How Israel's military investigates itself over possible wrongdoing Since last October, complaints have included Israeli soldiers firing on unarmed Palestinian refugees and the killing of World Central Kitchen aid workers when Israeli drones fired on their convoy.

How Israel's military investigates itself in cases of possible wrongdoing

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Israel has rejected the idea that the International Criminal Court could prosecute Israelis for war crimes. Its government says it is watching for any action by the United Nations-backed court over the war in Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote that his country, quote, "will never accept any attempt by the ICC to undermine its inherent right of self-defense." For now, it falls to Israel to police itself. So what are the consequences for Israeli soldiers accused of violating Israel's own military standards of conduct? NPR's Rob Schmitz takes a look at how Israel's military investigates itself. And we should warn - this story includes the sound of gunfire.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: On April 14, thousands of Gazans, mostly women and children, walked from southern Gaza to the northern part of the strip after a rumor spread that Israel's military would allow women, children and old men safe passage. But it was just a rumor.


SCHMITZ: Israeli soldiers fired on the crowds as they approached a checkpoint, killing five people and injuring nearly two dozen, according to an emergency worker and reporters who were there. After the event, Israel's military said the incident was, quote, "under review." But what does that mean?

ZIV STAHL: In general, not every incident and not every complaint are being investigated in a criminal manner.

SCHMITZ: Ziv Stahl is executive director of Yesh Din, an Israeli organization that offers legal protection to Palestinians. She says when Israel's military is accused of violating its own or international rules of conduct, an internal agency, known as the military advocate general, oversees the process. The agency begins by having its lawyers interview the soldiers involved in the incident - interviews, says Stahl, that are confidential.

STAHL: So the army provides them with privilege and the promise that this will not be open material for the criminal investigation if opened, so soldiers can talk freely about what happened.

SCHMITZ: And that's where the problem starts, says Stahl.

STAHL: The second thing is that it allows testimonies to be coordinated because soldiers are exposed to what others said. The other thing is that there is no evidence collection at that point in regards to the criminal offense if there was one. So the orientation is more operational sometimes than criminal.

SCHMITZ: But the biggest problem with this first phase of internal investigations within Israel's military is how long it can take, says Stahl - often more than a year, sometimes much longer.

STAHL: So by the time there might be a decision to open an investigation, memory is not that good. Evidence are not there.

SCHMITZ: Additionally, the alleged victims in these investigations are often not interviewed until late in the process, says Israeli legal expert Smadar Ben-Natan. Ben-Natan, who teaches at the University of Washington, spoke to NPR from her car.

SMADAR BEN-NATAN: Testimony of the victim, many times, is the first thing we think about as opening an investigation. And here, it's kind of the other way around. They typically first hear what the military forces have to say and only then get access to some of the victims' testimony.

SCHMITZ: Ben-Natan says from a legal perspective, when you add up all these elements from how Israel's military conducts investigations into its own conduct, it's hard not to reach one conclusion.

BEN-NATAN: I think that experience has shown for many, many years by now that many of these investigations are not fair investigations.

SCHMITZ: In a response to a list of questions from NPR, Israel's military sent a statement, which read that Israel's military, quote, "operates according to the law." It went on to say that each complaint, quote, "is examined on its merits, including a thorough investigation if necessary." But data from Israel's military at the end of 2022 reviewed by NPR shows that complaints filed with the military rarely lead anywhere.

Among the 1,260 complaints regarding Israeli soldiers harming Palestinians and their property between 2017 and 2021, only 11 resulted in indictments. That's less than 1% of all complaints. Despite this record, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem was one of many that would work with Israel's military to collect evidence in its investigation, says spokesperson Sarit Michaeli.

SARIT MICHAELI: We would reach out to witnesses. We would refer the witnesses to the military police. My colleagues would spend hours coordinating meetings between witnesses and the military police for them to have their testimony taken. Sometimes we would take evidence and refer it.

SCHMITZ: After years of helping Israel's military with its investigations, though, B'Tselem came to a sober conclusion.

MICHAELI: We did that for many years and ultimately reached the conclusion that it was pointless, that regardless of what we did, there was always the same result - no accountability.

SCHMITZ: Michaeli says B'Tselem stopped referring cases to Israel's military altogether.

MICHAELI: Continuing to refer cases to the Israeli investigative bodies is not only counterproductive because it does not obtain any real accountability, but it actually gives the veneer of a functioning system.

SCHMITZ: Michaeli says her organization did not want to add legitimacy to a system that, in their minds, is not working properly. B'Tselem, says Michaeli, continues to collect evidence when Israeli soldiers kill or injure Palestinians. But instead of referring it to Israel's military, it now publicizes it on social media and through the free press. Michaeli says there is another way to seek justice, though.

MICHAELI: If the Israeli security forces investigative mechanisms fail to operate in a way that adheres to international standards, there are international mechanisms.

SCHMITZ: Michaeli says the United Nations' International Criminal Court, or ICC, should step in and investigate Israel's large-scale violations. In fact, there is evidence that the ICC is investigating Israel's military campaign in Gaza, and in recent weeks, Israeli officials are increasingly concerned that the body will issue arrest warrants for Israeli military and political leaders.

MICHAELI: The sad and very unfortunate truth is that there are no real, functioning, honest, decent mechanisms to hold Israeli perpetrators accountable. If we continue to function in a way that legitimizes the internal Israeli mechanisms, we're doing a disservice both to victims and their families and also to the broad goal of protecting human rights.

SCHMITZ: While the ICC has not confirmed action against Israel's leadership, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the prospect of arrest warrants for him and other Israeli leaders a, quote, "outrage of historic proportions."

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Tel Aviv.


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