The IDF Violated Nuremberg Principles During Operation ‘Cast Lead’

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The IDF Violated Nuremberg Principles During Operation ‘Cast Lead’

Cesar Chelala

In what can be considered a sad paradox of history, an analysis of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) actions during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza shows that the IDF violated several of the Nuremberg Principles, as well as the principles of the Geneva Conventions.

The Nuremberg Principles are a set of guidelines established after World War II to try Nazi Party members. They were established to determine what constitutes a war crime. The Geneva Conventions consist of four treaties and three additional protocols that establish the standards in international law for humanitarian treatment of the victims of war.

According to Nuremberg Principle I, "Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment." As detailed in the "Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict," also known as the "Goldstone Report," several crimes against unarmed civilians were committed by the IDF during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

The UN Mission investigated 11 incidents in which the IDF launched direct attacks against civilians with lethal outcome. The facts in all except one case, states the Mission, indicate no justifiable military objective. According to the report, "From the facts ascertained in all the above cases, the Mission finds that the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitutes grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of willful killings and willfully causing great suffering to protected persons and, as such, give rise to individual criminal responsibility. It also finds that the direct targeting and arbitrary killing of Palestinian civilians is a violation of the right to life."

Both Israeli government and military officials are responsible for the IDF actions during Operation Cast Lead. As Nuremberg Principle III states, "The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible government official does not relive him from responsibility under international law."

It has been argued that those that were following orders are not guilty of crimes, and the responsibility for those crimes falls on the superior officers. However, Nuremberg Principle IV states that, "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

Nuremberg Principle VI establishes three kinds of crimes punishable as crimes under international law: crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among crimes against peace are those crimes "involving planning, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances."

Although the Government of Israel has the duty to defend its citizens, it is clear that Operation Cast Lead was a war of aggression against Gazans, out of any reasonable proportion and aimed at inflicting massive damage on Gaza's civilian population. According to a study carried out by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, 1,387 Gazans were killed during operation Cast Lead, a figure that includes 773 civilians and 330 combatants.

Among the war crimes established by Nuremberg Principle VI are the, "...plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity." The UN Mission investigated several incidents involving the destruction of industrial infrastructure, food production, water installations, sewage treatment plants and housing. Among the installations destroyed by the IDF was the el-Bader flour mill, the only operating flour mill in Gaza.

As stated in the UN report, "...the Mission finds that there has been a violation of the grave breaches provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Unlawful and wanton destruction which is not justified by military necessity amounts to a war crime. The Mission also finds that the destruction of the mill was carried out to deny sustenance to the civilian population, which is a violation of customary international law and may constitute a war crime. The strike on the flour mill furthermore constitutes a violation of the right to adequate food and means of subsistence."

The UN Mission also investigated four incidents in which the IDF coerced Palestinian civilian men at gunpoint to take part in house search operations. The men, blindfolded and handcuffed, were forced to enter houses suspected of having combatants, ahead of the Israeli soldiers. "From the facts available to it, the Mission is of the view that some of the actions of the Government of Israel might justify a competent court finding that crimes against humanity have been committed," states the report.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that Israel will never allow its soldiers and war-time leaders to appear before an international war-crimes tribunal regarding the IDF conduct during the war on Gaza. As stated in the UN Mission report, however, "In the context of increasing unwillingness on the part of Israel to open criminal investigations that comply with international standards, the Mission supports the reliance on universal jurisdiction as an avenue for States to investigate violations of the grave breach provisions of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, prevent impunity and promote international accountability."

Dr. Cesar Chelala, a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, writes extensively on human rights issues.

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