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Israel brings charges for less than one percent of army's alleged abuse of Palestinians

Israeli rights group report says army whitewashes crimes if it ever does investigate and prosecute perpetrators
A mourner reacts as she attends the funeral of Palestinian Jana Zakarneh in Jenin, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, 12 December (Reuters)
A mourner attends the funeral in Jenin of Palestinian teenager Jana Zakarneh, shot dead in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on 12 December 2022 (Reuters)

Less than one percent of soldiers accused of harming Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are ever charged with crimes, according to a report by an Israeli rights group. 

The data shows that Israel has a "complete disregard for Palestinians' lives and encourages the continued use of the deadly trigger-happy policy that has claimed so many Palestinian lives," said Israeli rights group Yesh Din.

The report comes as a spike in Israeli violence in the occupied West Bank, as well as a resurgence of Palestinian armed resistance, has resulted in one of the deadliest years on record for Palestinians since 2005.

Since January, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces has risen to 218, including 52 in the Gaza Strip and 166 in the West Bank. Meanwhile, 29 Israelis, including soldiers, have been killed by Palestinians in the same period, the highest number since 2008.

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The report, compiled from military data obtained by Yesh Din, found that between 2017 and 2021, the Israeli army received 1,260 cases of alleged offences by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians. The data included 409 cases of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces.

'Even in the rare cases in which soldiers are convicted of offences against Palestinians, the military courts hand down extremely lenient sentences'

- Yesh Din, Israeli human rights group

According to the report, military law enforcement authorities "systematically avoid investigating and prosecuting soldiers who harm Palestinians.

"In so doing, the military is failing to uphold its duty to provide Palestinian residents with protection against offences committed by Israeli soldiers and commanders under the auspices of Israel's ongoing occupation and as an inevitable outcome of it," it added.

The Israeli military opened only 248 criminal investigations into possible misconduct committed by Israeli soldiers, representing just over 20 percent of total cases. Of the investigations opened, 117 involved the killing of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers.

"The number of indictments filed against the implicated soldiers is minuscule," the report added. Only 11 cases over five years resulted in an indictment, and only three involved incidents where Palestinians were killed.

"Even in the rare cases in which soldiers are convicted of offences against Palestinians, the military courts hand down extremely lenient sentences," Yesh Din said.

Too often, soldiers prosecuted for killing Palestinians were sentenced to military community service only, and for short periods of time, the report found.

The indictments that were filed were not in the interest of justice, but rather to "whitewash crimes" committed by the Israeli army and to "allow the military to maintain the illusion that it is a law-abiding system", the report said. 

Increasing scrutiny

The figures, however, don't represent the true scale of instances of violence towards Palestinians. 

Many Palestinian victims have little interest or confidence in filing complaints with the Israeli military, an "oppressive institution that is not designed to serve the Palestinian residents, much less help them assert their rights", the report noted. 

Palestinians also fear retribution from the Israeli military if they file complaints, which could include having their work permits denied or attracting further violence.

If Palestinians do end up filing a complaint, the system is often "inaccessible", and complaints can be transferred with great delay, if at all, Yesh Din found. 

Israel's incoming far-right government could make it even more difficult to secure an investigation.

Yesh Din told Middle East Eye that "we can be almost sure" that the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led government "won’t change the situation for the good".

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"The new government is planning on legislating a law that says that soldiers will have immunity," it said.

Far-right Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is set to be in charge of the public security ministry, is pushing legislation that would grant Israeli soldiers and police officers legal immunity against trials and investigations for acts carried out during service. 

That prospect has created concern in Israel that Palestinians could increasingly turn to the International Criminal Court for justice.

The "system is flawed, the numbers don’t lie," Yesh Din said. "The military isn’t doing its job regarding enforcing the law when soldiers are involved."

Earlier this month, the US called for "accountability" after Israeli forces killed 15-year-old Palestinian Jana Majdi Zakarneh, who was shot four times, once in the head and face and twice in the chest. 

Israeli accounts of the killing of Palestinians have also come under increasing scrutiny. 

The killing of 21-year-old Palestinian Raed al-Naasan in November was attributed by Israeli forces as defensive, claiming he was shot while throwing a Molotov cocktail.

Yet video footage of the minutes leading to Naasan's killing revealed him throwing stones at Israeli forces, a common resistance practice in the West Bank.

In his last moments Naasan is seen running away from Israeli forces, who then fired two shots, one fatally wounding him.

The US embassy in Jerusalem is considering denying visas to Israelis suspected of violence against Palestinians, according to a report from the Israel Hayom newspaper.

The daily said the move is being mooted in an attempt to encourage the Israeli government to work to limit potential violence, as well as reduce the willingness of Israelis to participate in violent incidents against Palestinians.

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