The Israeli military said on Monday it has reprimanded two high-ranking officers for approving the firing of artillery shells towards a U.N. compound during the Gaza Strip war last year - the first admission of any high-level wrongdoing during the offensive.
Israel announced the punishment in a document submitted to the United Nations last Friday in response to a U.N. report that has accused Israel’s military of committing war crimes. Israel is trying to stave off the report’s central threat of launching war crimes proceedings if it does not carry out an independent investigation into the military’s conduct during the fighting.
The artillery attack, which took place while more than 700 Palestinian civilians were taking refuge, set ablaze a warehouse that services more than 1 million Gazans and destroyed thousands of pounds (kilograms) of food and other aid. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was visiting the region at the time, and three people were wounded, according to U.N. officials.
Israel has said militants opened fire on Israeli troops from the compound - a charge the U.N. disputes. Nonetheless, the Israeli report said, a brigadier general and a colonel “exceeded their authority in a manner that jeopardized the lives of others” by authorizing the firing of artillery shells in the area.
Military officials denied a Haaretz newspaper report that the officers were reprimanded for firing white phosphorous shells, a highly incendiary munition. White phosphorus can be used legally in some battlefield situations, but its use in built-up areas of Gaza has drawn war crimes allegations. The U.N. report has said it was improperly used in this attack.
“The most important thing that I want to emphasize is we have absolutely nothing to hide,” said military spokesman Capt. Barak Raz.
The military would not identify the reprimanded officers. But Israeli newspapers and radio stations identified them as Gaza division commander Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg and Col. Ilan Malka, then-commander of the elite Givati brigade. Disciplinary action could compromise their chances for promotion.
Israel launched the war to end years of Palestinian rocket attacks on its southern communities. More than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, were killed, along with 13 Israelis. Large areas of Gaza were devastated and remain desolate because an ongoing Israeli and Egyptian blockade has prevented rebuilding.
The U.N. report, authored by veteran war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, has accused Israel of using disproportionate force and deliberately targeting civilians. It also accused Hamas of firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians.
Both sides reject the charges. They have until Friday to respond, but have signalled they would not meet the central demand of allowing credible, independent probes.
The Israeli military has conducted more than 140 inquiries into alleged violations of international law in connection with the war. Thirty—seven criminal investigations were launched, resulting in one minor conviction so far. Twenty—nine cases remain open, the military said.
Israel has said its current investigative process is sufficient, but critics have questioned the ability of the military to credibly investigate itself.
Israel-Palestinian peace talks broke down during the fighting, and U.S.-backed efforts to re-launch them have failed. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded Israel first declare a total freeze of construction on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state.
On Monday, the Palestinians signalled they’re willing to scale back their demands for an Israeli settlement freeze, from six months to three months.
Mr. Abbas believes that once negotiations begin, they can lead to an agreement quickly, said Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide. “He wants a freeze during the talks, and he said we don’t need more than three months,” Mr. Erekat said.
Israel has agreed to slow down construction in the West Bank for 10 months, but not in east Jerusalem, the disputed section of the city claimed by the Palestinians for their future capital. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said on Monday that Israel would go no further.
To break the impasse, the U.S. has proposed that U.S. envoy George Mitchell shuttle between the two sides to try to forge a deal. Mr. Mitchell has told Mr. Abbas he believes such talks could be concluded within two years, according to Mr. Erekat.
Mr. Abbas is considering the idea, and expects to get more details in a meeting with U.S. diplomats in the West Bank this week, Mr. Erekat said.