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Breaking the Silence Eyewitness Report Documents Possible IDF War Crimes in Gaza

I’ve just received Breaking the Silence’s new blockbuster report (pdf) of eyewitness testimonies by IDF veterans of the Gaza war. The Israeli human rights NGO documents IDF activities in the Occupied Territories through engagement with soldiers themselves and taking their testimony of first hand experiences in the field.

The stories in the Operation Cast Lead report portray potential war crimes committed by Israeli troops during the operation. I should add that these charges, though they come from new sources, are not in themselves new as Haaretz, the Guardian and several human rights groups have outlined very similar charges based on IDF and Gaza human sources.

But because the IDF brass and political echelon persist in their fictions about the IDF being the most moral army in the world and the operation upholding the highest standards of ethical conduct, it’s important to highlight this startling new material. The report is long, quite detailed and shocking in its content, so I propose doing a series at my blog in which I’ll highlight some of the main findings with some of my own commentary.

The introduction outlines the major charges of the document:

These testimonies describe use of the ‘Neighbor Procedure’ [IDF euphemism for human shields]and of white phosphorus ammunition in densely inhabited neighborhoods, massive destruction of buildings unrelated to any direct threat to Israeli forces, and permissive rules of engagement that led to the killing of innocents. We also hear from the soldiers about the general atmosphere that accompanied the fighting, and of harsh statements made by junior and senior officers that attest to the ongoing moral deterioration of the society and the army.

…The testimonies of the soldiers in this collection expose that the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians of the Gaza strip [was] a direct result of IDF policy, and especially of the rules of engagement, and a cultivation of the notion among soldiers that the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions.

…Those who break their silence in this publication describe in their testimonies how actions defined as anomalous yesterday become the norms of tomorrow, and how the emissaries of Israeli society continue, along with entire the military system, to slide together down the moral slippery slope. This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions.

The first interviewee describes intense combat during the first week of the campaign in which the IDF used Gaza civilians as human shields to cover their entry into houses potentially occupied by fighters. Before doing so, I wanted to mention that the Israeli Supreme Court has specifically forbidden the common IDF practice of using Palestinian civilians as human shields:

It was the first week of the war, fighting was intense, there were explosive charges to expose…armed men inside houses…They really moved slowly. Close in on each house. The method used has a new name now _ no longer ‘neighbor procedure.’ Now people are called ‘Johnnie.’ They’re Palestinian civilians, and they’re called Johnnies…To every house we close in on, we send the neighbor in, ‘the Johnnie,’ and if there are armed men inside, we start, like working the ‘pressure cooker’ in the West Bank.

…Essentially the point was to get them out alive, go in, to catch the armed men…In one case, our men tried to get them to come out [using the human shield], then they [the IDF] opened fire, fired some anti-tank missiles at the house and at some point brought in a D-9, bulldozer, and combat helicopters. There were three armed men inside. The helicopters fired anti-tank missiles and again the neighbor was sent in.

At first he told them that nothing had happened to them yet, they were still in there. Again helicopters were summoned and fired…The neighbor was sent in once again. He said that two were dead and one was still alive, so a D-9 was brought in and started demolishing the house over him until the neighbor went in, the last armed man came out and was caught and passed on to the Shabak…

In the next passage, the same soldier describes a story told to him by his commander describing human shields forced to smash holes in houses into which the IDF sought to gain entry:

The commanders…talked about things that bothered them. They said that civilians were used to a greater extent than just sending them into houses. For example, some of them were made to smash walls with 5 kilo sledgehammers. There was a wall around a yard where the force didn’t want to use the gate, it needed an alternative opening for fear of booby-traps or any other device. So the "Johnnies" themselves were required to bang open another hole with a sledgehammer.

The interviewee then mentions an interview Haaretz reporter Amira Hass conducted with the very same Gazan who had broken into the home, thus confirming the story from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

Then the IDF veteran describes an even more disturbing use of human shields:

Sometimes the force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian’s shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield. Commanders said these were the instructions and we had to do it.

When asked about the Army’s official response to the prior accusations published in Haaretz about IDF abuses, the soldier scoffs:

It was ludicrous to…hear the response of the army spokesperson that the matter was investigated and there are no testimonies on the ground 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

Jerry Haber summarizes some of the IDF’s confused responses to the testimonies as portrayed in this Haaretz Hebrew language article:

There were no human shields in Golani… There may have been, but they actually volunteered so that their houses would not be destroyed. The officers were acting in what they thought were according to the spirit of the law. Some officers don’t yet get the meaning of the prohibition of human shields. In the case of the Palestinians who were given sledgehammers to break down the walls, the IDF again said that the Palestinians volunteered to do it themselves, so as to minimize the damage.

One wonders whether the IDF also claims the human shield "volunteered" to have an IDF rifle over his shoulder as he entered a neighbor’s flat possibly containing armed Hamas fighters.

What disturbs me greatly, beyond the clear ethical and international law violations regarding use of human shields is the fact that the Israeli Supreme Court has explicitly prohibited the practice. In this as in many other situations, the IDF simply ignores rulings it doesn’t like. Those of my readers who wish to brag about Israeli "democracy" should remember that democracy only goes so far in Israel.

To be clear, this report covers only the first of thirty soldier testimonies. To be continued…

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Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein

I've been writing Tikun Olam, one of the earliest progressive Jewish blogs, since February, 2003. It focuses on Israeli-Palestinian peace and Muslim-Jewish relations. I wrote a chapter for the Independent Jewish Voices essay collection, A Time to Speak Out. I've contributed to Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, and the Los Angeles Times and write regularly for the Guardian's Comment Is Free blog. My work has also been in American Conservative Magazine and Beliefnet and I am on the advisory board of Tikkun Magazine.