Israel rejects charges by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN agencies that its January invasion of the Gaza Strip inflicted civilian death and destruction on an unjustifiable scale.
Now, some of the Israeli soldiers who took part say they were urged by commanders to shoot first and worry later about sorting out civilians from combatants. Accordingly, they say, the force went into Gaza with guns blazing. In print and video testimony published on Wednesday by the activist group Breaking the Silence, the 30 soldiers say the Israeli army’s imperative was to minimise its own casualties to ensure Israeli public support for the operation.
“Better hit an innocent than hesitate to target an enemy,” is a typical description by one unidentified soldier of his understanding of instructions repeated at pre-invasion briefings and during the 22-day operation, from December 27 to January 18.
“If you’re not sure, kill. Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad,” says another. “The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places.
“In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.”
Israel’s Operation Cast Lead had the declared aim of forcing Islamist Hamas fighters to stop firing rockets at Israeli towns.
A Palestinian rights group says 1 417 people were killed, 926 of them civilians. The Israeli army put the death toll at 1 166 and estimated 295 dead were civilians. Israel said 10 of its soldiers and three civilians were killed.
Whole streets in parts of the Gaza Strip were razed to minimise the risk of Israeli casualties from small-arms attacks and booby-trap bombs. The United Nations says Gaza six months later is just beginning to clear 600 000 tonnes of rubble.
Soldiers in Israel’s largely conscript army have standing orders not to talk to the media. The 112-page report by Breaking the Silence includes testimonies of 30 “who served in all sectors of the operation”.
“The majority … are still serving in their regular military units and turned to us in deep distress at the moral deterioration of the IDF [Israel Defence Force],” it says.
Their narratives “are enough to bring into question the credibility of the official IDF versions”.
The Israeli military rejected the criticism as “based on hearsay” but pledged in a statement to investigate any formal complaints of misconduct, saying its troops had respected international law during “complex and difficult fighting”.
Use of civilians
Except for a sergeant named Amir, the soldiers are anonymous and their faces digitally blurred. The group said it had funding from Israeli human rights groups and the governments of Britain, The Netherlands and Spain, and from the European Union.
“We believe that the existence of a moral society clearly requires a profound, honest discussion, of which the voice of soldiers on the ground is an inseparable part,” the group says.
Soldiers describe a “Neighbour Procedure” in which civilians were forced to enter suspect buildings ahead of troops. They cite cases of civilians advancing in front of a soldier resting his rifle on their shoulder.
The report repeats charges — denied by Israel — that white phosphorus was fired indiscriminately into Gaza streets. It cites “massive destruction was unrelated to any direct threat to Israeli forces” and “permissive” rules of engagement.
“We did not get instructions to shoot at anything that moved,” says one soldier. “But we were generally instructed: if you feel threatened, shoot. They kept repeating to us that this is war and in war opening fire is not restricted.”
To strip away cover for Hamas fighters, aerial bombardment, artillery, demolition charges and armoured bulldozers razed whole areas including gardens, and olive and orange groves.
“We didn’t see a single house that was intact … that was not hit. The entire infrastructure, tracks, fields, roads, was in total ruin. The D-9 [bulldozer] had gone over everything,” the report quoted a soldier as saying.
“There was a clear feeling, and this was repeated whenever others spoke to us, that no humanitarian consideration played any role in the army at present. The goal was to carry out an operation with the least possible casualties for the army.”
The testimonies challenge assertions by Israeli officials and pro-Israel groups in the United States that “Israel did all it could to avoid civilian casualties”, as Kenneth Jacobson of the Anti-Defamation League wrote last week to the New York Times.
The League denounced Amnesty International for labelling Israel’s actions as “wanton” destruction and said it was “outrageously accusing the Israeli military of war crimes”.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak asserted after the war that Israel had the most moral army in the world. These critics say Israelis should not be asked simply to accept that their army’s conduct was “faultless and public accountability uncalled for”.
The IDF went to great lengths to prove that if there were any excesses they were by the “delinquent soldier”, Breaking the Silence said in the preamble to its evidence.
The testimony suggests that “the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians of the Gaza Strip was a direct result of IDF policy”. – Reuters