x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

New report questions conduct of Israeli army

Soldiers say military used Palestinians as shields, failed to distinguish between civilians and militants and destroyed buildings needlessly.

Israeli soldiers use heavy artillery during the Gaza incursion in December and January.
Israeli soldiers use heavy artillery during the Gaza incursion in December and January.

TEL AVIV // A report made public today by an Israeli left-wing group of former soldiers claims to have uncovered new evidence that the Israeli military may have been involved in random killings and systematic destruction during the country's recent deadly onslaught in the Gaza Strip. The report by Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-combatants partly funded by the European Union that gathers testimonies of abuse towards Palestinians, focused on the witness accounts of 30 Israeli soldiers and officers who spoke of their concerns about the military's conduct after they took part in the 22-day Gaza incursion in December and January.

The group said the testimonies, collected in the months after the military campaign, detail Israeli actions that failed to distinguish between militants and civilians, employed such inexact weaponry as white phosphorus shells in heavily populated areas, used Palestinians as human shields and massively destroyed buildings for "no apparent, legitimate" military need. The testimonies cast further doubt on the official Israeli line that its military acted in accordance with international law and committed no war crimes.

Gaza health officials and local rights groups have said 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the attacks and a further 5,000 Gazans were injured. Israel has dismissed as "hearsay" allegations made by a separate group of anonymous servicemen during a seminar at a military college in February of Israeli violations, including the intentional killings of Palestinian civilians. The report by Breaking the Silence is likely to draw attention in Israel, where criticism of the military campaign, which was supported by a majority of the Jewish population has been rare, as has been insight into the army's conduct during the attacks.

The group said most of the witness accounts were made by soldiers who still serve in the army and came forward "in deep distress at the moral deterioration" of the Israeli military. It added that the testimonies suggested a systemic failure in the army. None of the soldiers interviewed in the report was identified by name. The report said: "The testimonies ? expose that the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians of the Gaza Strip were a direct result of [army] policy ? and a cultivation of the notion among soldiers that the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions." The report brought new accounts of the Israeli military using Palestinian civilians as human shields, which Israel has denied.

But such allegations were strengthened in a recent report by Amnesty International, a London-based human rights group, which said last month that Israeli soldiers used civilian homes as bases and sniper positions while forcing Gazan families - including children - to stay in a ground-floor room, or ordered males to walk in front of them on streets as they checked for booby traps or militants inside buildings.

One soldier who spoke to Breaking the Silence described how some Palestinian civilians - in such cases nicknamed "the Johnnies" among Israeli combatants - were sent into their neighbours' homes before the Israeli forces to check for armed Gaza militants inside. He recalled incidents in which Palestinians were forced to smash house walls with sledgehammers to allow an alternative entry for Israeli soldiers, who feared the houses' front doors were laden with booby traps.

The soldier also said some soldiers were ordered by their commanders to go into homes they thought may be occupied by militants by placing a rifle barrel on the shoulder of the Palestinian civilian forced to walk in front of them. Another soldier interviewed about the wide destruction of houses and infrastructure said the army razed entire neighbourhoods without justification. The destruction, another interviewee added, was partly carried out to allow the military an easier field of vision and range of fire from Israel into Gaza when it eventually ends the attacks and leaves the seaside territory.

Some servicemen described watching trigger-happy comrades being encouraged by commanders' lax instructions on when to open fire. He said: "When your company commander and battalion commander tell you, 'Go on, fire!' the soldiers will not hold back. They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands." One interviewee, who said the shooting orders aimed at preventing harm to soldiers' lives at all costs, said he was told: "If you are not sure - shoot. If there is doubt then there is no doubt."

One serviceman recalled his brigade commander describing the Gaza military campaign as a "war" in which civilian lives should not be taken into consideration. The soldier said: "This pretty much disgusted me. There was a clear feeling ? 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, without it even asking itself what the price would be for the other side."

vbekker@thenational.ae