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Israel’s culture of impunity, the West’s culture of complicity

In March, I debated the motion ‘This House Believes Israel is a Rogue State’ at the Cambridge Union. Opening proceedings, I suggested that the opposition might well “concede” that “Israel is not perfect”, intentionally missing the point about Israel’s rights violations being systematic.

Revealingly, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews Vivian Wineman almost immediately did just that, telling the debating chamber: “We’re not arguing that Israel is perfect.”

Central to how Israel presents itself is the idea that while Israeli political leaders and military officials can and do make mistakes, there is a robust system of legal accountability that means such offenders are brought to book.

Last week has demonstrated how the reality is very different; that Israelis who commit atrocities against Palestinians benefit from a culture of impunity for civilian and soldier alike.

On Monday, 13 April, the Jerusalem District Court approved a plea bargain in the case of four Jewish Israeli teenagers who set fire to a Palestinian café near Hebron in the Occupied West Bank. The perpetrators admitted to the crime and the attack was pre-meditated.

However, in a deal with the prosecution, and after being charged with one count of arson, the teens were given three months of community service and ordered to pay a fine of $130.

Striking, but unsurprising. Israeli civilians are rarely held to account for attacks on Palestinians. Over the course of a decade, only 7.4 percent of investigations opened by police led to indictments of Israeli civilians suspected of attacking Palestinians and their property.

A record of impunity

Then, on Tuesday, it was announced that Israel’s State Attorney Office intended to indict an Israeli soldier for committing “a reckless and negligent act using a firearm” in the case of Samir Awad, a Palestinian boy shot dead in Budrus in January 2013.

Awad was shot dead by Israeli forces near his school. Killed at the site of the Apartheid Wall after soldiers ambushed him and his friends, Awad was fleeing when he was first shot and wounded in the leg, before receiving two further bullets to the shoulder and head.

Amnesty International described the killing as “deeply disturbing”, and said that the evidence points to “an extrajudicial execution and war crime of wilful killing”. Yet the Israeli soldier responsible is to be charged merely with the negligent use of a weapon.

Finally, also on Tuesday, the findings of an Israeli military probe into events in Rafah during ‘Operation Protective Edge’ were released. The army’s preliminary investigation found that while “operational mistakes” had occurred, no war crimes were committed.

While it is still possible that the army’s Military Advocate General will ignore the commanders’ analysis, no one is holding their breath.

The events in question took place on 1 August, when the Israeli army suspected that a soldier had been captured by Palestinian fighters. Following the so-called Hannibal Protocol, heavy fire was deployed to prevent his captors getting away.

According to Palestinian human rights monitors, by the morning of 2 August, the Israeli army had launched dozens of airstrikes, fired “hundreds of tank shells indiscriminately”, and “bombarded houses without prior warning.”

Nothing has changed

Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz claimed that “dozens” of civilians had been killed by the Israeli army who, the paper said, “knows that innocents were hurt as a result of the massive use of force”.

Various sources in Gaza are clear that well over 100 Palestinians were killed in the onslaught over the course of 1-2 August, the majority civilians. Israel’s military investigation, naturally, found only 41 people were killed, of which 13 were named as civilians and 16 as “of fighting age”.

These three examples are indicative of widespread, systematic impunity. From 2000 to 2013, when more than 5,000 Palestinians killed by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza, just seven soldiers were convicted for offences involving the death of civilians.

‘Operation Cast Lead’, when Israel killed around 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza, produced 52 investigations and three indictments. The harshest sentence – seven and a half months – was handed down to a soldier who stole a credit card.

Some six decades after the Israeli commander responsible for the massacre of more than 40 Palestinians in Kafr Qasim was fined the symbolic amount of one penny, it would appear that nothing much of substance has really changed.

Israel’s legal system enables not just impunity, but also denial, a narrative of moral self-reassurance befitting a state that likes its soldiers to shoot and then cry (just not in a prison cell).

This pretence at accountability is also for external consumption. But as it so easily contradicted by the facts, the only people who believe it (or, at least reference it) are pro-Israel advocates, or those politicians and leaders who feel they can’t, or don’t wish to, challenge Israel and its crimes. Thus the story of Israel’s culture of impunity is also about our, Western, culture of complicity.

Published first in al-Araby.

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