JERUSALEM Based on testimony from Israeli soldiers who took part in the recent war in Gaza, Israel is being confronted directly with the serious charge that permissive rules of engagement allowed for the killing of Palestinian civilians and widespread destruction of Palestinian property.
The disclosures created a stir after first publication Thursday in a major front-page spread in the Tel Aviv daily, Haaretz. The charges are all the more telling in that they are based on first-hand accounts from dozens of combat soldiers who served in the war. Their testimonies were compiled by an academic college the soldiers had attended in a prep course before being drafted.
This represents the first uncensored recording in Israel of what occurred within combat units which took part in what Israeli codenamed Operation Cast Lead. The picture drawn by the soldiers differs radically from the refined version of the war provided by military commanders to the public and Israeli media.
The report includes the testimony of one NCO (non-commissioned officer): "A company commander with 100 soldiers under his command saw a woman walking down a road some distance away, but close enough that you could’ve gunned down whoever you identified…She was an elderly woman whether she raised any suspicion, I don’t know. But what the officer did in the end was to put men on the roof and with the snipers bring her down. I felt it was simply murder in cold blood."
As presented in the report, Danny Zamir, head of the army prep-course, who compiled the transcript of the testimonies, intervened: "I don’t get it why did he have her shot?" The soldier who witnessed the incident replied: "That what’s great in Gaza, you could say you see someone walking down a track, not necessarily armed, and you can simply shoot them. In our case, it was an elderly woman. I didn’t see her with any weapon. The order was to bring the person down, that woman, ‘as soon as you sight her’. There are always warnings, and there’s always the saying ‘it could be a suicide bomber’. What I felt was a lot of bloodthirstiness. Because, we weren’t in many engagements, our battalion was only involved in a very limited number of incidents with terrorists."
According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 1,434 Palestinians were killed during the Israeli offensive, 960 of them civilians, among them 288 children. Palestinians have spoken insistently of atrocities by Israeli troops and of random destruction of thousands of homes. Israel has brushed off the accusations and calls for investigations into "war crimes" committed during the war, dismissing it as "anti-Israel propaganda."
In the report, another infantry squad leader gave this account of an incident where an IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) sniper shot and killed a Palestinian woman and her two children: "There was a house with a family inside….We put them in a room. Later we left the house and another platoon entered it. A few days later there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sniper position on the roof," the soldier said.
"The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One of the women and her two children didn’t understand the instructions. They went to the left. No one told the sniper on the roof that they had been permitted to go, that it was okay, and he should hold his fire and he…he did what he was supposed to, like he was following orders."
According to the squad leader’s account, "The sniper saw a woman and children approaching him, they crossed the line he was told no one should cross. He shot them straightaway. In the end, what happened is that he killed them. I don’t think he felt too bad about it, because, as far as he was concerned, he was doing his job according to the orders he’d been given. The atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to…I don’t know how to describe it…The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, are very, very much less important than the lives of our soldiers. As far as they’re concerned, that’s the way they can justify it."
"I was in shock at what I heard," said Zamir in an interview on Israel Radio. "The incidents involving the killing of civilians are the most disturbing and need to be investigated. What I also found very distressing was how the norms of the army’s code of conduct have been eroded and how widespread the aberrations are at junior commander level."
Zamir said the soldiers reported that officers never intervened when troops deliberately damaged property, harassed civilians or wrote "Death to Arabs" graffiti. The report also quotes individual soldiers reporting that, when they tried to remonstrate with fellow soldiers who were causing wanton damage, they were met with the response, "Because they’re Arabs." "This is not the Israeli Defense Forces that we used to know," said Zamir.
Amos Harel, the Haaretz military affairs correspondent who broke the story, says the accounts have a ring of authenticity. "The soldiers are not lying, for the simple reason that they have no reason to do so. There’s a continuity of testimony from different parts of the Gaza war zone. Read the transcript and you won’t find any judgment or boasting. This is what the soldiers saw in Gaza."
Israel’s army is a temple of social consensus and a national melting pot. It is one of the fundamental tenets of Israel’s social fabric that the army does not commit war crimes, and operates according to "the highest ethical standards," even in war time. They call it "purity of arms."
The accounts expose a dehumanizing view of ‘the enemy’ that seems to be more extreme than ever among Israeli soldiers. But the deterioration has been going on for decades since Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands has meant that the Israeli army has been principally engaged in fighting guerrillas in civilian populated areas; this has included fighting two Palestinian Intifada uprisings and two wars in Lebanon, one against the Palestinian Liberation Authority and one against Hezbollah.
The report of what happened in Gaza was submitted three weeks ago to Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi. The army says it will investigate the allegations thoroughly.
But Harel says that "if the army never heard about these incidents, it’s a reasonable assumption that it didn’t want to know. The soldiers describe the reality in combat units, from the level of company commander down. In debriefings, the participants usually include company commanders up. It seems that, except for isolated incidents, the rule is ‘you don’t ask, we won’t tell.’"
Asked on Israel Radio to comment on the report, Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck to the credo: "I only heard of the charges this morning. I’m convinced that the army will carry out a thorough investigation. There are always exceptions, but our army is the world’s most moral. Our soldiers talk openly when they return home."
Moshe Negbi, a leading legal expert, told IPS that an independent inquiry was essential "not only for justice to be seen, but also as a most effective way of heading off increasing world pressure for a war crimes inquiry against the Israeli military."
Whether there will be a major public grappling within Israeli society that will press for such an inquiry is improbable. Ever since the beginning of the occupation more than 40 years back, and especially in the last decade since the Second Intifada, attitudes and public and political discourse in regard to the Palestinians, and to Arabs in general, have been degraded.