Child footballers killed by Israel still get no justice

31 Aug

Video by Gaza’s Al Mezan Center for Human Rights

By Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 29 August 2017

On 16 July 2014, Israeli forces fired missiles that killed the four Baker boys – Ahed, Zakaria, Muhammad and Ismail – as they played soccer on a Gaza City beach.

The killing of the boys, all aged between 10 and 11, was witnessed by international journalists at a nearby hotel.

Their deaths became emblematic of the horrific violence Israel meted out for 51 days against Palestinians in Gaza that summer, leaving 2,251 Palestinians, including 551 children dead – about one in every 1,000 Gazans was killed.

Now, Israel’s handling of the investigation into how and why the boys were killed exemplifies the total impunity Israeli forces enjoy for the mass killing of civilians and wanton destruction from which Gaza has still not recovered.

Two days after the killings, Gaza’s Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and Adalah, a human rights group in present-day Israel, wrote to Israel’s defense minister, military advocate general and attorney general demanding an investigation.

About a year later, Israel closed the investigation without further measures. In August 2015, the two human rights groups filed an appeal on behalf of the boys’ families demanding to see evidence in the case and a reopening of the investigation.

For two more years, Israel has simply ignored the request. A similar request from a third group, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, has also been ignored.

The video above published by Al Mezan in 2015 tells the story of the Baker boys, including testimonies of children who survived the attack.

Impunity by the numbers

Al Mezan and Adalah say in a new report that Israel’s refusal to seriously investigate allegations of war crimes and other serious breaches of international law during its assault on Gaza has been the norm.

After the 2014 war, the two groups jointly filed 28 cases that “concerned severe events that resulted in the killing and serious injury of Palestinian civilians, including women and children and the massive destruction of civilian objects.” In all these cases, there was evidence of serious breaches of the laws of war.

But three years later, 13 files have been closed without opening a criminal investigation. Another 14 are still under investigation or have received no response. One – the Baker boys case – is under appeal.

None has resulted in an indictment.

Al Mezan filed another 105 cases on its own. So far just 11 percent have resulted in criminal investigations and every one of those was later closed due to “insufficient evidence.”

Moreover, every one of these cases involved incidents of looting by Israeli soldiers, or torture and ill-treatment of detainees, but not one case involved attacks on civilians or civilian objects.

“These facts also speak to the deliberate focus of proceedings on low-level or marginal perpetrators, despite the availability of information on serious crimes committed by senior officials and military commanders,” the report states.

The numbers released by Israel itself confirm the staggering scale of impunity. According to an update it provided last year, Israel’s military advocate general said it received complaints about 360 incidents during the assault on Gaza. Three years after the war, only seven led to the opening of a criminal investigation. One of those cases was the Baker boys, which was then closed.

Israel has also refused to release investigatory materials to victims’ advocates.

Sloppy

While Israel claims to investigate thoroughly, Al Mezan and Adalah document how sloppy its pretexts are for refusing to take action.

On the night of 22 August 2014, an Israeli warplane fired two missiles at the home of the Abu Dahrouj family in central Gaza. The attack killed five members of the family, including two children, and caused extensive injuries and damage in the neighborhood.

Israel acknowledged that the attack was carried out against a civilian home and did not target a combatant or military object, yet closed the case without action against those involved.

In this case, according to Adalah and Al Mezan, the military advocate general “used vague and indecisive terminology, stating that for ‘an unclear reason, likely an unexpected technical malfunction,’ the missile hit the family’s home.”

The human rights groups assert that this language indicates that Israeli authorities “did not conduct a thorough independent examination.”

And in the case of the Baker boys, the report notes, the Israeli military did not collect testimonies from journalists or from Palestinian witnesses who were on site at the time of the killings.

The cases Israel has closed include those involving attacks on schools run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

A UN board of inquiry found that Israel killed dozens of civilians sheltering at such schools during the assault.

The human rights groups note that Israel is required under international law to thoroughly and impartially investigate and prosecute war crimes, but, “The Israeli law enforcement system and its flawed investigative mechanisms instead appear primarily geared towards protecting its armed forces, thus allowing impunity to prevail.”

Going to The Hague?

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reached a similar conclusion about Israel’s investigations of killings and injuries of Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank, announcing last year that it would refuse any longer to serve as a “fig leaf” for a sham justice system.

So why even pursue cases through Israel’s sham system? There is a good reason.

Israel’s conduct during the Gaza war, as well as in the West Bank, is currently the subject of a preliminary examination by the prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The prosecutors must decide whether to open a full investigation, which could lead to formal indictments of Israeli officials and military personnel.

But according to its founding statute, the International Criminal Court only steps in when national judicial authorities are unwilling or unable to carry out genuine proceedings.

There is no time limit on the preliminary examination, so the prosecutors in The Hague – under constant pressure from Israel and the United States – could sit on it indefinitely, like so many other international functionaries who have failed in their duty to hold Israel accountable.

But the incontrovertible evidence that Israel refuses to seriously investigate the crimes committed in Gaza gives the prosecutors one less excuse to let Israel off the hook.

 

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