JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli soldiers accused of harming Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip over the last five years have been indicted in less than 1% of the hundreds of complaints against them, an Israeli rights group reported. The watchdog argued that Israel's military systematically fails to conduct a credible prosecution of itself.
Between 2017 and 2021, the Israeli military received 1,260 cases of alleged offenses by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians, including 409 cases involving the killing of Palestinians, according to military data obtained by the group Yesh Din and released Wednesday after a freedom of information request.
The Israeli military opened 248 criminal investigations into instances of possible misconduct in response to those complaints — just 21.4% of the total, Yesh Din said. Only 11 investigations during that five year period have yielded indictments. In those cases, Israel’s military prosecutors acted with leniency toward convicted soldiers, the group added, with those sentenced for killing Palestinians serving only short-term military community service.
“This conduct demonstrates the military law enforcement system’s complete disregard for Palestinians’ lives (and) precludes any possibility of deterrence,” Yesh Din said.
In response to a request for comment, the Israeli military contended there had been more charges filed against soldiers than Yesh Din had reported, with a total of 31 indictments lodged during the five-year period for offenses also involving the use of weapons, property damage and violence against Palestinians.
“It should be noted that the majority of the proceedings ended in a punishment that includes actual imprisonment, in accordance with the general punishment policy,” the military said.
Rights groups and critics long have alleged Israeli military investigations into the killings of Palestinians reflect a pattern of impunity. B’Tselem, a leading Israeli watchdog, grew so frustrated with the system that in 2016 it dismissed the probes as a whitewash and halted its decades-long practice of assisting investigations.
The Israeli army says it has proved that its investigations are independent and professional. It attributed the many challenges to “a lack of cooperation on the part of the complainants.”
"The likelihood of discovering the truth is directly impacted by the lack of cooperation," it said.
The 1,260 complaints lodged against the military by victims, lawyers, the Justice Ministry and others reflected just a fraction of the incidents that occurred in the occupied West Bank and Gaza over the years. B’Tselem has reported that Israeli security forces killed 819 Palestinians between 2017 and 2021, including in conflicts with Gaza militant groups. Just 117 of those deaths prompted investigations, Yesh Din said.
Violence has surged this year in the West Bank as Israel conducts daily arrest raids in response to a spate of Palestinian attacks this past spring that killed 19 people in Israel. At least 150 Palestinians have been killed, making 2022 the deadliest in 16 years. The Israeli army says most of the Palestinians killed have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in confrontations have also been killed.
Yesh Din pointed out that the military prosecutors mainly take action in obvious episodes that have been caught on camera or have already drawn condemnation.
For instance, soldiers who were secretly filmed beating two young Palestinian men and threatening to shoot one of them in the head were suspended from duty after the video was posted on TikTok last August. Prosecutors swiftly opened an investigation and are still determining whether to press charges.
When soldiers were caught on camera slashing the tires of Palestinian cars in May 2021, they were demoted, sentenced to military community service and suspended prison terms and ordered to pay a fine.
In a case that has attracted intense scrutiny, soldiers temporarily zip-tied and gagged a 78-year-old Palestinian-American after detaining him in the West Bank earlier this year. He was later found dead, after troops untied him and left without providing medical care. The military said it is considering filing charges against two soldiers over his death.
Critics have repeatedly accused Israeli forces of using excessive firepower in the 2021 Gaza war and the military's killing of Palestinian protesters along the Gaza Strip's separation fence with Israel in 2018 and 2019. Israel blames the Hamas militant group for civilian casualties, saying the militant group uses residential areas for cover and civilians as human shields.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague launched an investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories last year. Although Israel does not recognize the court’s authority, the court can pursue cases if it finds Israel unwilling or unable to carry out justice.
“The few indictments that were filed ... allow the military to maintain the illusion that it is a law-abiding system and deflect outside criticism,” Yesh Din said.