Yotam Feldman | Ha’aretz
24 September 2009
A senior prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague said Monday that he is considering opening an investigation into whether Lt. Col. David Benjamin, an Israel Defense Forces reserve officer, allowed war crimes to be committed during the IDF’s three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip this winter.
The officer – a dual citizen of Israel and South Africa, where he was born – served in the Military Advocate General’s international law department, which authorized which targets troops would strike before and during the operation.
Newsweek magazine released an interview Monday with ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina in which he said he is convinced his office has the authority to launch an investigation into Benjamin’s actions.
The ICC has until now refrained from trying IDF officers, as it lacks authority to do so, since Israel is not a signatory to the 2002 Rome Treaty that founded the court. South Africa, however, did sign the treaty, so the ICC is authorized to indict its citizens.
Moreno-Ocampo’s remarks are in line with the recommendations of a UN fact-finding commission on the Gaza war headed by South African justice Richard Goldstone. Last week, that panel urged the UN Security Council to refer both Israel and the Hamas leadership in Gaza for prosecution in the ICC unless both launched fully independent investigations into alleged war crimes by the end of this year.
The ICC began looking into Benjamin’s case after receiving material from pro-Palestinian organizations in South Africa. The material included a transcript of an interview Benjamin gave to the web site Bloomberg.com, in which the officer recounted his involvement in legal consultations with the IDF ahead of army operations.
“We were intimately involved in planning,” Benjamin said, including “authorizing the targets that could be struck, war materiel – everything passed by us.”
Benjamin served for many years as legal adviser to the GOC Southern Command, and later headed the Military Advocate General’s department on international law.
In August, he visited South Africa to attend a conference organized by the local Jewish community on international law during wartime, with special reference to the Gaza war. Benjamin later described the trip as a “personal hasbara [public diplomacy] trip.”
The pro-Palestinian organizations promptly asked South African state prosecutors to open an investigation into suspicions that Benjamin had committed war crimes in Gaza. To avoid a potential confrontation with local authorities, Benjamin left South Africa several days earlier than he had planned.
At the conference, Benjamin rejected claims that the IDF committed war crimes in Gaza, as well as demands that Israel’s wartime conduct be subject to an external investigation.
Dennis Davis – a South African district court judge and international law lecturer at the University of Cape Town, who directed the conference – said he firmly opposed the remarks delivered by Benjamin, who was once his law student. Davis added that were Benjamin still his student, he would “fail him.”
Benjamin resigned from the IDF in late January of this year, though his official retirement vacation began in November 2008. When the Gaza operation began, however, he returned to his former position in the Military Advocate General’s office.
But Benjamin says he was not directly involved in planning operations during the war. He told Haaretz yesterday that during the Bloomberg interview, he was speaking not of himself personally, but of the army, and the Military Advocate General’s office, as a whole.
“I spoke in the name of the army, and of the Military Advocate General, so I told them what we’re like in the collective sense,” he said. “We authorized and we carried out, but I wasn’t [directly] involved in Gaza.”
“What’s important is that the State of Israel doesn’t need Goldstone to tell it what needs to be done,” he added. “There is a human rights agenda in the world, but those who work with this agenda have the luxury of not needing to balance human rights needs and security needs, and we do need to have that balance.”
“Presumably the military advocate general, who personally authorized the IDF’s actions, will himself be investigated?” he continued. “There is a supervisory mechanism – the attorney general is above the military advocate general, and he can intervene. The High Court of Justice can also intervene.”
The IDF Spokesman’s Office said yesterday that “Lt. Col. David Benjamin is a respected officer who served for many years in legal positions in the IDF, and assisted the military in managing its activities in accordance with the rules of international law.”
“Although during Operation Cast Lead, Lt. Col. Benjamin was on retirement vacation abroad, he returned to Israel on his own initiative in order to aid the military in its public diplomacy efforts,” it continued. “Any attempt to initiate legal proceedings, as described in the article, is perverse and driven by political motives, and ultimately [the allegations] will be revealed as baseless.”
Col. (Res.) Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, who headed the Military Advocate General’s international law department during the Gaza War, refused to comment on Moreno-Ocampo’s remarks.
The ICC Office of the Prosecutor said officials had examined the material the court received as part of a preliminary investigation intended to determine whether it has the authority to hear cases on war crimes allegedly committed in Gaza.