WASHINGTON – Israel is denying hitting a sewage treatment plant during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, after having been accused of doing so by the Goldstone Report. The state admitted to having shelled the roof of a flour mill, but claimed Hamas had been using it as shelter
On Friday Israel submitted to the United Nations its first official response to the Goldstone report, which accuses it of committing war crimes in Gaza during its offensive there in January of last year.
The state said in its response that according to aerial photographs, the sewage plant was damaged on January 10. "The aerial strike on the relevant day took place 1.3 km from the plant," the response says. "The IDF did not fire directly upon the plant and there are no reports of such a strike in its documents."
Israel also suggested that the damage may have been done by Hamas. "When ground forces passed by the plant, during the operation, the structure was already breached and the area surrounding it was flooded. The judge advocate general cannot rule out the possibility that the damage was a result of a deliberate Hamas operation, as part of its defense plan of impeding the movement of IDF forces in the area," the response says.
It adds that the Goldstone report offers no proof that the IDF was behind the damage done to the plant.
Regarding the flour mill hit by a tank shell during the fighting, Israel says the area was used as shelter by Hamas gunmen because of its proximity to the organization's stronghold, in Al-Shati refugee camp.
"Hamas fortified the area with ditches and booby-trapped houses and sent out its forces to attack IDF soldiers," the response says, giving the example of an attack on an IDF patrol that took place 200 meters from the mill and a weapons storehouse found 500 meters away.
It adds that the IDF warned residents of the area ahead of time of the planned strike on the flour mill, and that phone calls were made to the mill itself.
"During preparations, commanders identified the mill as a 'strategic peak' because of its height and clear viewpoints. However a preliminary strike was not carried out in order to prevent damage to civilian infrastructure," the report says.
Israel also claims that IDF forces came under heavy fire from the mill during the operation, and hit it with a tank shell. Palestinian firemen were then allowed to enter the premises to put out the blaze that erupted as a result.
The Goldstone Report claims the mill was bombed from the air in order to deny Gazans food, a claim Israel rejects, giving as an example the permission granted to firemen to put out the fire as well as the large amounts of flour conveyed to the Strip by Israel during the fighting.
"The judge advocate general finds that under the special circumstances of the fight and considering the flour mill's location, it was a justified military target according to laws pertaining to armed combat," the response says, adding that bullets were found on the roof of the mill afterwards, which could not have belonged to IDF soldiers as they could not safely use the exposed rooftop to fire from.
Ashkar family warned, evacuated
Israel also responded to claims that its attack on the home of the Al-Ashkar family was unjustified, explaining that the house had been used as a storehouse for weapons and a launching pad for rockets fired at Israel.
"Before the strike, the IDF called the home of Abu-Ashkar to warn him. Abu-Ashkar took the call and evacuated all residents immediately. In addition, the strike was carried out at night, when fewer civilians were likely to be around. Civilians were not hurt by the strike," the response says.
"A short time after the strike two of Abu-Ashkar's sons, both of whom are Hamas operatives, were killed trying to fire a mortar shell at IDF forces… The judge advocate general has concluded that in light of the use of the structure to store weapons and ammunition, including Grad missiles, it was a justified military target."
Israel also explains in the response that "Hamas's deliberate strategy to act from within a civilian population made it difficult for the IDF to achieve the aims of the operation – lessening the threat of attacks on Israeli citizens – by preventing damage to Palestinian civilians".
The response adds that efforts were still made to limit the loss of Palestinian lives as well as to provide justice. "Israel took upon itself the responsibility of investigating all specific claims of violations of international law during the operation, even if they came from unreliable sources," it says.
According to the response, the IDF launched 150 investigations following the operation, 36 of which resulted in criminal proceedings. Dozens of Palestinians and hundreds of Israeli soldiers and officers were questioned as part of the probes.
Israel claims that despite the hardships underlying such investigations – which include gathering evidence in enemy territory and the danger of its manipulation by the enemy, summoning reserve soldiers to testify, and the difficulty of understanding exactly what happened during battle – "the IDF has succeeded in achieving progress in the investigations and has even completed a large part of them".
The response adds that investigators of the cases were given total independence and access to all documents and witnesses, Palestinian and Israeli, available.
In response to the UN chief's appeal, Israel explained that the military legal system is an independent one and that the judge advocate general is subject to the State Prosecutor's Office and not to the military command.
The response was prepared by a team of legal experts, headed by the attorney general, together with the judge advocate general. It was finalized on Thursday night and presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his senior ministers – including Justice Minister Yaakov Ne'eman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – on Friday morning.
Maya Lecker contributed to this report