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Israeli soldiers testify to rights violations in Gaza

CAPE TIMES:July 17, 2009

Nathan Geffen and Doron Isaacs

Breaking the Silence (BtS) is an organisation of Israeli soldiers that records testimony from soldiers about human rights abuses they have witnessed or been involved in. On Wednesday, BtS released testimonies by Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers about their actions in Operation Cast Lead, the attack on Gaza initiated in December 2008.

The testimonies 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 in populated areas. The role of the IDF’s rabbinate is also highlighted, with its use of religious rhetoric to demonise Palestinians and justify and encourage war crimes.

In the introduction to the testimonies 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 BtS testimonies add to the evidence of war crimes in an Amnesty International report that contains testimonies by Palestinians and detailed accounts of Palestinian civilian casualties, including the massacres of families and targeting of medical workers. The Amnesty report also contains evidence of war crimes by Palestinian militants who indiscriminately target civilians in Israel, particularly Sderot.

But attempts to imply moral equivalence between the actions of the Israeli military and Hamas, notwithstanding its religious fundamentalist ideology, are unsound: the scale of the illegal conduct by the IDF in the Gaza war outstrips that of Hamas and other Palestinian militants. Here are a few examples of the testimonies given to BtS:

Human Shields

A soldier describes how his unit used Palestinian civilians as human shields, or "Johnnies", as they are called by Israeli soldiers. During a battle with Palestinian militants stationed in a house, a neighouring Palestinian is sent in repeatedly to check if the militants are dead. The soldier explains how Johnnies were used to hammer down a wall whose gate was possibly booby-trapped so that soldiers did not have to take the risk. The evidence he gives is consistent with that of a Palestinian named Shafiq Daher who described in detail to CNN how he was used as a human shield by the IDF.

Rules of EngagementMany of the testimonies deal with changed rules of engagement. Rules of engagement are the rules armies create about when to shoot and how to behave. One soldier's battalion commander says: "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."Another testimony says: "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 testimony later states: "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."

Some of the testimonies show how this was put into practice. One soldier tells this story: "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. "

When asked if the four men were armed, he replies: "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)."In another testimony, a soldier explains: "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 two to five 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."

Another testimony describes how an old Palestinian man unwittingly walked towards a group of IDF snipers at night. The IDF soldiers suspected the man was harmless and asked their commanding officer to allow them to fire deterrent fire near him so that he would go away. Their commander refused. Eventually the man came close enough that he could have posed a threat if he had been wearing an explosive belt. The soldiers killed him. A sniffer dog indicated the man was unarmed. The soldier testified that when their commanding officer was challenged about his failure to give an order to fire warning 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".

Destruction, Bombardment and White PhosphorusMany of the testimonies describe the indiscriminate destruction of Gaza. A testimony states: "We didn't see a single house that was not hit. The entire infrastructure … 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. … There were lots of abandoned, miserable animals."

BtS asks one soldier if the targets they fired at were strictly in response to firing at Israel. He responds: "Or to bombard places before entry. … There were days we fired only into built-up areas, inside Gaza City itself."One soldier explains, "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." He then goes on to explain that this was caused by white phosphorus. It reaches temperatures high enough to turn sand into glass. The use of this terrible weapon is forbidden in populated areas, yet there is detailed testimony that it was indeed used.When asked why white phosphorus was used, one soldier responds, "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."

DisplacementAt least two of the testimonies describe the displacement of Palestinians. One explains how 30 Palestinians are chased away from their homes and told to go south on foot. A soldier explains: "We'd … point in some direction and tell them to go there. They'd protest, 'But this is our home. We have nowhere to go,' … 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."

Looting and vandalismMany of the testimonies describe widespread looting and vandalism. One disturbing testimony explains: "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."

These testimonies force us to confront three things we were told about the IDF when we grew up: that it is moral, brave and professional. Freedom of speech and the media allow these testimonies to be published in Israel, but the IDF has responded by calling them "hearsay". All 54 testimonies are eye- witness accounts. BtS does not reveal their identity because many still serve in the army, and fear censure and public intimidation. A television anchor in Israel has already called for the BtS leaders to be beaten up.

Israel claims that casualties and mistakes are the inevitable result of a justified war after years during which Hamas fired up to 8 000 rockets into Israel, taking 15 innocent lives in the South. Although based in fact, that narrative omits that during that same period – Sept 2005 to November 2008 – the IDF killed 1 257 people in Gaza in multiple military operations. During the war itself in December 2008 to January 2009 a further 1 417 Palestinians and 13 Israelis lost their lives.

•  Nathan Geffen and Doron Isaacs volunteer in a project called Open Shuhada Street.