This is a press release issued by Israel’s Foreign Ministry:

Military Police investigation on Rabin Center statements: Based on hearsay
(Communicated by the IDF Spokesperson)

The Military Advocate General, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, decided to close the Criminal Investigation Department of the Military Police case of the statements made by soldiers at the Rabin Military Preparation Center about Operation Cast Lead. This decision was made after the Military Police investigation found that the crucial components of their descriptions were based on hearsay and not supported by specific personal knowledge. In particular, this includes the two alleged stories that raised suspicion of acts in which uninvolved non-combatants were fired upon.
Additionally, it was found that once the claims were checked, they were not supported by the facts as determined by the investigation.

The investigation was initiated by the Military Advocate General after reviewing claims made during a conference at the Rabin Military Preparation Center in which soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead were present. The Criminal Investigation Department of the Military Police was ordered to investigate the claims made, with an emphasis on the alleged firing at uninvolved non-combatants.
The investigation concluded from the soldiers who participated in the conference that the stories told were purposely exaggerated and made extreme, in order to make a point with the participants of the conference.

For example, the story in which a soldier was claimed to have been given orders to fire at an elderly woman was clarified during the investigation. In fact, the soldier witnessed no such thing, and was only repeating a rumor he had heard. In an unrelated investigation, it was found that in a similar incident, a woman, suspected as being a suicide bomber, approached an IDF force, which opened fired towards her after repeatedly trying to stop her from advancing.

This same soldier admitted that he had not witnessed the additional disrespectful and immoral incidents he had described during the conference.

A claim made by a different soldier who had supposedly been ordered to open fire at a woman and two children was also clarified as an incident that he had not witnessed. After checking the claim, it was found that during this incident a force had opened fire in a different direction, towards two suspicious men who were unrelated to the civilians in question.

During the Military Police investigation, two additional claims arose regarding improper conduct. These claims were separate from those made at the Rabin Military Preparation Center. It was found that these incidents do not raise suspicion of unjustified opening of fire. This finding is based on a debriefing which had occurred close to the time of one of the incidents and upon further investigation conducted by the Military Police.

It must be stated that during these investigations, the participants at the Rabin Center said that they had based their claims relating to the use of phosphorous munitions on what they had heard in the media and not on their personal knowledge.

The Military Advocate General, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, concluded the findings of the Military Police investigation:
“It is unfortunate that none of the speakers at the conference was careful to be accurate in the depiction of his claims, and even more so that they chose to present various incidents of a severe nature, despite not personally witnessing and knowing much about them. It seems that it will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the IDF and its soldiers, who had participated in Operation Cast Lead, in Israel and the world.”

The IDF Spokesperson Unit wishes to stress that the Military Advocate General’s conclusions refer solely to the investigations that focused on the transcripts of the Rabin Military Preparation Center conference, in addition to the two separate aforementioned claims. This investigation is additional and not a substitute for the investigations conducted on all levels of the IDF, following Operation Cast Lead.

General Mendelbit writes, “It seems that it will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the IDF and its soldiers, who had participated in Operation Cast Lead, in Israel and the world.”

I don’t think it’s that difficult to evaluate. The General could, for example, make a scale with 1 being the lowest number and 10 being the highest. He can be confident that the results to his question will appear low, in the lower half of the scale. The damage these idiot soldiers have caused is severe, and that is saying a lot considering how Israel was viewed after Gaza. Nobody will believe the IDF investigation (“Oh, they conveniently shut it down…”), and within Israel, soldiers who put themselves at risk to preserve the lives of others and to be ethical in war, will wonder why they bothered and whether they should put themselves in such risk again. These soldiers, and the man who led the publication of their stories, Zamir, should be punished in some way for the libel.

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  • Oh come now. Why should the conclusions of this investigation be taken as God’s truth? I’m sure it was carried out in good faith, but it’s also a rare soldier who will confess to a crime, or offer any information likely to cause harm to his comrades or officers. And what were the Rabin academy graduates supposed to do with these stories–keep them inside? This is not libel, it’s open discussion, and it’s vital that such discussion take place without threats on either side. I’d be more than happy to discover that the reports were unfounded, but it would be naive to assume that the army’s investigation is the end of the road.

  • Haim, the book which you translated that was reviewed by Pipes looks great. Would you like to write a guest post about the subject of the book?

    As for skepticism regarding closing the investigation, I think that’s fine and I think reporters across Israel should actually do some investigative work and learn what they can. Zamir is known, I assume the graduates’ names are known and I’m sure there are plenty of opportunities to speak to neighbors who fought in Gaza.

    If the IDF behaves unethically, this information has to come out and the army needs to be held responsible. Maybe it’s my personal bias, but I just can’t bring myself to believe that the top legal counsel in the IDF would put his name to a lie or would be so stupid as to close an investigation that didn’t warrant closing. It’s not as if reporters would have a problem tracking down the people involved and checking out his office’s claims.

    The libel I’m talking about is the one of which Israel is accused after every military operation against these non-army foes. It is the charge that the IDF isn’t ethical and doesn’t attempt to be. I’ve met some crazy Israelis in my time and can see how they could behave inappropriately in war situations. However, somehow the military didn’t give them the option by giving them different roles. So let’s assume that in a large army you’re going to get people who act unethically even after the efforts of the military to reign them in. Does that still make the IDF as an institution guilty of the charge that it was callous towards Palestinian civilians?

  • Dahlia, you mean like this part of his essay:

    Setting aside the damage done to the reputation of the nation at a time when every anti-Semite is salivating to find opportunities to demonize the Jewish state, the fact that Danny Zamir [the man who released the stories to Ha’aretz] is permitted to continue retaining his present role surely borders on the insane. Likewise, for a purportedly serious daily newspaper like Haaretz to report such unsubstantiated accusations in order to promote a political agenda is mind boggling.

    Who needs enemies when we have Jews in Israel exploiting freedom of expression to disseminate unsubstantiated and false allegations of immorality as a means to defame the nation and provide fodder for anti-Semites, Israel bashers and all who seek to harm if not destroy us? Even worse, promoting such falsehoods may create a climate among our soldiers in which they incur major casualties by hesitating to implement defensive measures to protect themselves against enemies renowned for hiding behind children and sending forth their women as suicide bombers.

  • We’ve certainly established over the last couple of days that our friend Middle is no free speech absolutist.

    When one sets speech, on the one hand, against the prestige and image of the nation, on the other, one starts down a very, very dangerous road.

  • Free speech absolutist?

    I’m all for fair and honest speech.

    Antisemitism is unacceptable to me, and I refuse to become a platform for somebody’s antisemitic views.

    And I’m not advocating that Ha’aretz needs to be shut down at all. But surely they can be criticized?

  • Sure, knock the paper, but when you call for punishing the soldiers for “libel” (fyi, it’s slander in this instance, not libel), you’re burdening their free speech rights. If all they did was make hearsay allegations, and we punished such a thing, we’d be jailing trial witnesses in every courtroom on a daily basis.

  • Fair enough. And I guess if you apply the model to the US, then many of the stories we learned about Iraq would not have come out if people weren’t permitted to report them.

    I think the question is where you draw a line? Do you never draw a line? Why can’t you accuse somebody who libeled/slandered you of doing so? Their “hearsay allegations” were reported by themselves as factual, first hand encounters. It was the IDF’s investigation after the firestorm the allegations raised that brought to light that this was all based on rumors the soldiers heard.

  • The other piece of it is that I assume there are other remedies against the soldiers, the kind that would apply to, say, perjury in a court martial proceeding. I’m assuming the IDF has standing procedures in this regard.

  • I’m sure the IDF has some, but I believe they only act when soldiers refuse to serve somewhere, and even then it’s not consistent. I haven’t heard anything about disciplinary actions being taken against these soldiers. I also doubt that the IDF would see a benefit to such an action since it would make these soldiers into martyrs.

  • For my take on Hillel Cohen’s “Good Arabs” (which Pipes reviewed, as you note, but he really missed the book’s complexities) see my post at South Jerusalem,

    On the discussion here: the soldiers at the Rabin seminar were not testifying in court. They were relating their experiences in the war. They didn’t name names. Thank God that we have soldiers who feel ill at ease when they hear stories like the ones they told, and thank God that we have someone like Zamir who teaches soldiers to be shocked by such things. It’s *vital* that soldiers feel that they can say out loud that they heard that such things happened. Even if it turns out that they were mistaken, the act of speaking up is one that must be encouraged. To discipline them or Zamir because the investigation reached a different conclusion would be to silence soldiers in the future. Again, I don’t claim that the army investigator lied. I’m just saying that his investigation is not conclusive. Remember that Ben-Gurion and the army first claimed that the stories about the massacre at Kufr Qassem were false. The army and the government have strong incentives to deny such things.

  • The US soldier responsible for cutting through the Army’s coverup and exposing the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, did so in a letter relating what other soldiers who participated in the massacre had told him– again, hearsay.

  • Haim,

    The way things are in the world today is not the way things would be in an ideal world. Israel is vilified in many corners at an hysterical pitch. The problem it faces in situations such as these, is that the press is quick to pick up on the accusation and slow to get to either the truth or denials of the original accusation when it is proven false.

    As an example, the UN school that was supposedly bombed has been covered extensively. I was listening to an NPR interview with an outraged UN official who simply could not hold back his torrent of anger towards Israel. Well, apparently he either lied or misconstrued the facts on national radio. This story was front page material across the world but it turns out to be untrue in many respects.

    The damage to Israel is done, and is unfair in general. This incident is no different. The story is out there now and will become part of the body of attacks Israel faces in the public image sphere daily. After all, part of this war is fought in the public opinion sphere and not just on the ground in Israel and its neighbors.

    So I ask you, as a journalist, is the idea to simply throw up any story that comes your way and wait to see which stick and which don’t? Or should the idea instead be to ensure that a story is true. Reporting about these accusations by soldiers can be considered news, but doesn’t have to be news until you check out their claims.

    I will also add that just as you say the IDF may have had a motive in lying here, we can say that Zamir also appears to have a political motive here. He’s no more innocent than they are just because he’s an individual.

    So we agree that it’s vital that soldiers have the ability to speak out. We agree it’s vital that the IDF act ethically in all of its operations and that both soldiers and the IDF be held to the highest standards of morality when it comes to fighting this war. Where I think our disagreement lies is in how the story is expressed and spread forth. Publications have a good reason to make compelling headlines and articles to gain readers, but when the story is only half covered, what we see is a salacious attempt to cause a reaction, and not necessarily the kind of reporting that was deserved for this type of situation.

  • The original Army My Lai investigation, which found no wrongdoing, was led by a 31 year-old officer named Colin Powell.

    Middle and Haim advocate different standards. Haim wants a low threshold for reporting, given the gravity of potential offenses and institutional resistance. Middle thinks the potential for a PR hit is too great. But democracy is a messy thing; dirty laundry and, yes, false accusations are intrinsic to it.

    You’ll never hear about Army abuses in Damascus and Tehran.

  • He was asked to investigate various allegations of misconduct toward civilians, including charges about My Lai, albeit less detailed charges than came to light later. He issued a rather embarassing report finding, not misconduct, but excellent relations between civilians and US personnel.

    It’s dogged Powell in a low-grade way in recent years; he’s claimed he wasn’t equipped with enough information to find out the truth about My Lai. Ultimately, what made the massacre incontrovertable were photos– shades of Abu Ghraib.