June 16, 2024

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Legal experts show Amnesty doesn’t know what it is talking about on Laws of Armed Conflict


Law professor Peter Margulies has written a detailed explanation, based on his own interviews with relevant Israeli officials, on the quality of IDF investigations of incidents that occur during war. He concludes that the IDF is doing quite a good job at maintaining the independence and quality of investigations, which is opposite of the constant charges hurled at Israel by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

It is a long and somewhat technical paper, but it is instructive to compare the quality and detail of his observations with the amateurish and simplistic attacks by Amnesty and other NGOs on Israel’s military judicial process.


Critics of state investigations of alleged violations of the law of armed conflict (LOAC) often accuse those inquiries of being insufficiently independent from the chain of command. Medicins Sans (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders) raised this argument about the recently completed—and exhaustive—U.S. investigation into the October 2015 bombing of a MSF facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan. And earlier in July, Amnesty International leveled a similar charge against Israel’s efforts to investigate LOAC violations during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. But a careful review of LOAC suggests that the situation is more complex than Amnesty’s rhetoric reveals.

Israel has taken substantial structural steps toward independence in LOAC investigations. Independence in investigations is not an end itself—its primary purpose under LOAC is the promotion of effective, timely, and accurate investigation of war crimes allegations.

To assess the independence of an investigation, it is necessary to define independence. Mike Schmitt has suggested that, under LOAC, independence is narrowly defined as standing outside a particular operation’s chain of command. The principle of independence under LOAC does not disqualify a state from reviewing allegations about the misconduct of that state’s forces. In the Kunduz case, MSF argued that the U.S. should have relinquished control to a little-known, never used transnational mechanism, the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission. However, international law assumes that states are competent to investigate alleged abuses involving their own forces. The principle of complementarity holds that states, which after all make international law, should have the authority to address their own LOAC violations unless such states default in their duties. That authority is an incident of state sovereignty. Moreover, a contrary view would let states off the hook, inhibiting the development of robust state investigatory capabilities. The world has turned to ad hoc tribunals like the Nuremberg Tribunals and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) when the volume and scale of widely acknowledged atrocities and the absence of a state response called out for such a forum. And the International Criminal Court (ICC) can step in today to prosecute matters when a state brought within the ambit of the ICC’s governing Rome Statute has failed to fulfill its own responsibilities. However, state investigations are the default setting for LOAC violations.

As Schmitt observes, the LOAC principle of independence also does not require civilian investigations of alleged military abuses. Civilian conduct of investigations may hinder their efficiency and accuracy, since civilians lack a firm background in tactics, munitions, personnel, and the exigencies of combat. Rather, LOAC merely requires that an investigative team is free from the operational chain of command for the action at issue.

Contrary to the recent Amnesty International report, Israel reinforces independence far more concretely than most other states. Israel has repeatedly welcomed outside scrutiny, including the Turkel Commission, a group of prominent Israeli jurists and scholars including a former Supreme Court justice, aided by international experts such as Australia’s Tim McCormack and Canada’s Ken Watkin. Israel invited this group to study its investigative process after the ill-fated Gaza flotilla raid of 2010. The Turkel Commission found that in most material respects, Israel’s process met the independence criterion. For example, as Israel’s 2014 report indicated, the investigative decisions made by the IDF’s Military Advocate General (MAG) are reviewable by the Attorney General (AG), a cabinet official outside the chain of command. Moreover, the AG’s decisions are in turn reviewable by the Israeli Supreme Court, a vigorous body that has forthrightly stated that “the combat operations of the IDF do not take place in a normative vacuum.” (Physicians for Human Rights v. Prime Minister, Para. 11 (2009)). Israel’s Supreme Court has followed up on this observation with concrete interventions that would be unthinkable under the U.S. Supreme Court’s far more deferential regime. For example, Israel’s Supreme Court has imposed constraints on the IDF’s criteria for targeting suspected terrorists (see Schmitt and John Merriam on IDF extensive targeting protocols). The prospect of the Israeli Supreme Court’s robust review, facilitated by the Court’s broad grants of standing to residents of the West Bank or Gaza as well as Israel proper, acts as an additional ex ante check on military discretion.

Following publication of the Turkel Report, an Israeli interagency team, headed by Dr. Joseph Ciechanover (who had served as General Counsel to the Ministry of Defense and Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and comprised of representatives from the IDF and Ministry of Justice, recommended further safeguards. All of the Ciechanover team’s recommendations were approved by Israel’s cabinet earlier in July. A central change was provision for a Fact-Finding Assessment (FFA) of “exceptional incidents” involving alleged loss of civilian life. (See the interagency report here.) The IDF started using the FFA Mechanism during the 2014 Gaza campaign, before issuance of the Ciechanover report. Teams of active duty and reserve military personnel from a variety of disciplines, including law, conduct the FFA. Each FFA works outside the chain of command for the operation under review.

Critics of military LOAC investigations seriously underestimate the difficulties inherent in investigating alleged war crimes. Preserving evidence under battlefield conditions is an arduous task, while witnesses in locations such as Gaza may be subject to intimidation by Hamas and other terrorist groups. Outside observers have a troubled track record when it comes to Israel’s Gaza campaigns. For example, the notoriously flawed Goldstone Commission investigation has drawn much critical commentary. All too often, these outside reports, such as the McGowan Davis report for the U.N. Human Rights Council, have failed to adequately acknowledge the challenges that Israel faces in fighting terrorist entities such as Hamas.

Israel’s critics are right on one point. Given the sheer number of military decisions in the 2014 Gaza campaign, common sense strongly suggests that the IDF’s performance was not perfect. As human beings, IDF personnel are not immune from the pull of anger, fear, and haste.

However, neither imperfections nor grievous mistakes such as the U.S. Kunduz attack necessarily translate into war crimes. For commission of a war crime, a culpable state of mind is an essential element. Article 8 of the ICC’s Rome Statute requires a showing of either intent to harm civilians or recklessness: ordering an attack with the knowledge that the resulting harm to civilians would be “clearly excessive in relation to the … military advantage anticipated.” The high threshold for proof of a culpable state of mind is no accident. Rather, it is a recognition that a less demanding test would not adequately acknowledge the risk of harm that inevitably flows from the fog of war.

Because of the exigencies of armed conflict, assessing the adequacy of a state’s efforts to investigate alleged LOAC violations cannot be reduced to a mere statistical compilation of indictments. A responsible, professional military organization such as the IDF has a range of remedies available for its soldiers’ mistakes, including the promulgation of “lessons learned” from wartime tragedies. A case in point: the MAG’s acknowledgment of the need to improve technological and intelligence capabilities to avoid a repetition of the deaths of four boys on the beach during the 2014 Gaza campaign. One hopes that the U.S. will similarly refine its own systems to avoid a recurrence of the catastrophic Kunduz attack. Any balanced assessment of Israel’s compliance with its international obligations should also take into account its readiness to prosecute IDF personnel serving in the West Bank (for example in this manslaughter prosecution based on killing of a wounded Palestinian). That willingness and reforms such as the FFA process that safeguard the MAG’s independence furnish strong evidence of Israel’s adherence to LOAC norms.

One of the referenced articles is a hugely detailed overview by two American military law experts on Israel’s targeting practices in law. Again, the quality of this paper is in marked contrast to NGOs’ simplistic and ignorant attacks on the IDF based on nothing more than a predetermined verdict.

Here are excerpts of the conclusion from that paper:

The central finding of this project is that the unique Israeli operational context described in Part I exerts an almost tyrannical influence over the IDF’s legal organization and Israel’s understanding and application of the LOAC. The driving forces in this context are 1) the risk of direct attack faced by the Israeli civilian population due to geography and enemy strategy and 2) the extremely high value Israel places on the safety of its soldiers. Israel’s enemies clearly understand the extent to which these two factors loom large for Israel and exploit them to offset the qualitative and technical advantages that Israel enjoys in conventional warfare. They do this by directly targeting the Israeli population, seeking to capture individual Israeli soldiers and engaging in lawfare tactics. IDF operations are clearly well-regulated and subject to the rule of law. The IDF has extremely robust systems of examination and investigation of operational incidents, and there is significant civilian oversight, both by the Attorney General and the Supreme Court. With respect to the MAG Corps, the Authors found its officers to be exceptionally competent, highly professional, and well-trained. The extent to which MAG officers are independent of commanders, especially when providing legal advice during ongoing operations, is striking.

The operational context in which Israel finds itself also drives the IDF’s approach to targeting. Given the geography of Israel and the multiple potential enemies it faces, centralizing air targeting and decentralizing ground attacks makes sense. Moreover, the operational tempo of the operations merits close legal supervision, which the Operational Law Apparatus is designed to provide. It is clear that the deliberate targeting cycle process employed by the Israeli Air Force is constructed so as to identify legal issues as they crop up and to facilitate compliance with LOAC as operations are being planned, approved and executed. Doing so is, as discussed, essential to countering the specific tactics employed by Israel’s opponents.

Although the Israeli positions on the LOAC principles and rules governing targeting are rather orthodox, the unique operational environment in which Israel finds itself clearly affects interpretation and application. As an example, given the propensity of Israel’s enemies to use human shields, it is unsurprising that Israel has taken the position that individuals voluntarily acting in this manner are to be treated as direct participants in hostilities. In light of its enemies’ frequent failure to distinguish itself from the civilian population, it is equally unsurprising that Israel has embraced the principle of reasonableness with respect to target identification. Perhaps most noteworthy is the high value Israel places on the safety of its soldiers and its civilian population. Although impossible to quantify, both Authors were convinced these concerns significantly influenced the value judgments made by Israeli commanders as they plan and execute military operations, value judgments that often come into play in the application of such LOAC concepts as proportionality.

In the Authors’ opinion, use of lawfare by Israel’s enemies likewise shapes, whether consciously or not, Israel’s interpretation and application of the LOAC. In particular, Israel has adopted an inclusive approach to the entitlement to protected status, particularly civilian status. Examples include Israel’s positions on doubt, its treatment of involuntary shields as civilians who are not directly participating and its view that individuals who ignore warnings retain their civilian status. Although these positions might seem counterintuitive for a State that faces foes who exploit protected status for military and other gain, such positions are well suited to counter the enemy’s reliance on lawfare. In this regard, Israel’s LOAC interpretations actually enhance its operational and strategic level position despite any tactical loss. Along the same lines, in many cases, the IDF imposes policy restrictions that go above and beyond the requirements of LOAC.

Actual military law experts agree that Israel is meeting and exceeding its legal requirements in how it conducts war. The disagreements that these authors show to specific IDF operational details proves that these papers aren’t cheerleading, but sober and detailed analyses based on the specific military (and political) environment that Israel finds itself in. The contrast in quality between these papers written by experts and the armchair pseudo-analysis in NGO reports is obvious to anyone who cares to look.

Predictably, Amnesty’s Jacob Burns responded to Peter Margulies’ paper on Twitter with its characteristic inability to counter any specific point but rather to engage in handwaving and pointing out that the research trip was sponsored by Israel (which Margulies freely admitted in his disclaimer):

That is Amnesty’s argument in a nutshell. We can’t find anything wrong with what Israel is doing but we feel that it is wrong because there are relatively few successful prosecutions. The actual reason is because most IDF soldiers know the laws of armed conflict far better than Amnesty’s “experts.”

Jacob Burns makes one good point, that indirectly damns his own organization:

He didn’t ask that Margulies talk to Amnesty’s own “experts” on the laws of armed conflict, because he knows quite well that a real law expert would expose Amnesty as hopelessly naive in its analysis.

And I, for one, would welcome legal experts like Margulies to interview B’Tselem experts about their opinion of the deficiencies of Israel’s military justice system. In the end, the IDF must adhere to the laws of war, and if B’Tselem knows something that the IDF doesn’t about those laws, then by all means, enlighten us.

In the end, it would expose the truth that the arguments from Amnesty and B’Tselem and HRW are not based on international law but on a different, unstated standard that is not reproducible in other contexts and designed to damn Israel ab initio and only then try to justify it.  The laws of armed conflict are meant not only to protect civilians on the opposing side but also soldiers and civilians on the same side. That means that there is far more latitude in interpretation than these NGOs are willing to admit.

In many ways these NGOs are trying to rip apart international law in order to give the side that employs human shields a military advantage. That is neither international law, nor is it even “human rights.”

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