The report on damage to UN installations during Operation Cast Lead

Amidst exaggerated reporting of alleged Israeli misconduct during its operation in Gaza, the UN’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon decided to send an internal board of inquiry to probe the events surrounding the damage caused to nine UN installations during the combat in Gaza.

Recently, the board submitted its summary report.  Israel rejects the criticism contained in the report, and considers that in both spirit and language, the report is tendentious, patently biased, and ignores the facts presented to the board.

It must be emphasized that the board’s mandate related solely to damage caused to UN installations during combat, and not to any other Israeli actions during the operation. Therefore, committee comments on issues other than those relating to UN installations – whether of a legal or other nature – have no validity.

On 5 May 2009, the Secretary-General sent the Security Council his response to the board’s report. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed in his cover letter that the board is not a judicial body and is not authorized to examine legal issues. In a public statement (5 May), he noted that the board is "not a judicial body or court of law. It does not make legal findings and does not consider questions of legal liability."  The board’s interpretations of a legal nature are consequently of no standing.Since the board of inquiry had been appointed by the Secretary-General, his comments are of particular importance.

In his letter, the Secretary-General emphasized the close cooperation accorded to the board by Israeli authorities, which operated with complete transparency. The Israeli team presented extensive intelligence materials, including videos, aerial photographs, eye-witness reports and additional data. To Israel’s surprise – and to the detriment of the legitimacy of the report – none of this information was reflected in the board’s account of events. On the contrary, the board preferred the claims of Hamas, a murderous terror organization, and by doing so has misled the world.

A principal deficiency in the report is its predominant reliance on local testimonies, despite the incontrovertible fact that Hamas employs violence and intimidation to maintain power in the Gaza Strip and to control the flow of information. For that reason, no one – including Palestinians employed by the UN – will dare say anything derogatory about Hamas. In this manner, they have deceived the investigators, the UN and public opinion.

Despite the fact that the Secretary-General’s letter explicitly notes the complexity of the battlefield during the operation in Gaza, the report completely ignores the dense urban combat conditions that were dictated by Hamas and its chosen battle tactics.

Israel cannot be expected to accept a report that totally disregards Hamas’ strategy of using the civilian population as human shields while locating its troops, command posts and ammunition production and storage facilities in the heart of the civilian population. The entire Hamas strategy is based on the cynical use of the civilian population as human shields, in complete contradiction of international law and norms.

Notwithstanding the fact that Israel was cleared of suspicions of war crimes raised during the operation, the report overlooks the true war crimes committed by Hamas – including the eight years of attacks against Israel that preceded the decision to initiate the operation and Hamas’ use of Palestinian civilians as human shields.

Most unfortunate is the indifference paid by a board’s report to Hamas’ exploitation of humanitarian facilities, including UN installations. It is regrettable that the report placed no responsibility upon the Hamas organization, which deployed its installations and dispatched its terrorists to purposely confront Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) while in proximity to UN installations.

For its part, the IDF took precautions to prevent damage to installations and vehicles belonging to the UN and other international organizations. These installations were marked on IDF operational maps according to information provided by the UN and the other international organizations. Officers and soldiers were briefed appropriately prior to and during the mission.

Moreover, the IDF did everything in its power to avoid injury to uninvolved civilians; targeting only terrorists. An extensive investigation conducted by the IDF, as well as research carried out by independent academic and other bodies, has proven that casualty figures presented by Hamas supporters and adopted by the international media were exaggerated, repeatedly characterizing terrorist deaths as civilian casualties.

It should be noted that the number of civilian casualties during Operation Cast Lead was proportionally much smaller than casualty figures caused by Western and NATO armies in other conflict areas such as Kosovo and elsewhere. This is due, in part, to the unprecedented steps taken by Israel to prevent civilian casualties, including making over 160,000 warning calls to residents of the Gaza Strip, dropping over two million leaflets from the air, broadcasting warnings on radio stations, firing warning shots and making use of additional methods to prevent injury to uninvolved persons.

The IDF carried out in-depth inquiries regarding its conduct on the battlefield in the months following the operation. Only recently, the IDF released a report regarding five inquiries, including a special investigation into damage to public and UN installations. The results show that the IDF acted in accordance with the highest international norms, and in compliance with international law and treaties, as befits an army of a democratic country.

In his letter to the Security Council, Secretary General Ban states that no additional UN boards of inquiry will be appointed, and the filing of this report finalizes the issue of the UN inquiries. Israel also views the publication of the report’s findings as the end of the internal UN inspection process. The UN is responsible for drawing its own conclusions regarding the means it should implement to contend with the complex reality in which a terror organization operates without differentiation in proximity to UN installations and in a manner that endangers UN activities. Clear statements should be issued by the UN in this regard, and the appropriate action should be taken.