything in their power to minimize harm to civilians. By examining only what those responsible for the attacks claim to have known prior to the attacks while entirely disregarding what they should have known, including the obligation to learn from their own experience, the MAG sets the bar extremely low.
The MAG decided to not hold anyone accountable for the actions that led to the bombing of the Abu Nijem family and for many other similar bombings, with an accumulated death toll in the hundreds. The MAG decided to close such files, stating that each of these attacks was legal since it met IHL criteria. But dozens of “isolated tragedies” are neither isolated nor merely tragedies. Rather, they reflect an illegal policy with terrible, predictable consequences that no one is ever held accountable for, and as things are looking now, nobody ever will.
The same whitewash mechanism that B’Tselem discussed in its recent report on the lack of accountability in the West Bank, The Occupation’s Fig Leaf, is also at play in the investigation of the operation in the Gaza Strip. Here, too, the main concern of the Israeli authorities is to create the false appearance of a functioning system, allegedly striving for truth, with the investigations merely serving as a façade.
Accountability is needed not only to bring justice to the victims and their families. It is needed to forestall similar actions in the future. When nothing is investigated, when officials insistently claim that everything was legal, when the results of their actions are ignored, it opens the door to an even darker future.