Israel military’s top lawyer warns troops over ‘improper conduct’ in Gaza

Action may be taken against soldiers who have crossed ‘criminal threshold’ with unjustified use of force, looting.

An Israeli soldier stands in an apartment during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip,
An Israeli soldier stands in an apartment during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip [Ohad Zwigenberg/AP Photo]

The Israeli military’s top lawyer has issued an unprecedented warning to troops against “improper conduct” in Gaza which includes the unjustified use of force and looting among other “criminal” actions.

Major-General Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, the military advocate general, issued the warning in a letter on Wednesday, as reported by the Haaretz newspaper, saying it was “difficult to exaggerate” the “severity” of the soldiers’ actions over nearly five months of the war.

Their actions include “inappropriate statements that encourage unacceptable actions”, the “unjustified use of force”, “destruction of civilian property” and “looting”, according to Tomer-Yerushalmi, which were in “violation of orders” and had crossed the “criminal threshold”.

Entitled Fighting and Victory According to the Law, the letter underlined that soldiers’ actions “deviate from orders and disciplinary boundaries” and did not meet the military’s values, ultimately causing “strategic damage” to Israel in the international arena.

Tomer-Yerushalmi signalled that several cases were being investigated, after which the Military Advocate General Corps would decide if criminal or disciplinary measures need to be taken.

“These acts and statements, on the part of individuals who do not represent the collective, are contrary to the [Israeli military] as a professional, moral, and dignified army, and they have no place in the [Israeli military],” she wrote.

Last month, a United Nations human rights official called for an end to the mistreatment of Palestinian detainees by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, who were subjected to weeks of imprisonment in secret locations, physical abuse and humiliation.

Several videos shared by the Israeli army since the war began show hundreds of Palestinian men stripped to their underwear, sitting outdoors in the cold, sometimes blindfolded. In a few videos, women and children were also seen.

Soldiers have also filmed themselves mocking Palestinians and posting the videos on social media as they press on with their offensive in Gaza which has killed more than 29,000 Palestinians since the current conflict erupted on October 7.

Other troops have posted videos of themselves stealing from Palestinian homes in Gaza, with the Government Media Office in the enclave saying this month that at least $25m in cash, gold and valuables was looted in the first three months of the war.

Conduct of war

The letter comes amid rising international pressure on Israel over a no-limits offensive that has devastated the Gaza Strip. In recent weeks, several countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Spain and Ireland, have warned Israel to halt its plans for a ground offensive in the border city of Rafah, where an estimated 1.4 million Palestinians are currently sheltering.

South Africa lodged a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice in December, alleging it was perpetrating genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Judges stopped short of a ceasefire ruling, but ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in the strip.

Tomer-Yerushalmi’s comments came a day after Herzi Halevi, the Israeli military’s chief of staff, emphasised values in the conduct of the war in a letter to army commanders, saying the army was not “on a killing spree”, “not acting out of revenge nor carrying out genocide in Gaza”.

“We conduct ourselves as like human beings and unlike our enemies we maintain our humanity. We must make sure not to use force where this is not necessary, to distinguish between terrorists and non-combatants, not to take anything that does not belong to us – a souvenir or weapons, and not to film revenge videos,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies