Israeli Soldiers Talk About War Crimes

JERUSALEM — Israel continues to brush off allegations of human rights violations during its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza launched at the end of December. A series of reports on such violations through the 22-day campaign come soon after completion of fieldwork by the UN human rights four-person fact-finding team headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone.

Published within the last fortnight, the reports by international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch appear geared to pressing issues which they hope will be addressed by the influential commission under Justice Goldstone.

Hard on the heels of these reports come allegations not from international human rights groups but from Israeli soldiers themselves, in the form of 54 separate testimonies from 26 soldiers who served in the campaign.

The testimonies, from 14 unidentified conscripts and 12 reserve soldiers, were accumulated by Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence), an Israeli group which has a lengthy and, in the eyes of many, a credible, record of getting soldiers to talk about their experiences on the battleground and in the occupied Palestinian territories. Their reports usually do not reflect well on the Israel army.

The Breaking the Silence report exposes major gaps between the official stance of the Israeli military and the soldiers’ recollection of events on the ground in Gaza. The accounts reveal the use of "accepted practices" such as destruction of hundreds of houses and mosques for no military purpose, the firing of phosphorous gas in the direction of populated areas, the killing of innocent victims with small arms, destruction of private property, and most of all, "a permissive atmosphere" within the army’s command structure that enabled soldiers to act without moral restrictions.

While the charges have been covered by the mainstream Israeli media only in order to exonerate the army, one aspect of the report is given prominence — the allegation that the troops used Palestinians as "human shields" despite a 2005 ruling by Israel’s High Court which outlawed a practice called "neighbor procedure." The practice was in widespread use by the Israeli army in operations against militants during the Palestinian Intifadah uprising.

One soldier in the Golani infantry brigade, a staff sergeant, says that while he personally did not see Palestinians being used as human shields, he was told by his commanders that this was happening. His own unit employed the "neighbor procedure" when it checked homes for Palestinian fighters, he said.

The soldier said he was present at several such operations which involved non-combatant Palestinians being sent ahead of troops into besieged houses where armed militants were believed to be hiding. During the Gaza campaign, the practice was labeled the "Johnny procedure," the soldier reported.

The staff sergeant reported that his commanders had told him of one incident where attack helicopters were used, and then a Palestinian neighbor was sent in to check if armed men believed to be inside were still alive. After being sent twice into the building, the Palestinian civilian reported that two men had been killed but one survived. A bulldozer was then used whereupon the man was again sent in. The surviving Palestinian was reportedly then taken prisoner.

The brigade commander Colonel Avi Peled told Israeli Television that the "Johnny" story and the use of "human shields" was "nonsense." He said the damning testimony of the soldier quoted by Breaking the Silence was "strictly hearsay" and that the man had not even been in combat at the time. There had been only one case in which a Palestinian had gone ahead of his troops, the colonel maintained, but he had himself asked to do so in order to ensure that no members of his family were inside the house which the army was besieging.

Refuting the report in general, the Israeli army spokesman said the allegations appeared similar to those published in March that were also based on testimony by soldiers who had fought in Gaza and then reported what they had seen or heard from others to a pre-military academy at which they had been cadets. "Now too, much of the anonymous testimony is based on rumors and second-hand account," the spokesman said.

But, in a rare show of openness, the army promised that it would "investigate any specific allegations presented by Breaking the Silence." Previously, the army had simply dismissed all the charges.

Mikhael Manekin of Breaking the Silence says "the testimonies prove that the immoral way the war was carried out was due to procedures that are in place, and not as a result of actions by individual soldiers." The group says that people who justify the army’s unwarranted actions are "sliding down a slippery moral slope. This is an urgent call to Israel’s society and leadership to take a sober look at the foolishness of our policies."

In its recent report Amnesty International says some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the 22-day Israeli offensive. More than 900 of these were civilians, including 300 children. That agrees broadly with Palestinian figures. Israel has put the overall Palestinian death toll at 1,166, of whom 295 were "uninvolved" civilians.

Israel has attributed some civilian deaths to "professional mistakes," but dismisses broader criticism that its attacks were indiscriminate and disproportionate. Amnesty, in the 117-page report, charges, however, that many of the hundreds of civilian deaths "cannot simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage’ incidental to otherwise lawful attacks, or as mistakes."

Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch researchers presented a report about the unbridled use by the Israeli military of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCLAV), commonly known as drones. In these attacks, the researches say 29 Palestinian civilians, eight of them children, were killed.

The Goldstone report is scheduled for publication in September. The commission was not allowed to enter Israel so that it could not investigate the army’s conduct through direct gathering of evidence from soldiers and officers who were involved in the campaign. Its members were also not allowed to gather evidence in southern Israeli towns and villages which had, prior to the campaign, long come under rocket fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Although the commission as a result had to limit itself to gathering evidence in Gaza only, Palestinians have voiced skepticism that anything tangible will come out of the findings.

Israelis, for their part, have pre-judged the commission as "biased." Interviewed by Israel Public Television, judge Goldstone promised this week that his report would be "scrupulously fair and balanced." He divulged that he had been originally reluctant to take on the assignment, believing that the terms of reference were "weighted from the outset against Israel" since the original mandate had focused exclusively on Israel’s alleged abuses, he said.

Upon accepting the job, Goldstone said he had insisted on expanding the scope to include allegations against Hamas. He said he had received firm UN assurances that his commission could conduct an "unprejudiced" investigation.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.