Almost one year after the war between Israel and Hamas, an organization of Israeli ex-soldiers has released testimonies from soldiers who took part in the military operation "Protective Edge."
" ... Sometimes we blew up a house when we suspected there was an explosive device in it, but I think ultimately we blew up pretty much the entire neighborhood ...." That's testimony No. 67, from an unnamed first sergeant of a mobile infantry unit operating somewhere in Gaza during the summer of 2014. Another soldier describes his experience: "There is no such thing as a person who is uninvolved. Anything inside is a threat, the area has to be 'sterilized,' empty of people. And if we don't see someone waving a white flag, screaming 'I give up' - he is a threat and there is authorization to fire."
These are just some of the eyewitness accounts from soldiers describing what happened in the field during the 52 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas. Over 60 such testimonies, collected from officers and soldiers of the Israeli army, are now being published by the Israeli NGO "Breaking the Silence." The testimonies, says the organization, paint a "disturbing picture of the IDF's policy of indiscriminate fire" and "a drastic change in the IDF's combat norms." "We felt we need to bring this to the Israeli public, to open up a debate within our society," says Avihay Stollar, who leads the research team of Breaking the Silence. For the past 10 years, the organization has critically analyzed the role of the Israeli military.
During the seven-week long war, which started in July 2014, over 2,000 Palestinians were killed. Among them, according to the United Nations, were an estimated 1,480 civilians, including over 500 children. On the Israeli side, 72 Israelis were killed, among them 66 soldiers. Reconstruction of the destroyed areas has barely began, and tensions between Hamas and Israel remain high.
Controversial rules of engagement
"During Protective Edge, the Israeli public was constantly told by the military spokespersons or representatives of the government that they do everything to spare civilian life. They have no idea what the rules of engagement were during the last operation and they don't know how excessive the force being used was," says Stollar. "We saw similar rules of engagement in [Operation] 'Cast Lead' (2008-2009) and other operations, but what we see is that with every operation the red line is being pushed a bit further."
The testimonies were collected from different units: ground forces who entered the Gaza Strip, others who belonged to the units surrounding Gaza providing artillery and aerial support. The accounts give a vivid picture of the frontline in this long war - and raise serious accusations. According to the organization, Israeli troops entered the Gaza Strip under the assumption that those areas had been cleared of civilians since the army had ordered residents to leave. Most of them were allegedly told by their commanders that "if there is someone there, he isn't supposed to be there" and therefore to be considered a terrorist. "You are entering a war zone, if you have any doubts, any suspicion, don't hesitate, shoot," is how one soldier described the situation.
These rules of engagement, says the organization, would seriously contradict one of the basic principles of laws of war, which requires to distinguish between enemy combatants and civilians. They also describe the use of inaccurate weapons unsuitable for densely populated urban areas. "The IDF indeed took precautionary measures, this is an obligation that a combating force must fulfill, and they have done it," says Michael Sfard, lawyer and legal advisor of Breaking the Silence. "They sent leaflets, they made phone calls, they sent text messages to the Palestinian population. This is all very well, and it is good that they have done it. But it doesn't replace the need to distinguish at any time between civilians and combatants. It doesn't change the status of the area from civilian to a military object, to an object that is a legitimate object for attack."
Another issue on which the testimonies shed light is the amount of devastation. The witnesses give accounts of military bulldozers "flattening" entire neighborhoods. "There are all kinds of considerations about why to blow up a house. One of them, for example, is when you want to defend some other house. If there's a house blocking your field of vision, [and you want to] expose the area so that it's easier to defend. Sometimes we blew up a house when we suspected there was an explosive device in it, but I think ultimately we blew up pretty much the entire neighborhood," reads an extract from testimony No. 67.
Israel has reacted promptly to the publication. Speaking to Army Radio on Monday, Zvi Fogel, a former head of the IDF Southern Command, described the allegations as false. "Those who seek to falsely portray the IDF as murderers, are not worthy of a response." He refuted claims that the army had eased its open-fire regulations and said any alleged IDF abuse had been thoroughly investigated.
The Israeli military said that "the IDF is committed to properly investigating all credible claims raised via the media, NGOs and official complaints concerning the IDF conduct during Protective Edge, in as serious a manner as possible." But it also deplored that it had not received any of the evidence or testimonies prior to publication. "Unfortunately as in the past Breaking the Silence has refused to provide the IDF with any proofs of their claims. For obvious reasons such conduct makes any investigation by the relevant IDF bodies impossible …" reads a statement released by the IDF.
Breaking the Silence refutes the claim, saying that they had contacted the IDF Chief of Staff and requested a meeting a month and a half ago to share the soldiers testimonies prior to publication. "In light of the severity of the content of the testimonies, we deliberately reached out to the person who sits at the top of the IDF chain of command," the group said in a statement released on Monday.
The organization would like to see an independent Israeli inquiry investigate the policy behind these rules of engagements. Some cases are currently being investigated by the Military Advocate General. At the same time, it wants to start a public debate over the issue. "Breaking the Silence is trying to shed light on what these operations look like, so that the civil society would become accountable and prevent these things from repeating themselves," says researcher Avihay Stollar. "We want it to be part of the discussion and we feel we have to do it, because silence is the most dangerous thing."