Israeli troops were repeatedly encouraged by officers to prioritise their own safety over that of Palestinian civilians when they embarked on the ground invasion of Gaza in January, according to the first direct testimonies of soldiers who served in the operation.
The picture that emerges from the testimonies, which have been seen by The Independent, is one of massive fire power to cover advances and rules of engagement that were calculated to ensure, in the words attributed to one battalion commander, that “not a hair will fall of a soldier of mine. I am not willing to allow a soldier of mine to risk himself by hesitating. If you are not sure, shoot.”
The first eye-witness accounts of the war by serving Israeli reservists and conscripts describes the Israeli use of Palestinian civilians as “human shields”. They detail the killing of at least two civilians, the vandalism, looting and wholesale destruction of Palestinian houses, the use of deadly white phosphorus, bellicose religious advice from army rabbis and what another battalion commander described to his troops as “insane firepower with artillery and air force”. The reports amount to the most formidable challenge by Israelis since the Gaza war to the military’s own considered view that it conducted the operation according to international law and made “an enormous effort to focus its fire only against the terrorists whilst doing the utmost to avoid harming uninvolved civilians”.
They are contained in testimonies from about 30 soldiers that were collected by Breaking the Silence, an army veterans organisation that seeks to “expose the Israeli public to the routine situations of everyday life in the occupied territories”. Although the organisation has collected hundreds of testimonies from ex-soldiers before, this is the first time that it has done so from serving soldiers so soon after the events they describe.
They tell how:
* Unprecedentedly loose rules of engagement were put in place to protect Israeli troops. One soldier said his brigade commander and other officers made it clear that “any movement must entail gunfire”. He added: “I don’t remember if the brigade commander said this or someone else. I’ m not sure. No one is supposed to be there. If you see any signs of movement at all, you shoot. These, essentially, were the rules of engagement. Shoot if you like if you are afraid or you see someone, shoot.” Another soldier said his battalion commander had said the operation was not “a limited confrontation such as in Hebron, and not to hesitate if we suspected someone nor feel bad about destruction because it is all done for the safety of our own soldiers… if we see something suspect and shoot, better hit an innocent than hesitate to target an enemy”. One soldier said the “awareness of each soldier going in is simply… a light finger on the trigger. You see something and you’re not quite sure? You shoot”.
* Houses were systematically demolished. Despite official accounts that homes were only destroyed for strictly “operational” reasons, one reservist, a veteran of the conflict in Gaza since before 2005, said “I never knew such fire power” used by tanks and helicopters for the “constant destruction” of houses. The soldier said that some houses had been destroyed for normal operational reasons, such as because they had been booby trapped or used by militants to fire from, or had contained tunnel openings. But he said others were destroyed for the “day after” – to make a “very large” area “sterile”, to allow better “firing capacity, good visibility and control” once the operation was over. This meant, demolishing houses “not implicated in any way, whose single sin is that it is situated on a hill in the Gaza strip” .
* A civilian man between 50 and 60 who was unarmed but carrying a torch was shot dead after the unit’s commander ordered his soldiers not to fire warning shots but to hold their fire until he was 50m away. The soldier said the company commander announced over the radio after the incident: “Here’s an opener for tonight”. The soldier said that the commander was challenged over why he had not authorised deterrent fire when the man was further away: “He didn’t agree and couldn’t give a damn, and finally the guys felt that even if they could take this up with the higher echelons it wouldn’t be effective.” Another soldier said his unit commander shot dead an old man hiding with his family under the stairs of a house. While the soldier said that the killing of the man was a mistake, it had happened as the unit entered the house using live fire.
* Palestinian human shields – or “johnnies” as they were termed by soldiers on the ground – were suborned to enter surrounded houses ahead of troops, including houses known to contain armed militants. One account corroborates the story of one such human shield that was exposed in The Independent, that of Majdi Abed Rabbo in Jabalya in northern Gaza, who was ordered three times to enter a house to report on the condition of three armed Hamas militants inside.
* Military rabbis prepared troops for battle. One soldier said an army rabbi had “aimed at inspiring the men with courage, cruelty aggressiveness, expressions as ‘no pity. God protects you. Everything you do is sanctified’… there were specific scenarios discussed… but from the context it was pretty obvious he came to tell us how aggressive and determined we need to be, that we must win because this is a holy war”. Leaflets distributed at military synagogues had stated that “the Palestinians are like the Philistines of old, newcomers who do not belong in the land, aliens planted on the soil which should clearly return to us”.
* Mortars – rarely if ever used in Gaza before – were widely deployed. They included 120mm mortars of the sort that killed up to 40 civilians outside the UN el-Fakhoura school in Jabalya which was being used as a shelter, and in a nearby house. One soldier explained that while “with light arms you’ve got an 80 per cent chance of hitting the target with your first shot, with mortars it is much less”. Another said: “I finally understood. We were firing at launcher crews in open spaces. But it didn’t take much to aim at schools, hospitals and such. So I see I’m firing literally into a built-up area. I don’t know to what degree it was still inhabited because the army made considerable attempts to get people to leave. But I understand that… [tails off].”
The testimonies appear to reinforce evidence from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and journalists who visited battle zones just after the war in January that white phosphorus was used for purposes other than “marking”, “range-finding” and “smoke screening”. Those purposes included to ignite homes suspected of being booby trapped.
Houses that troops occupied were vandalised. One testimony stated: “One of the soldiers… opened the child’s bag… he took out notebooks and ripped them. One guy smashed cupboards for kicks out of boredom. There were guys arguing with the platoon commander before we left the house why he wouldn’t let them smash the picture hanging there…” A reservist soldier said that there was a “big difference between the way we treated the contents of the house and the way the regulars did. The regulars wouldn’t take care even of the most basic sanitary stuff like going to the toilet, basic hygiene. I mean you could see that they had defecated anywhere and left the stuff lying round”.
A spokeswoman for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), Lieutenant-Colonel Avital Leibovitz, sought to challenge the motives and credibility of the report. She said “more than a dozen” military police investigations were under way into incidents that took place during Operation Cast Lead. While the IDF continued to operate according to “uncompromising ethical values”, it was ready to investigate allegations of misconduct but not on the basis of anonymous testimonies which she could not be sure were from soldiers.
The Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard said the report showed that the Gaza operation violated the “number one principle in international laws of war”: that of distinguishing between the civilian population and combatants.
Yehuda Shaul, a founder of Breaking the Silence, said the group had names and details for all the testimonies – all of which had been taped – and that anonymity was to protect the testifiers from any disciplinary or criminal proceedings. The army already knew the name of at least one, he said.
Gaza invasion: Witnesses on the front line
On military briefings ahead of the invasion
“We talked about practical matters… but the basic approach to war was very brutal, that was my impression… He said something along the lines of ‘don’t let morality become an issue. That will come up later’. He had this strange language: ‘Leave the nightmares and horrors that will come up for later, now just shoot’… The basic approach was that there were no chances taken. If you face an area that is hidden by a building, you take down the building. Questions such as ‘who lives in the building?’ are not asked.”
On problems with identifying targets for bombing
“It got to the point where we would try to report to field intelligence about a figure sticking out its head or a rocket being launched, and the girl [at field intelligence] would ask, ‘Is it near this or that house?’ We’d look at the aerial photo and say, ‘Yes, but the house is no longer there’. ‘Wait, is it facing a square?’ ‘No more square.’… Later I went in to the look-out war-room and asked how things worked, and the girl-soldiers there, the look-outs, resented the fact that they had no way to direct the planes, because all their reference points were razed… It’s highly possible that now the pilot will bomb the wrong house.”
On the rules of engagement
“[The Brigade commander] went so far as to say this was war and in war, no consideration of civilians was to be taken. You shoot anyone you see. I’m paraphrasing here, not literally quoting, but the gist of the matter was very clear.”
On the rabbinate’s role in the conflict
“The rabbi said we are actually conducting the war of ‘the sons of light’ against ‘the sons of darkness’. This is in fact a statement with highly messianic language… It turns the other side as a generality into ‘sons of darkness’ while we become ‘sons of light’. There is no differentiation which we would expect to find between civilians and others. Here is one people fighting another people, with all the messianic implications. But that’s the point: this is also religious propaganda. In other words, the army is not a revival meeting. They do not put on a uniform in order to be Judaized.”
On soldiers’ responsibility
“Anything we did there, we’d answer ourselves: there’s no other choice, but this is how we shirk our responsibility. You bring yourself to this kind of deterministic situation, a moment that I have not chosen, where I no longer have any responsibility for my own actions. Even if your choice is the right one, you must admit you chose it. You have to admit you chose to go into Gaza. As soon as you did, you’ve brought people into a moral twilight zone, you’ve forced them to handle dilemmas and part of that confrontation failed. As soon as you say ‘there is no other choice’, you’re shirking your responsibility. Then you don’t need to investigate, to look into things.”