Attacked the United Nations Human Rights Council: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: AP
Jerusalem: The fighting is barely over in the latest Gaza war, with a five-day ceasefire taking hold on Thursday, but attention has already shifted to the legal battlefield as Israel gears up to defend itself against international allegations of possible war crimes in the month-long conflict.
Israel has excoriated the United Nations Human Rights Council over the appointment of William Schabas, a Canadian expert in international law, to head the council's commission of inquiry for Israel's military operations in the Gaza Strip.
The broader struggle will be over what some experts describe as Israel's "creative" interpretation of international law for dealing with asymmetric warfare in an urban environment. More than 1900 Palestinians were killed in the recent fighting, a majority of them believed to be civilians. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and three civilians were killed.
Destroyed housing: Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip. Photo: Getty Images
Israeli leaders view the Human Rights Council as hopelessly biased against Israel and say statements made in the past by Professor Schabas rule him out as a fair adjudicator. Professor Schabas was filmed in New York almost two years ago saying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was his "favourite" to be in the dock at the International Criminal Court.
"The report of this committee has already been written," Mr Netanyahu said this week. "They have nothing to look for here. They should visit Damascus, Baghdad and Tripoli."
Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly accused Hamas of a "double war crime" for targeting Israeli civilians with its rockets and, he says, using Gaza's civilians as a human shield for its activities.
Assessing the damage: A destroyed area of housing in Beit Hanoun. Photo: Getty Images
Israel's Minister for Strategic Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, said that, paradoxically, the only way Professor Schabas could prove he was worthy of the job would be by resigning from it.
Responding to the charges, Professor Schabas said: "Everybody in the world has opinions about Israel and Palestine. I certainly do."
He added: "I was recruited for my expertise. I leave my own personal views at the door, as a judge does."
Rejecting assertions that he is "anti-Israeli", he said he had lectured in Israel often and was on the board of the Israel Law Review.
"I don't think everyone in Israel agrees," he said. "I would fit in well there."
A similar Human Rights Council inquiry into the 2008-09 war in Gaza led to the Goldstone Report. Named after Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who led that inquiry, the report said it found evidence of potential war crimes committed by both Israel and Hamas. It accused Israel of intentionally targeting civilians in Gaza as a matter of policy.
Mr Goldstone later retracted that central accusation, writing in The Washington Post, after Israeli investigators had presented counter evidence: "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document." Other members of the Goldstone panel stood by the report.
In Israel's latest aerial and ground campaign, several episodes already stand out as likely focuses of international attention, including several deadly Israeli strikes at or near United Nations schools in Gaza where thousands of civilians were taking refuge – actions that UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has denounced as "outrageous, unacceptable and unjustifiable".
Critics have also pointed to the Israeli military's policy of bombing family homes it said were being used by Hamas operatives or other groups as "command and control centres" or for weapons storage, causing heavy casualties among civilians, including many minors and women, despite a system of issuing prior warnings.
B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, asserted in a recent report that the practice violated the international legal principles of distinction and proportionality, calling into question the clear military nature of the targets and whether the military gains were significant enough to justify the deaths of civilians.
Israel has since disqualified the human rights group as a volunteer option for youths who choose civilian national service over military conscription, officials said, because of the group's criticism of the Gaza offensive. The government move reflected growing anger within Mr Netanyahu's rightist coalition at Israeli activism it sees as stoking pro-Palestinian sympathy.
Israel's Attorney-General and the Military Advocate General are setting up an independent mechanism for investigating the events in Gaza and the state comptroller also plans an inquiry.
But the Israeli military is not waiting. Lieutenant-Colonel Eran Shamir-Borer, head of the strategic affairs branch in the international law department at the Military Advocate General's Corps, said a recently established military committee of fact-finding teams, independent of the chain of command and made up largely of reservists, was already investigating certain cases and could have some preliminary findings as early as Friday.
New York Times, Reuters