Israelis Took Unprecedented Steps to Safeguard Civilians, Says British Officer

By Patrick Goodenough | October 16, 2009 | 6:21am EDT

The U.N. Human Rights Council met in special session on Thursday October 15 to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian situation (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

(Update: The U.N. Human Rights Council voted Friday to endorse a Gaza war crimes report and send it to the Security Council, possibly setting up international prosecution of Israelis and Palestinians accused of war crimes. The council approved a Palestinian-backed resolution 25-6,after two days of debate on the Goldstone report, which it commissioned following the Dec. 27-Jan. 18 conflict in which almost 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. The United States and five European countries opposed the resolution. Eleven mostly European and African countries abstained, while Britain, France and three other members of the 47-nation body declined to vote. Israel and the U.S. called the Goldstone report "flawed," and warned that the vote could jeopardize Middle East peace prospects.)

– In its offensive against Hamas in Gaza last winter, the Israeli army “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare,” the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday.
Col. Richard Kemp was speaking on the second day of an emergency “special session” called by pro-Palestinian governments aimed at endorsing a report accusing Israel of war crimes during the operation.
The report’s recommendations could lead to Israel’s referral to an international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Israel has warned that its adoption would harm anti-terror efforts everywhere and could destroy efforts to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kemp’s appearance before the HRC in Geneva was arranged by the non-governmental organization, U.N. Watch, a frequent critic of the council and in particular its handling of Israel. Friday’s special session is the council’s 12th, and the sixth to focus on Israel.
“Adoption of this dangerous text will trigger proceedings toward the indictment and prosecution of Israeli leaders and officers in the International Criminal Court,” said the NGO’s executive director Hillel Neuer. “What’s at stake is the very survival of democratic societies under the assault of terrorists – enemies of human rights who cynically invoke its protective cover.”
Kemp, an army veteran of 30 years, told the HRC he had served with NATO and U.N. missions, commanded troops in Northern Ireland and the Balkans, participated in the Gulf War, and “spent considerable time in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.”
“Based on my knowledge and experience, I can say this: During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare,” he said.
“Israel did so while facing an enemy that deliberately positioned its military capability behind the human shield of the civilian population.”
In his brief presentation, Kemp said that Hamas was “expert at driving the media agenda” and “adept at staging and distorting incidents.”
He listed some of the steps taken by the IDF, including dropping warning leaflets in targeted areas; aborting missions that could have taken out Hamas military capability, to prevent civilian casualties; and allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza during the conflict.
“Despite all of this, of course innocent civilians were killed. War is chaos and full of mistakes. There have been mistakes by the British, American and other forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq, many of which can be put down to human error. But mistakes are not war crimes,” Kemp said.
“More than anything, the civilian casualties were a consequence of Hamas’ way of fighting. Hamas deliberately tried to sacrifice their own civilians.”
Kemp’s comments were excerpted from an address he delivered in Jerusalem last June, in which he cited British and U.S. experience in examining the “difficulties faced by military forces in trying to fight within the provisions of international law against an enemy that deliberately and consistently flouts international law.”
‘Immunity for terrorists’
Compiled by members of a U.N.-mandated fact-finding mission to Gaza, the “Goldstone report” accused both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes. It recommended that unless they launch effective, independent investigations within six months, the allegations should be referred to ICC prosecutors.
The HRC special session began Thursday with several dozen presentations by member and observer states.
Islamic, Arab and allied states including Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea condemned Israel.
They supported a Palestinian-sponsored draft resolution endorsing the recommendations of the Goldstone report, and also calling for the report to be considered by the U.N. General Assembly. A separate part of the resolution focuses on recent clashes in Jerusalem’s Old City, and accuses Israel of restricting access to Islamic religious sites.
Israeli envoy Aharon Leshno Yaar told the council that the resolution would send a message to terrorists everywhere.
“They will clearly hear that this new form of warfare, as used by Hamas in Gaza, will offer immunity as countries will be prevented from waging effective responses,” he said. “This strategy will be repeated in other places, against other countries fighting terror.”
The United States and European countries called on Israel to pursue effective investigations into allegations arising from the Gaza operation. Some also raised concerns about the draft resolution and about aspects of the Goldstone report.
British envoy Peter Gooderham said neither the Goldstone report nor the resolution being considered by the HRC adequately recognized Israel’s right to protect its citizens or paid sufficient attention to Hamas’ actions.
U.S. envoy Douglas Griffiths said the report did not address how Israel could effectively defend itself against Hamas’ attacks in a manner consistent with international law, and noted the implications for situations elsewhere.
“Israel is not the only nation-state facing conflicts in which non-state actors launch attacks against the state and its population from civilian areas,” he said. “Virtually every region of the world has similar conflict situations. This is one of the complex issues presented by the report and is an issue that requires more consideration than this body has given it.”
‘Reign of terror’
Several Western delegates said they did not support the need to hold a special session, less than two weeks since the council ended a regular, month-long session.
At that session a fortnight ago, the Palestinian Authority under U.S. pressure agreed to delay for six months a resolution similar to the one before the council this week. But an angry backlash by Palestinians prompted P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas to reverse course and call for the special session.
The resolution was then broadened to cover the recent unrest in Jerusalem, and the P.A. and several others suggested in their HRC speeches Thursday that this was the real reason for calling the special session.
“The concession made in good faith was construed as a sign of weakness and compromise,” said Pakistan’s Aftab Ahmad Khokher, speaking for the Islamic bloc. Israel had “unleashed a new reign of terror” on the Palestinians, he added.
No mention was made of the furor in the Palestinian territories which some Arab analysts have called the most serious political crisis faced by Abbas.

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