Middle East

Global military leaders laud Israel's restraint in Gaza clash ahead of UN report

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Israel went out of its way to minimize civilian casualties and observe international law during last summer's crackdown in Gaza, even to the point of costing the lives of its own soldiers and citizens, according to a coming report by international military experts.

Despite a daily barrage of rockets, often launched from schools, mosques and hospitals within Gaza, Israel went to great lengths to follow laws governing armed conflict after launching "Operation Protective Edge" on July 8, 2014, according to the High Level International Military Group, a consortium of some of the world’s leading military experts. The fighting, sparked by daily rocket and tunnel attacks mounted from Gaza, as well as the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas operatives, lasted for seven weeks and left more than 2,000 dead.

“A measure of the seriousness with which Israel took its moral duties and its responsibilities under the laws of armed conflict is that in some cases Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war cost Israeli soldiers’ and civilians’ lives."

- Gen. Klaus Naumann, former chief of staff of the German armed forces

“Israel not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard,” states the report, sponsored by the Friends of Israel Initiative.

"We examined the circumstances that led to the tragic conflict last summer and are in no doubt that this was not a war that Israel wanted. In reality Israel sought to avoid the conflict and exercised great restraint over a period of months before the war when its citizens were targeted by sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza," the report also stated. "Once the war had begun, Israel made repeated efforts to terminate the fighting. The war that Israel was eventually compelled to fight against Hamas and other Gaza extremists was a legitimate war, necessary to defend its citizens and its territory against sustained attack from beyond its borders.”

The High Level Military Group's report was conducted by 11 high-ranking former military commanders and senior international politicians from around the world. The panel includes the former chiefs of staff of the German, Italian and Spanish armed forces, a former commander of the Australian Defense College and the former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan. It also includes several U.S. diplomatic and military leaders, including a former ambassador at large for war crimes issues and a  former senior United States Air Force officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Preliminary findings of the report were released Monday, just days before a UN Human Rights Council study on the conflict is due. That report, in keeping with prior ones on the ongoing conflict between Israel and its adversaries in the Palestinian territories, is expected to heavily criticize Israel.

“We believe that a preliminary report from our visit to Israel will help inform your commission’s work," Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, wrote in a letter to the UN Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 Gaza conflict. "We recognize that you are drawing toward completion of your own report, but nevertheless ask that you take into account the findings of this group of eminent military and civilian experts, which are enclosed.”

Gen. Klaus Naumann, former chief of staff of the German armed forces and chairman of the NATO Military Committee, who led the fact-finding mission on which the HLIMG report is based, said Israel paid a price for following the law.

“A measure of the seriousness with which Israel took its moral duties and its responsibilities under the laws of armed conflict is that in some cases Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war cost Israeli soldiers’ and civilians’ lives,” Naumann said.

Israel did not cooperate with the UN probe, after years of tension between the Jewish State and the world body. William Schabas, the Canadian lawyer and former chairman of the UN panel inquiring into the Gaza war, said on Israeli television Sunday that the unwillingness to participate was a mistake.

"In the case of the commission of inquiry set up by the Human Rights Council, [Israel] hasn’t cooperated and I think that’s unfortunate," he said. "I think it’s not in Israel’s best interests to boycott the commission of inquiry.”

Schabas was forced to step down when it was revealed he has done legal work for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The High Level Military Group's report notes the “deeply concerning number of civilian deaths, perhaps around 1,000, many of whom were killed as a result of Israeli military action.” Yet that figure is less than half the number repeatedly cited by Palestinian officials.

“We recognize that some of these deaths were caused by error and misjudgment… but we also recognize that the majority of deaths were the tragic inevitability of defending against an enemy that deliberately carries out attacks from within the civilian population," the report states. "We must therefore consider that Hamas and its terrorist associates, as the aggressors and the users of human shields, are responsible for the overwhelming majority of deaths in Gaza this summer.”

Their report also highlights that, “In the main, Hamas’ rocket attacks deliberately and indiscriminately targeted Israeli civilian population centers in the south of the country,” and further noted that, “Hamas launched attacks against Israel from the heart of its own civilian communities in Gaza and positioned its munitions and military forces there also, including in schools, hospitals and mosques.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: www.paulalster.com.