x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Week in review: Gaza 'war crimes' exposed

Six months after the war on Gaza ended, the conduct of the Israeli Defense Forces is coming under renewed scrutiny as a new report provides evidence of the use of human shields, indiscriminate fire, and a scorched-earth policy. A brigade commander told his soldiers this was war and in war as in war, no consideration of civilians was to be taken. You shoot anyone you see.

Six months after the war on Gaza ended, the conduct of the Israeli Defense Forces is coming under renewed scrutiny as a new report provides evidence of the use of human shields, indiscriminate fire, and a scorched-earth policy referred to as "the day after". Larry Derfner, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post responded to the report by writing: "First we saw the destruction of Gaza on TV, then we heard about it from Palestinians, then from journalists (mainly foreign), then from the world's leading human rights organisations. We didn't believe it, or we found ways to justify it, but at any rate, we, the Israeli public, made sure the images and words went in one ear and out the other. "Then in March some of our own boys, IDF soldiers, talked about it - the orders that amounted to 'when in doubt, shoot,' the sniggering contempt for Palestinian life and property, the exhortations to holy war from IDF rabbis. That seemed to make a small dent in our consciousness for a couple days. But then the IDF conducted its brief, naturally closed investigation, announced that the stories were all hearsay and rumour, there was nothing to the accounts of an old woman and a mother getting shot deliberately, nothing to worry about, you can all go back to sleep now, and, of course, we did. "Now comes Breaking the Silence, an organisation of IDF combat reservists, with the testimonies of 26 soldiers who served in Operation Cast Lead, and the stories are very, very familiar, only they're much more detailed than what we've heard before. Over 100 pages of testimony about the extraordinary scale of destruction ('like in those World War II films where nothing remained'); the vandalism ('In one house we entered I saw guys had defecated in drawers'); the shoot-'em-up spirit ('The atmosphere was not one of fear but rather people too eager to shoot other people'); the elastic definition of 'legitimate target' ('suspects, lookouts, people standing on roofs and looking towards our forces, making suspect movements on the roof, bending down, looking out beyond the rim'); the firing of napalm-like white phosphorous in thickly-populated areas; the killings of unarmed civilians in no-go zones; the rabbis' anti-Arab pep talks; and much, much more. [...] "The main impression I got from reading the stories (there's also a DVD with videotaped testimonies of four soldiers) is that Operation Cast Lead wasn't a war, it was an onslaught. The IDF basically flattened whole neighbourhoods and rural villages outside Gaza City and the refugee camps." Haaretz said that Israel's defense minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday criticised Breaking the Silence for publishing the testimony of Israeli soldiers who described the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields during Operation Cast Lead last January, despite a 2005 ruling by Israel's high court that outlawed the practice. "Public criticism of the IDF is inappropriate," Barak said. "Any criticism, information or reservations about the army's conduct should be addressed to me as the Defense Minister of the State of Israel and to the Israeli government which instructed the IDF to reinstate peace and security in southern Israel." Breaking the Silence published testimonies from 26 Israeli soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead, the war on Gaza that began in late December and ended on January 18. The accounts were gathered over the past few months from soldiers who served in all sectors of the operation. "The majority of the soldiers who spoke with us are still serving in their regular military units and turned to us in deep distress at the moral deterioration of the IDF," the human rights organisation said. One soldier described a scorched-earth policy that resulted in whole areas of Gaza being flattened. He said: "we were told there are houses to be demolished for the sake of 'the day after'. The day after is actually a thought that obviously we're going in for a limited period of time which could be a week and it might also be a few months. But it's not a longer span of time without defining what it is. And the rationale was that we want to come out with the area remaining sterile as far as we're concerned. And the best way to do this is by razing. That way we have good firing capacity, good visibility for observation, we can see anything, we control a very large part of the area and very effectively. This was the meaning of demolition for the sake of the day after. In practical terms this meant taking a house that is not implicated in any way, that it's single sin is the fact that it is situated on top of a hill in the Gaza Strip." Soldiers recounted the use of human shields. "Sometimes the force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian's shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield. Commanders said these were the instructions and we had to do it." A soldier was asked what bothered him most about the operation. "Bothered me? Many things. Firstly, all that destruction. All that fire at innocents. This shock of realising with whom I'm in this together. My mates, really, and that's how they're behaving... They're my pals, because there's no other way, I have to be friends with them. I don't have much choice. I live with them. But the hatred, and the joy of killing, no? "I killed a terrorist, whoa? We blew his head off?"... They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands." He was asked whether he came back very disappointed. "Very. But I didn't have any other expectations. I don't kid myself. It's your army, after all. At the end of the day it's 60 nineteen-twenty year olds for whom vulgarity and violence is a way of life." Another soldier explained: "Let's say that the general approach was 'we're going off to war' and I can swear I heard our brigade commander at least once, when sitting with us during maneuvers for a combatants' talk around the campfire at Tze'elim at night - he happened to join us and we asked him what was going on in Gaza and what was to be expected, stuff like that, and he went so far as to say this was war and in war as in war, no consideration of civilians was to be taken. You shoot anyone you see."

pwoodward@thenational.ae