Since the exposure of Israeli undercover forces by Hamas fighters in the occupied Gaza Strip on November 11, an incident that triggered the most intense round of escalation since 2014, a number of reports have emerged about the circumstances surrounding Israel’s thwarted raid.
On November 22, Hamas published photos of individuals it said were involved, images that Israel’s military censor immediately subjected to a publication ban.
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Since then, a number of articles in Israeli and international media have claimed the Israeli forces impersonated humanitarian workers, used fake ID cards of real Palestinian residents, and operated inside Gaza for weeks with a cover story of distributing medical equipment and wheelchairs.
Such reports have caused consternation; as one Israeli human rights campaigner and journalist put it: “If true, the operation could put bona fide humanitarian operations and employees at risk in the coastal strip, where two-thirds of the population is reliant on humanitarian aid”.
Israel’s actions may also have constituted a violation of international humanitarian law.
“Soldiers who disguise themselves as civilians endanger civilians and thus frustrate the objective of the principle of distinction”, Yael Stein, head of research at Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, said.
“One danger that the prohibition seeks to prevent is that civilians would be marked for attack because of the suspicion they are combatants in disguise,” she said.
“In this last case, there’s also the danger to the status of international aid workers – that the local population might suspect in the future, putting their lives in danger and their much-needed work in question.”
Stein further noted that while undercover operations can be lawful in the context of law enforcement operations, “since Israel claims there’s a situation of war in Gaza, it cannot claim that these operations are legal”.
Israeli authorities did not respond to several requests for comment.
For human rights lawyer Eitay Mack, the operation in Gaza “shows the cynicism of the Israeli government, who for years have claimed that Palestinians are using humanitarian disguises for terrorist activity”, allegations even used “as an excuse for rejecting Palestinians seeking exit permits from the Gaza Strip for medical treatment”.
Israeli authorities do indeed frequently claim that Palestinian fighters “deliberately disguise themselves as civilians” – in May, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations told the Security Council that even Great March of Return demonstrators were “terrorists disguised as civilians”.
According to Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization negotiators, “this isn’t the only thing that Israel has lied about”.
“For example, Israel has routinely used Palestinians as human shields and it has routinely covered military targets in civilian areas while wrongly alleging that Palestinians do this”, she said.
The botched mission inside Gaza threw light on the Israeli military’s broader use of undercover forces in the occupied Palestinian territory, including in the West Bank.
In October 2015, Israeli forces were captured on film infiltrating a protest, assaulting Palestinian youths and shooting a detained demonstrator in the leg. Weeks later, undercover forces – including one pretending to a pregnant woman – raided a Hebron hospital and killed an unarmed civilian.
A spokesperson for prisoners’ rights NGO, Addameer, told Al Jazeera “undercover forces are usually seen in protests, raids or arrest operations”, adding that the group sees those kinds of arrests as “more like a kidnapping operation” than an arrest.
Addameer stressed it “considers all arrests in the West Bank to be carried out illegally especially because almost none of them would have a legal arrest warrant to present during the arrest”.
While the NGO does not hold exact statistics as to how many Palestinians are arrested in this manner, it pointed to an example earlier this year of Israeli undercover forces raiding Birzeit University campus – reportedly posing as journalists – to detain the student union head.
Such actions, however, generate little to no debate within Israel, according to Mack.
“Nobody is talking about it, what it means in terms of international law,” he said. “And in the case of Gaza, for most Israelis it’s not even that they don’t care – they simply don’t even see that there is a place called Gaza. It’s a blind spot; what happens in Gaza is left in Gaza.”
In the absence of public pressure, there is even less possibility of accountability, observers say.
“In Israel, no one pays for undertaking covert operations, killing Palestinians and placing foreign workers at harm,” Buttu said.
“Sadly, the international community has barely spoken out, preferring instead to focus on ‘ceasefires’ and condemning ‘both sides’.”
Mack similarly believes that the silence of the international community – including “humanitarian organisations” – is part of what emboldens Israel to conduct such operations.
“It’s very, very worrying, because one of the basic principles of international humanitarian law is that the fighting groups will not use humanitarian groups as symbols to shield themselves.”
“This kind of operation always has a risk,” Mack continued, “so if the Netanyahu government felt that there would be international accountability for using a humanitarian NGO as a cover, it wouldn’t do it.”
Yet not only has there been no accountability, but there are signs that the Israeli authorities’ own efforts to censor the story are being supported by Twitter, with a number of accounts ordered to delete tweets pertaining to Israeli undercover forces’ actions in Gaza.
Stein told Al Jazeera she would be surprised if anyone would be held to account for the actions in Gaza.
“According to publications in the press, this operation was approved by high-ranking officers in the army and in the political level”, she said.
“And in any case, as B’Tselem has written in the past, the so-called law enforcement system in the army hardly results in meaningful action against any of the forces involved and is more concerned with whitewashing than with justice and truth”.