TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — The Israeli military said Wednesday it has opened criminal investigations into two high-profile cases involving Palestinian civilian casualties in this summer's Gaza war, in an apparent attempt to head off international investigations into its conduct.
By investigating the killing of Palestinian children on a Gaza beach and the shelling of a United Nations school, Israel looks to be trying to send a signal that it can police itself as it faces the specter of international war crimes probes.
More than 2,100 Palestinians, three-quarters of whom were civilians, were killed in the fighting, according to Palestinian and U.N. estimates. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and six civilians died.
Israel said it went to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, but the high death toll has sparked international condemnation. Several incidents in the war, including the two that Israel is now investigating, have attracted special attention.
As fighting raged, military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz ordered a committee to examine "exceptional incidents" that resulted in Palestinian civilian casualties. As a result, 44 cases are being reviewed and dozens more are in the pipeline. So far, 12 cases have already been examined by the military's top legal officer.
The two cases cited Wednesday are the first to result in criminal investigations. Seven other investigations were closed, and three more are awaiting a decision.
Palestinians have been threatening to seek access to the International Criminal Court, a venue usually reserved for charging those from countries without reputable judiciaries of their own. The U.N. Human Rights Council, which has a long history of criticizing Israel, has appointed a commission of inquiry to look into the fighting. Conducting a credible investigation of its own could be important for Israel to fend off these challenges.
Following a similar military operation in 2009, a U.N. fact-finding mission headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone found strong evidence that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes. While Goldstone later backtracked from his main conclusions, the report was never changed.
Israel did not cooperate with that probe, saying that its conclusions were known in advance, and it is unclear if it will cooperate with the upcoming U.N. probe either. But it has readied itself for the battle by beefing up its legal staff and preparing a detailed public relations campaign of satellite photos and video clips— hoping to persuade the world that its war against Hamas was justified.
As part of the effort, a senior Israeli military officer detailed Wednesday the two main incidents legal officials had begun to pursue.
The first is the July 16 strike on the beach beside a coastal road west of Gaza City that killed four boys, cousins aged 9 to 11. The second was the firing upon a U.N. school in northern Gaza on July 24 that was crowded with hundreds of Palestinians seeking refuge from fierce fighting and killed 14 civilians.
The military already has launched three criminal investigations into the potential misconduct of soldiers, the official said. These related to suspicions that a Palestinian woman had been shot after coordinating her travel with the military, that a Palestinian man had been assaulted and threatened by soldiers and that a soldier stole money from a Palestinian home during the fighting, the official said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to Israeli military briefing guidelines.
Meanwhile, EU Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen urged Israeli officials Wednesday to reverse last month's expropriation of 1,000 acres of West Bank land. But he stressed that the European Union is not considering anti-Israel sanctions over the issue.
Associated Press writer Peter Enav in Jerusalem contributed to this report.