Posted Wed, 07/15/2009 – 08:00 by Open Shuhada Street
“It was ludicrous to read it and then hear the response of the army spokesperson that the matter was investigated and … that the Israeli army is a moral army. It raises doubts about the army spokesperson’s responses in general when you know for a fact that these things actually did take place …”
— Israeli soldier’s testimony
Breaking the Silence
(BtS) is an organisation of Israeli activists that gathers testimony from soldiers about human rights abuses they have witnessed or been involved in. On Wednesday 15 July 2009, BtS released testimonies by Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers about their actions in Operation Cast Lead.
BtS explains, “In the past few months, the IDF spokesperson has gone to great lengths to prove that if there were any moral problems with the war at all, they were merely on the level of the ‘delinquent soldier’, rather than a widespread, systemic issue. The stories of this publication prove that we are not dealing with the failures of individual soldiers, and attest instead to failures in the application of values primarily on a systemic level. … The testimonies of the soldiers in this collection expose that the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians of the Gaza strip were a direct result of IDF policy …”
The testimonies are disturbing. They provide evidence of Palestinians used by the IDF as human shields, changed rules of engagement that reduce the risk to soldiers at the expense of civilians, systematic mass destruction of property including mosques, orchards and livestock, displacement of Palestinian civilians from their homes, bombardment of populated areas, vandalism and the use of white phosphorus. The role of the Rabbinate is also highlighted, with its use of religious rhetoric to demonise Palestinians and justify and encourage war crimes. These testimonies shatter three myths about the IDF: that it is moral, brave and professional.
The BtS testimonies should be read in conjunction with Amnesty International’s report, Israel/Gaza Operation ‘Cast Lead’: 22 Days of Death and Destruction.
This report also contains testimonies by Israeli soldiers, but also by Palestinians and detailed accounts of Palestinian civilian casualties, including the massacres of families and targeting of medical workers. The report provides compelling evidence that the IDF committed war crimes. It also contains evidence of war crimes by Palestinian militants who target civilians in Israel, particularly Sderot. But attempts by Israeli apologists that imply moral equivalence between the actions of the Israeli military and Hamas are untenable: the crimes against humanity committed by the IDF in Gaza far outstrip those committed by Hamas and other Palestinian militants.
Here are brief edited selections from some of the 54 testimonies by 30 soldiers given to BtS. The full BtS document, titled Operation Cast Lead
, can be downloaded here
Testimony 1: Human Shields
This soldier describes how his unit used Palestinian civilians as human shields, or “Johnnies”, as they are called by Israeli soldiers. During a battle between three Palestinian militants stationed in a house and the IDF, a neighouring Palestinian is sent in repeatedly to check if the militants are dead. He explains how Johnnies were used to do hammer down a wall whose gate was possibly booby-trapped so that soldiers did not have to take the risk.
This soldier describes the taking over of strategically located residential buildings and the systematic destruction of houses.
BtS: “What was the purpose?”
Soldier: “We were not told. I don’t know what the objective of the war was. Different things were said, aimed more at what needs to be done concretely. They were said in retrospect.”
Testimony 3: Unprofessional attitudes
BtS: “What bothered you most about this operation?”
Soldier: “Many things. Firstly, all that destruction. All that fire at innocents. … My mates … and … how they’re behaving. Inconceivable. …”
BtS: “What disappointed you in the guys who were there with you? They’re still your pals.”
Soldier: “They’re my pals, because there’s no other way … But the hatred, and the joy of killing, no… ‘I killed a terrorist, whoa… We blew his head off…’ … 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.”
Testimony 6: Indiscriminate bombardment
This soldier describes the firing of a new type of mortar shell used by the IDF, “In the new system the computer does the whole calibration process. I have a map, an aerial photo. A code map. I am given a reference point. I click it into the computer. … It shows me where it is on the map. I press, the mortar is aimed and my subordinate simply fires. … [It is h]ighly accurate. 95-100%. … “
BtS: “All the targets you fired at, was that strictly in response to their firing at israel?”
Soldier: “Or to bombard places before entry. … There were days we fired only into built-up areas, inside Gaza City itself.”
The soldier then describes the concept of a safe area for Israeli soldiers. BtS ask him if safe areas were also considered for Palestinians. His answer appears to indicate they were not.
Testimony 7: Orders to fire indiscriminately. Displacements.
Soldier: “The battalion commander … said: ‘We cannot surprise them with our timing, they know when. We cannot surprise them with our location, they know exactly where we’re coming in. What we do have… is fire power.”
This soldier further testifies that his batallion commander said, “Not a hair will fall off a soldier of mine, and I am not willing to allow a soldier of mine to risk himself by hesitating. If you are not sure, shoot. If there is doubt then there is no doubt”.
The soldier continues, “We understood this and said that it’s not because people wanted to kill, to collect hits or glory. It’s because they wanted to preserve human lives at any cost. We all know, we’re all living in this country and know that the soft belly is casualties in all of the wars, and they simply wanted to stick to this, completely. Let alone abduction procedure and such things, where the instruction was explicit, if you’re not sure, kill. Fire power was insane.”
BtS: “You enter houses with live fire?”
Soldier: “No. The instruction was to get everyone out of the house or concentrate them in one room. Announce it through loudspeakers. Give it a few minutes, and if the person is not out after 2-5 minutes, whoever is left inside is a dead man. Whoever comes out, assemble them outside or in one of the lower rooms, and then go upstairs with live fire. This was the instruction, and it was not always followed because often the houses were empty. So why waste ammunition? Just shooting for fun? some people did but this was not always the case. eventually there were no confrontations at all and people were disappointed and began to let off steam and simply shoot. In general, people (Palestinians) came downstairs. We’d order them to go over there, point in some direction and tell them to go there. They’d protest, ‘But this is our home. We have nowhere to go,’ … [I]t was obvious when we went in that the people are not allowed to stay inside the houses. We directed them towards a certain area hoping they wouldn’t be hit there. … We did not abuse them. But it hurts when five mothers, an old woman and little children look at you and the woman says ‘I have nowhere to go’ and there’s nothing you can do. It has to happen. You toughen up. You look her in the eye and say: ‘Over there.’ And they walk away.”
Testimony 8: White phosphorus and excessive force
Soldier: “If we detect anything that should not be there, we shoot. We’re told the air force distributed flyers telling everyone to go to Gaza City. If beyond this line any people are detected, they are not supposed to be there. … The younger guys [are] eager to raise their score. They seem to think it’s cool to wield such power with no one wanting to rein them in. They gave permission to open fire.” …
BtS: “What was the story of using white phosphorus mortar shells?”
Soldier: “The company commander gives the mortar platoon commander a target and orders him to fire.”
BtS: “What was there, do you know?”
Soldier: “A target. They define targets. I can’t really say what there was. Sometimes you’d hear on radio ‘permitted, phosphorus in the air.’ That’s it. I don’t recall if this was ever confirmed by the company commander, but I know of an officer that also fired without requesting permission.”
BtS: “Why fire phosphorus?”
Soldier: “Because it’s fun. Cool. … I don’t know what it’s used for. … I don’t understand what it’s even doing in our supplies if we’re not supposed to use such ammo. It’s ridiculous.”
Testimony 9: Orders to shoot indiscriminately
Soldier: “From the onset, he and the brigade commander and other officers made it very clear to us that any movement must entail gunfire. … if you see any signs of movement at all, you shoot. These, essentially, were the rules of engagement. Shoot if you like. If you’re afraid, or you see someone, shoot. … You don’t only shoot when threatened. The assumption is that you constantly feel threatened, so anything there threatens you, and you shoot. No one actually said ‘shoot regardless’ or ‘shoot anything that moves.’ But we were not ordered to open fire only if there was [a] real threat. … You see clearly that these houses had been fired at with tremendous power. … We didn’t see a single house that was not hit. The entire infrastructure -tracks, fields, roads- was in total ruin. … Nothing much was left in our designated area. It looked awful, like in those World War II films … a totally destroyed city. The few houses that were still inhabitable were taken by the army. The less a house was damaged, all the more chance that it would be entered by soldiers to spend the day or night. … [T]here were lots of abandoned, miserable animals.”
Testimony 11: White phosphorus and indiscriminate destruction
Soldier: “You’re walking along the sand and hear this crunch of something being crushed. We looked down and saw what looked like the shards of thousands of broken glass bottles.”
BtS: “What color did it have?”
Soldier: “A dirty brown.”
BtS: “Did you see remains of this elsewhere nearby?”
Soldier: “There was an area of about 200-300 square meters of glazed sand like that. We understood this resulted from white phosphorus, and it was upsetting … [b]ecause in training you learn that white phosphorus is not used, and you’re taught that it’s not humane.”
BtS: “You go into Al Atatra, and you see buildings, houses?”
Soldier: “Ruins. I entered Al Atatra after seeing aerial photos and didn’t identify anything, and my photographic memory is not that bad. I remembered that 200 meters further on down the track there should be a junction, with two large houses at the corners, and there wasn’t. I remembered there was supposed to be a square with a Hamas memorial monument, and there wasn’t. There was rubble, broken blocks.”
Cf. testimony 42
Testimony 14: Unnecessary killing of a civilian
This soldier describes how an old Palestinian man unwittingly walked towards a group of IDF snipers at night. The IDF soldiers suspect the man is harmless and ask their commanding officer to allow them to fire deterrent fire near him so that he goes away. Their commander refuses. Eventually the man comes close enough that he would be dangerous if wearing an explosive belt. The soldiers kill him. A sniffer dog indicates that the man is unarmed. The soldier testifies that the commanding officer was challenged about his failure to give an order to fire deterrent shots. “He didn’t agree and couldn’t give a damn, and finally the guys felt that even if they would take this up with higher echelons, it would be ineffective.”
Testimony 15, 16 & 36: Rabbinate
These three testimonies describe the incitement against Palestinians by members of the Rabbinate Unit of the IDF. The Palestinians are compared to Philistines. The Palestinian Authority is identified as the enemy even though the operation is officially against Hamas. One rabbi explains that there is no accounting for sins in the operation in Gaza. Flyers with the IDF logo containing political views of the rabbinate are distributed to soldiers.
Testimony 17: Grenade practice on a home
Soldier: “At some point our officer decided he’d hold a grenade-launching practice because we hadn’t managed that before we entered. So we went to a house next door, took an inner room, and each person came along and threw a grenade inside. The house was totally devastated. At some point a grenade flew out a window and hit a gas pipe. Gas started leaking and we stopped the practice.”
Testimony 20: Displacement
This soldier explains how 30 Palestinian civilians are chased away from their homes and told to go to south Gaza on foot.
Testimony 22: Execution of four unarmed men
Soldier: “In the morning we detected four men, ages 25 to 40, with keffiyehs, standing outside and talking. It was [suspicious]. We reported to intelligence, specifying the house they were about to enter. Intelligence [indicated this] as a Hamas activist’s house. This automatically gets acted upon. I don’t remember what was used, whether helicopter or … but the house was bombed while these guys were inside. A woman came out, holding a child, and escaped southward. In other words, there had been people inside …”
BtS: “Were they armed?”
Soldier: “No. The report specified that they were unarmed. But that’s not the point. The point is that four men standing outside that house conferring looked [suspicious].”
Cf. testimony 41, 43. 53
Testimony 23: Defacation and vandalism
Soldier: “In one house we entered I saw guys had defecated in drawers. There were drawings and graffiti on the walls. … I remember a filthy drawing in a children’s nursery. There were Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse stickers there, and someone had drawn a huge dick on Minnie Mouse. I really felt ashamed at that, and so do guys who were with me. It was funny because it was drawn really well, but you feel filthy. Even to tell about it.”
Cf. testimonies 37, 39 & 44(all of which also describe looting). Cf. Testimony 45 & 46, which are both very disturbing.
Testimony 24: House demolitions
This soldier describes a briefing by a colonel who explains that when in doubt they should “take down houses.” The soldier then goes on to describe how his unit did house demolitions.
Cf. testimony 38, 47
Testimony 28: Indiscriminate shooting
This soldier describes his role in killing what he describes as terrorists. But his testimony indicates that very little effort was made to determine if his targets were armed.
BtS: “He’s two kilometers away, how do you know he’s a lookout?”
Soldier: “I have, you know, this thermal sighting device, and it picks up weapons and stuff. But who knows, it could be a camera, or binoculars, it could be a cup of coffee, you can’t tell.”
Testimony 29: Destruction of houses and imprecise bombardment
This soldier describes how houses were destroyed for no other reason than they were situated on a strategic hill. He also describes the use of imprecise 81mm mortars which do tremendous damage.
BtS: “You had served in Gaza for years, was this destruction in any way similar to what you’d known before?”
Soldier: “No, no way. This was on a totally different scale. This was fire-power such as I had never known.”
Testimony 30: Destruction of mosques and “preventative fire”
This soldier describes the destruction of mosques, as well as orders to conduct “preventative fire”, which means firing at buildings even though no threat has been detected in them.
Testimony 31: Indiscriminate firing
BtS: “Were there cases of grenade-launcher fire or heavy machine guns there?”
Soldier: “… First of all, every morning at dawn you’ve got … firing as routine … procedure, which means 20 shots of 0.5 heavy machine guns … after firing ten shots you calibrate and … shoot another ten. With the grenade launcher, you get five grenades and try to ‘thread’ them into some house so as not to waste ammo. A house that is supposedly empty.”
BtS: “How can you tell?”
Soldier: “You sit facing it all night. You also inquire at the observation command post if there’s anyone there, or anything, and the lookout tells you she hasn’t detected any movement for, say, the last 48 or 72 hours.”
Testimony 33: No warnings and unclear white-flag procedure
This soldier describes indiscriminate shooting and the destruction of a Mosque.
Soldier: “[E]verything is a threat. there is no such thing as suspect arrest procedure. If I detect a suspect… I shoot.”
BtS: “No deterrent fire? Calling out? After all, a bullet is a bullet … ”
Soldier: “No. Everyone, but everyone knew we were entering. Even those we caught knew we were there. That’s why they came out with white flags, so they would not be shot.”
BtS: “Was there a white flag procedure?”
Soldier: “No … Just think how risky it is for us to be so humanitarian.”
Cf. testimonies 38, 50