Israeli Soldiers Testify to Horrific Brutality and War Criminality in Gaza
May 7, 2015
Peter Beaumont / The Guardian & Glenn Greenwald / The Intercept
Testimonies provided by more than 60 Israeli soldiers who fought in the 2014 war in Gaza have raised serious questions over whether Israel's tactics breached its obligations under international law to distinguish and protect civilians. The claims -- collected by the human rights group Breaking the Silence -- are contained in dozens of interviews with Israeli combatants, as well as with soldiers who served in command centres and attack rooms, a quarter of them officers up to the rank of major.
Israeli Soldiers Cast Doubt on Legality of Gaza Military Tactics
Peter Beaumont / The Guardian
JERUSALEM (May 4, 2015) -- Testimonies provided by more than 60 Israeli soldiers who fought in last summer's war in Gaza have raised serious questions over whether Israel's tactics breached its obligations under international law to distinguish and protect civilians.
The claims -- collected by the human rights group Breaking the Silence -- are contained in dozens of interviews with Israeli combatants, as well as with soldiers who served in command centres and attack rooms, a quarter of them officers up to the rank of major.
They include allegations that Israeli ground troops were briefed to regard everything inside Gaza as a "threat" and they should "not spare ammo", and that tanks fired randomly or for revenge on buildings without knowing whether they were legitimate military targets or contained civilians.
In their testimonies, soldiers depict rules of engagement they characterized as permissive, "lax" or largely non-existent, including how some soldiers were instructed to treat anyone seen looking towards their positions as "scouts" to be fired on.
The group also claims that the Israeli military operated with different safety margins for bombing or using artillery and mortars near civilians and its own troops, with Israeli forces at times allowed to fire significantly closer to civilians than Israeli soldiers.
Phillipe Sands, professor of law at University College London and a specialist in international humanitarian law, described the testimonies as "troubling insights into intention and method".
"Maybe it will be said that they are partial and selective, but surely they cannot be ignored or brushed aside, coming as they do from individuals with first-hand experience: the rule of law requires proper investigation and inquiry."
Describing the rules that meant life and death in Gaza during the 50-day war -- a conflict in which 2,200 Palestinians were killed -- the interviews shed light for the first time not only on what individual soldiers were told but on the doctrine informing the operation.
Despite the insistence of Israeli leaders that it took all necessary precautions to protect civilians, the interviews provide a very different picture. They suggest that an overarching priority was the minimization of Israeli military casualties even at the risk of Palestinian civilians being harmed.
While the Israel Defense Forces Military Advocate General's office has launched investigations into a number of individual incidents of alleged wrongdoing, the testimonies raise wider questions over policies under which the war was conducted.
Post-conflict briefings to soldiers suggest that the high death toll and destruction were treated as "achievements" by officers who judged the attrition would keep Gaza "quiet for five years".
The tone, according to one sergeant, was set before the ground offensive into Gaza that began on 17 July last year in pre-combat briefings that preceded the entry of six reinforced brigades into Gaza.
"[It] took place during training at Tze'elim, before entering Gaza, with the commander of the armored battalion to which we were assigned," recalled a sergeant, one of dozens of Israeli soldiers who have described how the war was fought last summer in the coastal strip.
"[The commander] said: 'We don't take risks. We do not spare ammo. We unload, we use as much as possible.'"
"The rules of engagement [were] pretty identical," added another sergeant who served in a mechanized infantry unit in Deir al-Balah. "Anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat
The area has to be 'sterilised,' empty of people -- and if we don't see someone waving a white flag, screaming: "I give up" or something -- then he's a threat and there's authorization to open fire . . . The saying was: 'There's no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.' In that situation, anyone there is involved."
"The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in," recalled another soldier who served during the ground operation in Gaza City. The assumption being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist."
Soldiers were also encouraged to treat individuals who came too close or watched from windows or other vantage points as "scouts" who could be killed regardless of whether there was hard evidence they were spotting for Hamas or other militant groups. "If it looks like a man, shoot. It was simple: you're in a motherfucking combat zone," said a sergeant who served in an infantry unit in the northern Gaza strip.
"A few hours before you went in the whole area was bombed, if there's anyone there who doesn't clearly look innocent, you apparently need to shoot that person." Defining 'innocent' he added: "If you see the person is less than 1.40 metres tall or if you see it's a lady . . . If it's a man you shoot."
In at least one instance described by soldiers, being female did not help two women who were killed because one had a mobile phone. A soldier described the incident: "After the commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies] . . . it was two women, over the age of 30 . . . unarmed. They were listed as terrorists. They were fired at. So of course they must have been terrorists."
The testimonies raise questions whether Israel fully met its obligations to protect civilians in a conflict area from unnecessary harm, requiring it not only to distinguish between civilians and combatants but also ensure that when using force, where there is the risk of civilian harm, that it is "proportionate".
"One of the main threads in the testimonies," said Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer and legal adviser to Breaking the Silence, "is the presumption that despite the fact that the battle was being waged in urban area -- and one of most densely populated in the world -- no civilians would be in the areas they entered."
That presumption, say soldiers, was sustained by virtue of warnings to Palestinians to leave their homes and neighborhoods delivered in leaflets dropped by aircraft and in text and phone messages which meant -- in the IDF's interpretation -- that anyone who remained was not a civilian.
Even at the time that view was deeply controversial because -- says Sfard and other legal experts interviewed -- it reinterpreted international law regarding the duty of protection for areas containing civilians.
Sfard added: "We are not talking about a [deliberate] decision to kill civilians. But to say the rules of engagement were lax gives them too much credit. They allowed engagement in almost any circumstances, unless there was a felt to be a risk to an IDF soldier."
If the rules of engagement were highly permissive, other soldiers say that they also detected a darker mood in their units that further colored the way that soldiers behaved. "The motto guiding lots of people was: 'Let's show them,' recalls a lieutenant who served in the Givati Brigade in Rafah. "It was evident that was a starting point. Lots of guys who did their reserve duty with me don't have much pity towards [the Palestinians]."
He added: "There were a lot of people there who really hate Arabs. Really, really hate Arabs. You could see the hate in their eyes."
A second lieutenant echoed his comments. "You could feel there was a radicalization in the way the whole thing was conducted. The discourse was extremely rightwing . . . [And] the very fact that [Palestinians were] described as 'uninvolved' rather than as civilians, and the desensitization to the surging number of dead on the Palestinian side. It doesn't matter whether they're involved or not . . . that's something that troubles me."
And the testimonies, too, suggest breaches of the IDF's own code of ethics -- The Spirit of the IDF -- which insists: "IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property."
Contrary to that, however, testimonies describe how soldiers randomly shelled buildings either to no obvious military purpose or for revenge.
One sergeant who served in a tank in the centre of the Gaza Strip recalls: "A week or two after we entered the Gaza Strip and we were all firing a lot when there wasn't any need for it -- just for the sake of firing -- a member of our company was killed.
"The company commander came over to us and told us that one guy was killed due to such-and-such, and he said: 'Guys, get ready, get in your tanks, and we'll fire a barrage in memory of our comrade" . . . My tank went up to the post -- a place from which I can see targets -- can see buildings -- [and] fired at them, and the platoon commander says: 'OK guys, we'll now fire in memory of our comrade' and we said OK."
How Israeli forces used artillery and mortars in Gaza, says Breaking the Silence, has raised other concerns beyond either the rules of engagement or the actions of specific units.
According to the group's research during the war, the Israeli military operated two different sets of rules for how close certain weapons could be fired to Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.
Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, and himself a former soldier, explains: "What our research during this project uncovered was that there were three designated 'Operational Levels' during the conflict -- numbered one to three. What the operational level was set higher up the chain of command. Above the level of the Gaza division. What those levels do is designate the likelihood of civilian casualties from weapons like 155mm artillery and bombs from 'low' damage to civilians to 'high'.
"What we established was that for artillery fire in operational levels two and three Israeli forces were allowed to fire much closer to civilians than they were to friendly Israeli forces."
Ahead of the conflict -- in which 34,000 shells were fired into Gaza, 19,000 of them explosive -- artillery and air liaison officers had been supplied with a list of sensitive sites to which fire was not to be directed within clear limits of distance. These included hospitals and UN schools being used as refugee centres, even in areas where evacuation had been ordered.
"Even then," explains Shaul, "we have a testimony we took that a senior brigade commander issued order how to get around that, instructing that the unit fired first outside of the protected area and then calling for correction fire on to the location that they wanted to hit.
"He said: "If you go on the radio and ask to hit this building, we have to say no. But if you give a target 200 metres outside then you can ask for correction. Only thing that is recorded is the first target not the correction fire."
And in the end, despite the high number of civilian casualties, the debriefings treated the destruction as an accomplishment that would discourage Hamas in the future.
"You could say they went over most of the things viewed as accomplishments," said a Combat Intelligence Corps sergeant. " "They spoke about numbers: 2,000 dead and 11,000 wounded, half a million refugees, decades worth of destruction. Harm to lots of senior Hamas members and to their homes, to their families. These were stated as accomplishments so that no one would doubt that what we did during this period was meaningful.
"They spoke of a five-year period of quiet (in which there would be no hostilities between Israel and Hamas) when in fact it was a 72-hour ceasefire, and at the end of those 72 hours they were firing again."
Without responding to the specific allegations, the Israeli military said: "The IDF is committed to properly investigating all credible claims raised via media, NGOs, and official complaints concerning IDF conduct during operation Protective Edge, in as serious a manner as possible.
"It should be noted that following Operation Protective Edge, thorough investigations were carried out, and soldiers and commanders were given the opportunity to present any complaint. Exceptional incidents were then transferred to the military advocate general for further inquiry."
Samples of Israeli Horrific Brutality
And War Criminality in Gaza
Glenn Greenwald / The Intercept
(May 4, 2015) -- The Israeli group Breaking the Silence issued a report this morning containing testimony from Israeli soldiers about the savagery and criminality committed by the Israeli military during the attack on Gaza last summer. The Independent has a good article describing the report's findings: "The Israeli military deliberately pounded civilian areas in the Gaza Strip with incessant fire of inaccurate ordinance" and "was at best indifferent about casualties among the Palestinian population." At best.
This should surprise nobody who paid any attention to the brutal Israeli destruction of Gaza or, for that matter, countless Israeli attacks before that. The UN has said that 7 out of 10 people killed by the Israelis were civilians, "including 1,462 civilians, among them 495 children and 253 women"; video of Israelis killing four Gazan boys as they played on a beach sickened anyone decent.
Nonetheless, reading the accounts from these Israeli soldiers is revolting and important in equal parts. It shines considerable light on the reality of what Israeli loyalists have long hailed as "the most moral army in the world," one unfairly held to a difference standard that ignores their great "restraint."
The Intercept has chosen some selected, representative excerpts from the report, with the rank of the testifying soldier indicated (each one was granted anonymity by the report's organizers). This is the savage occupying force known as the Israeli Defense Forces:
[A]fter 48 hours during which no one shoots at you and they're like ghosts, unseen, their presence unfelt -- except once in a while the sound of one shot fired over the course of an entire day -- you come to realize the situation is under control. And that's when my difficulty there started, because the formal rules of engagement -- I don't know if for all soldiers -- were, "Anything still there is as good as dead. Anything you see moving in the neighborhoods you're in is not supposed to be there. The [Palestinian] civilians know they are not supposed to be there. Therefore whoever you see there, you kill. . . .
The commander [gave that order]. "Anything you see in the neighborhoods you're in, anything within a reasonable distance, say between zero and 200 meters -- is dead on the spot. No authorization needed." We asked him: "I see someone walking in the street, do I shoot him?" He said yes.
Did the commander discuss what happens if you run into civilians or uninvolved people?
There are none. The working assumption states -- and I want to stress that this is a quote of sorts: that anyone located in an IDF area, in areas the IDF took over -- is not [considered] a civilian. That is the working assumption. We entered Gaza with that in mind, and with an insane amount of firepower.
Shot a "grandpa" while he lay wounded on the ground
Staff Sargent, Infantry:
We were in a house with the reconnaissance platoon, and there was some soldier stationed at the guard post. We were instructed [during the briefings] that whoever's in the area is dangerous, is suspect . . . .
A soldier who was in one of the posts saw an old [Palestinian] man approaching, so he shouted that some old man was getting near. He didn't shoot at him -- he fired near him. What I know, because I checked this, is that one of the other soldiers shot that grandpa twice. . . .
I went up to a window to see what was going on out there, and I saw there was an old man lying on the ground, he was shot in his leg and he was wounded. It was horrible, the wound was horrible, and he looked either dead or unconscious to me. . . . . And then after that, some guy from the company went out and shot that man again, and that, for me, was the last straw.
I don't think there was a single guy in my platoon who wasn't shocked by that. It's not like we're a bunch of leftists, but -- why? Like, what the hell, why did you have to shoot him again? One of the problems in this story is that there was no inquiry into it, at least none that I know of.
"Any person you run into: shoot to kill"
Staff Sargent, Engineering Corps:
They warned us, they told us that after a ceasefire the population might return . . . . The instructions were to open fire. They said, "No one is supposed to be in the area in which you will be" . . . .
[W]e asked, "Will the civilian population return? What will the situation look like now when we go in [to the Gaza Strip] again?" And they said, "You aren't supposed to encounter the civilian population, no one is supposed to be in the area in which you'll be. Which means that anyone you do run into is [to be regarded as] a terrorist."
The instructions are to shoot right away. Whoever you spot -- be they armed or unarmed, no matter what. The instructions are very clear. Any person you run into, that you see with your eyes -- shoot to kill. It's an explicit instruction.
No incrimination process is necessary?
Used tanks to crush Palestinians' cars purely for "fun"
Staff Sargent, Armored Corps:
During the entire operation the [tank] drivers had this thing of wanting to run over cars -- because the driver, he can't fire. He doesn't have any weapon, he doesn't get to experience the fun in its entirety, he just drives forward, backward, right, left. And they had this sort of crazy urge to run over a car. . . .
I mean, a car that's in the street, a Palestinian car, obviously. And there was one time that my [tank's] driver, a slightly hyperactive guy, managed to convince the tank's officer to run over a car, and it was really not that exciting– you don't even notice you're going over a car, you don't feel anything -- we just said on the two-way radio: "We ran over the car. How was it?" And it was cool, but we really didn't feel anything. . . .
So he came back in, and right then the officer had just gone out or something, so he sort of whispered to me over the earphones: "I scored some sunglasses from the car." And after that, he went over and told the officer about it too, that moron, and the officer scolded him: "What, how could you do such a thing? I'm considering punishing you," but in the end nothing happened, he kept the sunglasses, and he wasn't too harshly scolded, it was all OK, and it turned out that a few of the other company's tanks ran over cars, too.
"The citizens of Gaza, I really don't give a fuck about them"
Staff Sargent, Infantry:
It was during our first Sabbath. Earlier that day one of the companies was hit by a few anti-tank missiles. The unit went to raid the area from which they were fired, so the guys who stayed behind automatically cared less about civilians. I remember telling myself that right now, the citizens of Gaza, I really don't give a fuck about them. They don't deserve anything -- and if they deserve something it's either to be badly wounded or killed. . . .
So this old man came over, and the guy manning the post -- I don't know what was going through his head -- he saw this civilian, and he fired at him, and he didn't get a good hit. The civilian was laying there, writhing in pain. We all remembered that story going around, so none of the paramedics wanted to go treat him.
It was clear to everyone that one of two things was going to happen: Either we let him die slowly, or we put him out of his misery. Eventually, we put him out of his misery, and a D9 (armored bulldozer) came over and dropped a mound of rubble on him and that was the end of it.
In order to avoid having to deal with the question of whether he was booby-trapped or not -- because that really didn't interest anyone at that moment -- the D9 came over, dropped a pile of rubble on his body and that was it. Everyone knew that under that pile there was the guy's corpse. . . . .
What came up during the investigation when the company commander asked the soldier, was that the soldier spotted a man in his late 60s, early 70s approaching the house. They were stationed in a tall house, with a good vantage point. The soldier spotted that guy going in his direction, toward his post. So he shot in the direction of his feet at the beginning. And he said the old man kept getting closer to the house so he shot a bullet beneath his left ribs. Kidney, liver, I don't know what's in there. A spot you don't want to be hit by a bullet.
That old man took the bullet, lay down on the ground, then a friend of that soldier came over and also shot the man, while he was already down. For the hell of it, he shot two more bullets at his legs. Meanwhile there was a talk with the commander, and because this was happening amidst a battalion offensive, it really didn't interest anyone. "We have casualties up front, don't bother us, do what you need to do."
Shelling and machine-gunning "every house we passed" -- then taking them over and using them.
Staff Sargent, Engineering Corps:
I got the impression that every house we passed on our way got hit by a shell -- and houses farther away too. It was methodical. There was no threat. It's possible we were being shot at, but I truly wouldn't have heard it if we were because that whole time the tanks' Raphael OWS (machine guns operated from within the tanks) were being fired constantly. They were spraying every house with machine gun fire the whole time. . . .
[D]uring our walk there was no sign of any face-off or anything. There was a lot of shooting, but only from us.
How is the sweeping of a house conducted, when you enter it?
We would go in 'wet' (using live fire). I could hear the shooting, everything was done ‘wet.' When we entered this house everything inside it was already a mess. Anything that could shatter had been shattered, because everything had been shot at. Anything made of glass -- windows, a glass table, picture frames -- it was all wrecked.
All the beds were turned over, the rugs, the mattresses. Soldiers would take a rug to sleep on, a mattress, a pillow. There was no water, so you couldn't use the toilet. So we would shit in their bathtub.
"By the time we got out of there, everything was like a sandbox"
Staff Sargent, Mechanized Infantry:
By the time we got out of there, it was all like a sandbox. Every house we left -- and we went through three or four houses -- a D9 (armored bulldozer) came over and flattened it. . . .
First of all, it's impressive seeing a D9 take down a big two-story house. We were in the area of a fairly rich, rural neighborhood -- very impressive houses. We were in one spot where there was a house with a children's residence unit next door -- just like in a well-off Moshav (a type of rural town) in Israel.
The D9 would simply go in, take down part of the wall and then continue, take down another part of the wall, and leave only the columns intact. At a certain point it would push a pile of sand to create a mound of rubble and bring down other parts, until the house was eventually left stripped, and from that point it would simply hit the house [with its blade] until it collapsed. The D9 was an important working tool. It was working nearly non-stop.
Randomly obliterating homes with no warning, for revenge
Staff Sargent, Armored Corps:
On the day the fellow from our company was killed, the commanders came up to us and told us what happened. Then they decided to fire an ‘honor barrage' and fire three shells. They said, "This is in memory of ****." That felt very out of line to me, very problematic. . . .
A barrage of shells. They fired the way it's done in funerals, but with shellfire and at houses. Not into the air. They just chose [a house] -- the tank commander said, "Just pick the farthest one, so it does the most damage." Revenge of sorts. So we fired at one of the houses. Really you just see a block of houses in front of you, so the distance doesn't really matter.
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