An Israeli human rights group charged in a report released Tuesday that Israel's military has failed to adequately investigate cases in which Palestinian civilians have been killed by soldiers.
The B'Tselem report said that in the past four years, soldiers have killed 1,510 Palestinians, including 617 civilians, but no soldiers have been indicted. The figure does not include civilians killed during the Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09.
The report, echoing previous reports by B'Tselem, touched on one of the most complex and contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
B'Tselem defines civilians as people who were not participating in violence or members of militant groups at the time of death.
Israel says, however, the definition is not so clear cut, since many Palestinians involved in violence dress as civilians or carry out attacks from residential areas, putting civilians at risk. Many Palestinians sympathize with militants, and armed men have even been aided by civilians.
B'Tselem asked the military to investigate 148 cases involving the deaths of 288 Palestinian civilians, but few files have been opened and no charges have been filed, the report said. Some 230 of the deaths occurred in Gaza, a densely populated area that has experienced heavy fighting in recent years, it said.
B'Tselem excluded the other cases for a number of reasons, including lack of witnesses, or deaths that occurred during large military operations.
When a violent Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000, Israel classified it as an "armed conflict," defining most activities, including routine police work, as legitimate military activity. The military also stopped automatically investigating civilian deaths, pursuing investigations for unusual cases, B'Tselem said.
B'Tselem director Jessica Montell said the situation should be seen as military occupation instead. Under this classification it is easier to pursue investigations because soldiers cannot gain immunity by writing off all actions as legitimate military activity.
"The legal status must reflect the reality in the field, as well as express the value given to human life and the obligation to protect civilians," she said.
The Israeli military did not directly respond to allegations that it has not adequately prosecuted cases of wrongdoing. But it said it has responded directly to B'Tselem about some of the incidents noted in the report.
"The remaining claims are still under examination in accordance with standard investigative policies," the army said.
Adding to its response later Tuesday, the military said that in combat zones, suspicions of misconduct are investigated first by the military unit and turned over to prosecutors only if justified — explaining why many of the cases were not investigated by the military justice system. The statement said the question of the status of the West Bank as a combat zone is now before Israel's Supreme Court.
Since 2000, more than 6,300 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis have been killed in clashes and attacks. Violence has subsided considerably in recent years.