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If you are part of a national army that has to fight an asymmetrical war against a militant group in a densely populated urban area, how do you prevent civilian casualties? This is a question Israel had to deal with last summer, when it fought for more than seven weeks against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel used a peculiar tactic to prevent civilian casualties: they considered them no longer to be civilians.
According to a first sergeant of the engineering division that was stationed in Gaza City, the instruction was, “Any person you run into, that you see with your eyes, shoot to kill.” The area was bombed before his unit entered it, and it was assumed that citizens would have fled: whoever was still there was, by definition, suspicious.
Last week, the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence published this testimony, along with more than sixty others. Israeli soldiers, from privates to officers, spoke anonymously about their experiences in the most recent Gaza War, called Operation Protective Edge. The main conclusion to be drawn from the testimonies is that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) value the lives of its own soldiers more than the lives of civilians in areas in which “the enemy”is operating.
These statements are at odds with the official position of the Israeli army, which stated that it did everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. According to the UN, 2293 people died during the war, including 1492 Palestinian citizens.
What kind of methods does Israel use to declare people as non-civilians? As one example, they scattered flyers over residential areas, announcing a deadline by which people had to leave the area. Anyone who stayed was considered a militant and, in the words of a captain in Gaza City, was “sentencing himself to death.”
Another example: even in residential areas, Israel often used “statistical weapons,” mortars and shells fired with a certain allowable deviation from the target. According to an infantry lieutenant in the northern Gaza Strip, they strike “50 metres to the right or 100 metres to the left, and it’s…it’s unpleasant.”
Certain rules, such as the distance the army tends to keep from enemy civilians when firing projectiles, were relaxed during the war. And in two cases, Shujaʾiyya and Rafah, they were abandoned almost entirely.
In Shujaʾiyya, seven IDF soldiers were killed when a rocket hit their armoured personnel carrier, and there were (false) rumours that a brigade commander had been killed. In Rafah, Hamas attempted to abduct a soldier.
In both cases, Israel responded mercilessly, firing hundreds of tank shells in just a few hours. Between 130 and 150 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed in the IDF bombings in Rafah. The kidnapped soldier was also killed in this operation.
It is difficult to tell whether Israel broke international law with these actions. Those laws can be interpreted flexibly, so there is always something Israel can justifiably say in its defence. According to Noam Zohar, professor of philosophy at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, who specializes in the ethics of warfare, a war is always about weighing risks. “The army does not need to take extreme or suicidal risks in order to prevent civilians being harmed.” But there are Israeli commanders, he says, who want to avoid any risk to their own soldiers. As a result, there will inevitably be civilian casualties.
According to Zohar, it is more about ethics than about breaking laws. He was involved in drafting the ethical code of the Israeli army. In some cases, he says, the army didn’t live up to its own standards during the recent Gaza War. “Sometimes, the people who didn’t leave their homes after a warning, were declared to be militants too easily. And it is unacceptable for the army to excuse itself from the obligation to check who is still present in the area.”
Zohar emphasizes that Israel tries to live up to “very high” moral standards. “We are not talking about war crimes here. Israel doesn’t behave any worse than, say, the United States or the United Kingdom did in Afghanistan,” but Zohar does think the IDF should do more to investigate every civilian casualty.
The Dispute between Breaking the Silence and the IDF
In response to the report by Breaking the Silence, the army said it regretted that the testimony gathered by the NGO was not shared before publication. “For obvious reasons such conduct makes any investigation by the relevant IDF bodies impossible, and does not allow for the claims and incidents brought up to be dealt with in an immediate and appropriate manner. Therefore we are unable to respond to the allegations raised.”
Breaking the Silence said they reached out to the IDF’s chief of staff with a request to meet and share the soldiers’ testimonies. “To our dismay, the IDF spokesperson has chosen, once again, to lie to the public and to continue to silence public discussion, hiding the truth about how the IDF fought in Gaza.”
In recent years, there have often been disputes between the IDF and Breaking the Silence. The organization was established in 2004 by soldiers and veterans who aimed to collect the testimony of those who served in the West Bank. The founders wanted to “break the silence” about the daily consequences of the occupation of Palestinian territory. After the first Gaza War, in 2008-2009, Breaking the Silence also began to report on the IDF’s operations and behaviour in Gaza. In Israel, the organization is often described as being on the “extreme left.”
A spokesman for Breaking the Silence pledges that the soldiers’ testimony is checked in every possible way and that questionable stories are not published. Last year, a settler named Oren Hazan, who was elected two months ago to the Knesset for the Likud party of Prime Minister Netanyahu, tried to deceive the organization with false testimony. His goal was to expose the lies of “extreme leftist organizations.” The researchers of Breaking the Silence found that, contrary to his assertion, Hazan had never served in Operation Protective Edge, let alone as a paratrooper.