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B'Tselem's response

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From Sarit Michaeli, B'Tselem Communications Director

November 27, 2006

 

Dear Mr. Ostroff,

 

You have directed your open letter at me personally, although it is clear that I am a spokesperson for B'Tselem, therefore I begin on a personal note.

 

You claim in your letter that "we Israelis … know that these soldiers are as distressed as we are when things go wrong and uninvolved civilians are unintentionally hurt or killed as a result of IDF operations." Then accuse me of presenting an unbalanced view of the situation in an interview I gave.

 

I am Israeli. I was born, raised and educated in this country, and nothing will change that. Certainly not your division into "We Israelis" and "you", implying that I am an outsider, my views illegitimate.

 

 Now to you actual claims.

 

Re-reading the transcript of the interview (attached in PDF format) I am baffled by how you reached your conclusion that I expressed anything but a balanced view.

 

Nowhere in the interview did I accuse "our boys" of intentional killing, or of committing war crimes. However, B'Tselem was highly critical of the IDF's use of artillery fire at the "Kasam launching areas". We predicted this will result in harm to civilians, and have petitioned the High Court with several other organisations against the reduction in the "safety distance" for this type of shelling. This, as I stated in the interview, is an almost inevitable consequence of using an inaccurate weapon near a densely populated area. Regardless of whether the deaths resulted from the inherent inaccuracy of artillery or from technical or human error, massive shelling towards a densely-populated area carries a high risk of civilian casualties and therefore, should be avoided, unless there is no alternative in defending against attack. At any rate, enough information exists to warrant a comprehensive criminal (Military Police) investigation into the matter. This is a basic demand of international law in cases where civilians not involved in the hostilities have been killed by security forces, and has been one of B'Tselem's ongoing demands throughout the Intifada. Only a proper investigation will determine the responsibility for the deaths, and hold those responsible accountable, if necessary.

 

Indeed, collateral damage is an unavoidable result of war, but there is a duty to adhere to the principles of international humanitarian law in order to minimise it. As I stated in the interview, it is not enough to claim that an action was a mistake in order to avoid any form of accountability. Criminal negligence, if it exists in this case, is a serious offence. B'Tselem research since the beginning of the current Intifada indicates a culture of lack of accountability among Israel's security forces, that sends a message to soldiers that Palestinian lives are cheap.

 

On the issue of Kasam rockets: As I stated very clearly in the interview: B'Tselem has repeatedly, severely condemned the launching of Kasam rockets at Israeli communities. We categorically state that these actions are war crimes, for two reasons: the deliberate targeting of civilians, and the inaccurate nature of the weapon, which means that it is impossible to use it against any target without violating the principle of distinction in international humanitarian law (even though, of course, Palestinians firing Kasams do not claim that they are only targeting military objectives). Furthermore, we clearly denounce the launching of Kasams from populated areas, as this is a violation of international law as well. In fact, B'Tselem had issued a press release condemning the killing of Faina Slutzker, in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Read it here:

  

More on B'tselem's position re Kasam rockets is available on our website, here: 

 

http://www.btselem.org/English/Israeli_Civilians/Kasam

_Missiles.asp

 

 http://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20061115

 

It is only right that you make the transcript of my interview available next to your letter, as I feel that your interpretation is not an accurate reflection of my words.

 

Sincerely,

 Sarit Michaeli, B'Tselem Communications Director

 

 

 

 

From Maurice Ostroff

To Sarit Michaeli, B'Tselem Communications Director

 

November 28, 2006

 

Dear Ms. Michaeli,

 

Thank you for responding to my open letter and for taking the trouble to send a transcript of the interview. I appreciate it. I will certainly accede to your request to publish the transcript on my web site, together with copies of our correspondence.

 

I gain the impression that you did not read my letter correctly. I did not write  "we Israelis … know that these soldiers are as distressed..” I wrote that all Israelis I met with that day were very saddened and indeed upset by the deaths of Palestinians.

 

The typical reaction of Israeli soldiers to their unpleasant duties was described eloquently in an article "A gunner's nightmare", by Steve Linde (Jerusalem Post  Nov. 8). He wrote  "Can you imagine how terrible the artillery troops who fired the shells at Beit Hanun yesterday must be feeling now? After serving in IDF Artillery, I can only say that this is every gunner's nightmare scenario: killing innocent men, women and children".

 

Linde points out that in response to Qassam rocket attacks, gunners were ordered to "fire at the source" - the spots from which the rockets were launched. And they did, firing a dozen or so shells. He adds that by contrast, the Qassams are intentionally fired at civilian targets, hoping for maximum casualties and damage, whereas the troops who fired at Beit Hanun weren't hoping to hit civilians. They were targeting terrorists firing rockets. See Linde’s complete article at

http://maurice-ostroff.tripod.com/id108.html

 

Notice that Linde, writing from experience, refers to the firing of a dozen or so shells. This is very different from your emotive description of massive shelling towards a densely-populated area, creating the perception of a deliberate attempt at mass murder.  I would appreciate it if you would kindly tell us how many shells were actually involved.

 

It would be very interesting if your field investigators were to interview the launchers of Qassams as well as Israel Air Force and army officers to compare the factors each party takes into account, in order to avoid civilian casualties when planning an attack. I hope that in making the comparison, you will accept that intent to kill, even when unsuccessful, is as reprehensible as actual killing.

 

I agree completely with your statement that we Israelis are a diverse bunch, that many of us do not agree with some of the actions of our government and that this is the essence of democracy. However, please allow me to explain why I nevertheless consider your presentation as unbalanced.

 

In expressing any protest or disagreement, intellectual honesty requires that all relevant facts be taken into account and dealt with in their relevant context and that inconvenient facts not be avoided. It is vitally important to avoid confusing cause and effect and to recognize the difficulty in minimizing collateral damage when responding to the cynical and grossly illegal practice of Palestinian terrorists hiding behind civilians, and launching their rockets from populated areas.

 

You concede that the firing of Qassam missiles at Israeli civilians is a war crime and that Israel is definitely entitled to defend itself against these attacks, “but” you emphasize, “it can''t just use any means at its disposal”. It would not be unreasonable to ask you what B’Tselem would consider acceptable practical means.

 

In fact Israel does not use just any means. It does not retaliate by firing randomly into populated areas. It does not even resort to the type of inexpensive rockets used by the Palestinians, which would create great savings in money and manpower. Instead, in an effort to minimize collateral damage, Israel uses very costly precision weapons and frequently calls off actions in progress when the likelihood of increased civilian casualties becomes evident.  It is inexplicable that B’Tselem ignores these highly relevant facts in making its assessments.

 

As a humanitarian organization, B’Tselem’s categorical rejection of technical error as a very likely explanation is but one example of what I consider unbalance. You said “You can''t just write off anything as a mistake, when Israeli is actually under the obligation of taking care in order to prevent damage to civilians in military attacks”. You may perhaps recall that technical faults and human errors occur even in the highly organized and well-planned field of space travel.

 

I venture to say that your demand for a criminal investigation based on suspicion of a war crime in terms of international law, is not supported by the Geneva conventions. Art. 28 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, expressly states "The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations. ”Article 51.7 of the protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions states unambiguously; “The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations”?

 

You state that nowhere in the interview did you accuse "our boys" of committing war crimes.  Yet the interview starts with the statement by the interviewer which you did not deny, that B’tselem is calling for a military police investigation into the killing of civilians under the suspicion of a war crime.

 

I agree that you stated that B'Tselem has condemned the launching of Qassam rockets at Israeli communities.  But there is still a lack of balance. You rush to call for prosecution of Israeli soldiers on the flimsy suspicion that their explanation of technical failure is false, but I have not seen any call by B’Tselem for prosecution of those responsible for planning or launching Qassams. Please correct me If this has actually occurred.

 

As I wrote initially, B’tselem will earn greater credibility and respect when it demonstrates convincingly that it is honoring its claim that it does not distinguish between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

 

I look forward to your further comments.

 

Sincerely,

 

Maurice Ostroff

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