Criminal accountability for IDF soldiers: A baseless system

Of the 240 complaints received by the army in 2012, not one resulted in an indictment. In certain respects, the IDF has outsourced to human rights NGOs its system for receiving complaints against soldiers. When it comes to investigating those complaints, however, it does a totally unacceptable job.

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

Criminal accountability for IDF soldiers: A baseless system
IDF soldiers clash with demonstrators in Nabi Saleh, December 11, 2011 (Oren Ziv/

The most significant fact in our new fact sheet about law enforcement on IDF soldiers in the Occupied Territories is that although 240 complaints were registered in 2012, they resulted in not a single indictment. It is possible indictments will be filed in the coming years based on the complaints of 2012, but so far the percentage of complaints maturing into indictments is a fat, round zero. 2012 is somewhat problematic in this regard, but the average rate is not much better: around five percent.

Another less obvious point is also of importance. Out of 240 complaints, all of which deal with allegedly unlawful conduct – from violence to looting to unlawful killing – only six, about 2.5 percent, were made directly to the Military Police Criminal Investigative Division (MPCID), which then made only a desultory effort to investigate them. This rate was somewhat higher in 2008-2009, though still minor – nine percent (see pg. 35-46 here). The rest of the complaints made it to MPCID by Palestinians registering complaints with Israeli policemen in the DCOs [District Coordination Offices], but the majority came through human rights organizations, either directly (in 42 cases), or indirectly (when the NGOs went to the Military Judge Advocate, in 90 cases).

Only four complaints were made directly to MPCID by military officers, even though IDF orders make it clear that when a suspicion of certain offenses arises, MPCID must be informed. One single complaint came from the Shin Bet’s ombudsman responsible for examining detainee complaints, which given the notoriety of this department in closing complaints about torture, means that some soldier must have been spectacularly out of line. A similar number of complaints came from the Let the Animals Live NGO (an animal rights group), and another came from a righteous person, an individual Israeli citizen.

Anyone filing a complaint through an Israeli cop at a DCO – assuming one is actually present – is sometimes surprised to find that the complaint was lost on its way to MPCID. Sending your complaint via a human rights NGO has an added benefit: they do a good job. If the ratio of complaints coming from the police developing into an investigation is a lowly one in six, which is still much higher than those coming from an interrogation facility (1 in 18), the rate of complaints coming through NGOs and leading to investigations is one in 2.5 or 1:3.

Why is the rate for direct complaints so low? The answer is simple. MPCID does not have bases in the West Bank (and obviously, not in Gaza). The IDF and Border Police have a large number of bases in the West Bank, as well as plenty of training areas; recently, using the excuse for expelling Palestinians from their lands because they are in a “firing zone” has become depressingly common. The West Bank has bases of various ground forces, regimental bases, brigade bases expressly intended for occupation purposes (the Kfir Brigade), which has six battalions. The IDF has been in the West Bank since 1967, and never stopped building in it. And yet, MPCID has not a single base in the West Bank.

What this means in practice is that a Palestinian who wants to register a complaint against a soldier who hurt him or her needs a permit to enter Israel, because MPCID that is where its only bases are. Most Palestinians do not have such a permit. This means that there is no practical way to directly register a complaint, making certain that only the most obdurate will be able to register theirs. This certainly reduces the workload for MPCID, and saves some trouble for soldiers. One must wonder if this is truly accidental.

During the first years of the occupation, complaints about soldiers’ violence were rare. This changed immediately when the First Intifada broke out in late 1987. Between the two intifadas, complaints were supposed to travel from the Palestinians to MPCID via the Palestinian Police. This was, one could say, an unstable arrangement that collapsed when the Second Intifada broke out – but even in the 12 years since, MPCID hasn’t built a single base in the West Bank.

In certain respects, MPCID is an early example of privatization: it outsourced the system for receiving complaints to human rights NGOs. Those NGOs do MPCID’s work for it without it being forced to spend its own resources. When it comes to investigating those complaints, however, it does a totally unacceptable job. Yet, this is appears to be one public service the government of Israel won’t be in a hurry to privatize.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.