Breaking the Silence’s long-awaited Gaza soldier testimonials just hit the press — 112 pages, 50 testimonies, 30 soldiers. The testimonies themselves decry a completely different category of military behavior than previously exhibited by the IDF. Half the soldiers in the book are still in service, all were ground soldiers, all in different units.
The booklet opens with a testimony of the use of civilians as human shields and follows quickly with testimonies of demolishing whole neighborhoods with little cause, using white phosphorus in dense urban settings, vandalizing homes, and shooting civilians.
Because the Rabin school testimonies were quickly dismissed as hearsay, these are only eyewitness accounts. Because the military has attempted to blame individuals as “rotten apples,” these focus on policy-level orders at the battalion and brigade level, such as the rules of engagement, the atmosphere set by commanders, and permitted weapons.
This booklet may be mystifying to many a non-veteran soldier, meaning most of us Americans. Those of us who’ve not served in uniform can be suckered into excusing anything so long as “operational necessity” is tagged at the end. If we have learned anything from the Bush-Cheney era, it is that morals and jurisprudence stand above operational necessity. We have learned that political interest can wrap itself in military terminology just as readily as read needs. Moral laziness can too.
The soldiers describe using tank cannons to return fire against un-pinpointed sniper fire in refugee neighborhoods — this cannot be excused as operational necessity in any way, even to the uninitiated. Or the use of human shields.
Yet the soldiers describe time and again shooting civilians under the rationale that any people remaining in their homes were combatants — a shoddy and shocking excuse that flies against common sense. The “operational necessity” rationale will be compelling for Jews eager to rubberstamp the IDF with a clean bill of health.
Bush and Cheney have also reminded us through Abu-Ghraib and Gitmo that moral superiority and cultures of permissiveness suffice in place of explicit orders. The higher ups maintain plausible deniability for themselves. Meanwhile the dutifully obeying soldier, either cruelly or in the heat of battle, commits war crimes with short-lived impunity. They cannot take the entire blame for this.
These have thus led the “most moral army in the world” to become at least an army as deplorable as all others. The credibility of the IDF version of events crumbles.
Quite frankly, there is very little to redeem this military to me, except for the amazing voices of the soldiers who contributed their testimonies here. I have no love of the IDF’s responses to world opinion, “We had no choice” and “All is excused in war.” These soldiers know what is right and wrong, and have offered the Jewish people a glimmer of hope that Jews could wield power with conscientious justice, in accordance with international law.
In the eloquent voice of Testimonial 51:
“Anything we did there, we’d answer ourselves: there’s no other choice, but this is how we shirk our responsibility…You had another option. You always have another option. You have to admit you chose to go into Gaza. As soon as you did, you’ve brought people into a moral twilight zone…As soon as you say ‘there is no other choice,’ you’re immediately shirking your responsibility. Then you don’t need to investigate, to look into things. That was my feeling about it then, and still is today.”
We commend these voices as we condemn their commanders. Both their military commanders who implemented this operation seeking to maximize the harm permitted by the law, and their civilian commanders who decided such a useless, directionless, objectiveless and successless engagement be waged in the first place.
IDF commanders, you owe the Jewish people an honest reckoning of what transpired in Gaza. Reopen your investigation to civilian oversight, participate in the UN investigation. Give yourself a chance at reclaiming a shred of your credibility. For democracy’s sake.
Read selected testimonials below.
“It was ludicrous to read [human shields in the Israeli press] and then hear the response of the army spokesperson that the matter was investigated and there are no testomnies on the ground and that the Israeli army is a moral army.”
“Bothered me? Many things. Firstly, all the destruction. All that fire at innocents. This shock of realizing with whom I’m in this together. My mates, really, and that’s how they’re behaving. It was simply amazing. Inconveiable…But the hatred, and the joy of killing, no…At the end of the day it’s sixty nineteen-twenty year olds for whom vulgarity and violence is a way of life.”
Use of mortars that have a dozen-meter kill zone:
“Once I was allowed to fire and I realized it was really inside a neighborhood. Houses. Then I finally understood. Most of the time we were firing at launcher crews in open spaces, but it didn’t take much to aim at scchools, hospitals and such.”
Lax rules of engagement:
“If we detect anything that should not be there — we shoot…I remember I would change places with the gunman and take a look. You see people more or less running their life routine, taking a walk, stuff like that. Definitely not terrorists. I hear from other crews that they fired at people there. Tried to kill them. The younger guys, 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.”
“Interviewer: Detecting sniper fire over a kilometer away inside a refugee camp is nearly impossible.
Soldier: Tank fire was directed in response.
Interviewer: Tanks firing heavy ammunition, shells?
Soldier: Yes. After detecting sniper fire.”
Incitement by the military rabbinate:
“…He [the military rabbi] went on to mention the Hamas, which was defined as the enemy anyway, and proceeded to speak of the Palestinian Authority. If I remember correctly, that is a bit more complex. The PA does not reign in Gaza and is a partner to negotiations even if merely virtual. And the fourth enemy is the Arab citizens of Israel. It was said explicitly. I don’t recall the exact term, whether he used ‘the Arabs of Israel’ or ‘Israeli Arabs,’ but said they undermine us.”
“He aimed at inspiring the men with courage, cruelty, aggressiveness, expressions such as ‘no pity, God protects you, everything you do is sanctified.’ …Often these surreal analogies are made, equating the Palestinians with the Amalekites, for example.”
“He put it this way: he said that while going in there, we should know there is no accounting for sins in this case…In other words, we should know that whatever we do is fine.”
“Interviewer: If someone approaches, how do you inform him? Do you have megaphones?
Soldier: No. We don’t. I don’t know how you inform him. Before we entered, the air force dropped flyers and people were supposed to get out of there…But if someone would cross the red line, you were supposed to shoot him.”
“On the other hand, he [the bulldozer driver] could be the type of operator who become famous in (the army’s invasion of) Jenin who — when instructed to demolish a certain house — looked for the route that would inevitably demolish the largest number of houses on the way to the targeted house.”