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Red line moves into dangerous moral ground

Avner Gvaryahu

The ethical boundaries are constantly shifting for Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza.

As one military operation rolls into the next, members of the Israeli Defence Force adjust their moral ­boundaries according to the reality in which they find themselves. (AFP)

I only knew Gaza from the stories. It was the military zone for which the Givati Brigade was responsible, but we all knew the stories about how they managed to kill several militants in one ambush. Honestly, we were a bit jealous.

I was drafted into the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) at the end of the second intifada of 2000-2005 as a member of a special operations unit of the paratrooper brigade. From the start of my service, I knew that Nablus and Jenin would be the areas for which we were responsible.

It would be child’s play, seemingly, compared with the stories that came out of Gaza – but my child’s play. I will never forget the first time that I was shot at, the first Palestinian corpse I ever saw, and the fear and adrenaline during my first military operation.

My first mission involved the seizure of a Palestinian home. I had never been inside a Palestinian home, and my squad was surprised for a moment by the fact that in the home lived an entire family, spanning three generations. We woke up everyone and took over the house. We put everyone in one room – women, men, children and the elderly. One of the guys was stationed at the door to ensure that they didn’t get out.

In the meantime, we took care of our business. I remember asking myself: What do they think about all of this? What would I do if soldiers broke into my home?

As time passed, fear turned into boredom, adrenaline stabilised, and my doubts about the extent of the operational logic and its justification would return to gnaw at me. But the next day there were already new operations. This was our daily routine and, as a result, the next time I didn’t really think about how the family whose home we entered felt.

My personal red moral line blurred very quickly. Every time I would tell myself, this is still okay.

Imaginary scale
But it’s in the nature of red lines to move along an imaginary scale. I wasn’t bothered when we destroyed entire homes during search operations, or when my squad accidentally shot an innocent woman and we quickly buried the incident and moved on. Today, I know that my ability to distinguish whether a particular action crosses the line didn’t really exist back then.

What happened to me is happening to the IDF and to Israeli society at large. During Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-2009, I had been a civilian active with Breaking the Silence, the Israeli group for ex-soldiers, for over a year but I was still shocked by the incidents I heard had occurred there.

I remember a friend who had taken part in Cast Lead. He returned shaken by the fact that homes of “Hamas members” were deemed legitimate targets for bombing without any relation to the risk they posed to our soldiers in the field. That was the first time he had encountered such orders during his military service. This is what he testified:

“In the morning we identified four men, aged 25 to 40, with keffiyehs, standing outside the house talking. It was suspicious. We reported it to intelligence, specifying the house they were about to enter. Intelligence passed this on to the Shabak [the Israeli security agency], who reported that this was known as a Hamas activist’s house. This is automatically acted on.

“I don’t remember what we used, whether it was a helicopter or something else, but the house was bombed while these guys were inside. A woman ran out of the house holding a child, and escaped southward. That is to say, there had been innocent people inside.”

Since Operation Cast Lead, the homes of “Hamas members” have been added to the IDF’s long list of potential targets in the Gaza strip.

The politicians who send us to perform these tasks don’t even pretend to promise hope for a better future – just further use of force and violence. Our doubts about logic and justice don’t even interest us, because our red moral lines are constantly moving in the face of our reality, much like mine during my military service.

About 150 people were killed in Gaza in the first six days of the operation, the vast majority of whom were civilians and a quarter of whom were children. Millions of Israelis and Palestinians live in fear that a rocket or a missile will fall on their heads. The end of one bout of violence merely sets an alarm for the next.

The red line at which we stopped during Operation Cast Lead is the same line from which we commenced Operation Pillar of Defence in 2011. The point at which we stopped during Pillar of Defence is the same place from which we have started Operation Protective Edge.

What will our next red line be? And when will we cross that one too? Only we can answer that question. It depends on us, and what we allow others to do in our name.

Avner Gvaryahu served in the Israeli Defence Forces special forces from 2004 to 2007

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