New Testimony From Gaza

"We didn't see a single house that was not hit. The entire infrastructure, tracks, fields, roads -- was in total ruin," an anonymous soldier says, describing his days in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion last winter. "Nothing much was left in our designated area … A totally destroyed city ... The few houses that were still inhabitable were taken by the army … there were lots of abandoned, miserable animals." The destruction continued daily, he testifies, though Palestinians -- fighters and civilians -- had fled the area.

So much lay in ruins, says another Israeli soldier, that it was hard to navigate. "I entered Al Atatra [in the northern Gaza Strip] after seeing aerial photos and didn't identify anything … I remembered that 200 meters further on down the track there should be a junction, with two large houses at the corners, and there wasn't. I remembered there was supposed to be a square with a Hamas memorial … and there wasn't. There was rubble, broken blocks." Later, he says, he was in an operations room where soldiers were directing air strikes. Landmarks that were supposed to serve the pilots as reference points had already been destroyed, he says, making it harder to direct the planes, more likely that they would hit the wrong building.

The two soldiers are among 26 whose first-hand accounts appear in Operation Cast Lead, a book released today in Hebrew and English by the Israeli veterans' group, Breaking the Silence. Half the soldiers were serving in the regular army at the time of the fighting; half were called up as reservists. To protect them, their names do not appear -- only their words. A brief introduction notes that the Israel Defense Forces spokesman's office has argued consistently since the war that if any moral problems arose in Israel's conduct in Gaza, they were due to "delinquent soldiers." The soldiers' testimony presents a very different picture -- of a policy set by top commanders that led to unnecessary civilian deaths and massive physical damage.

This isn't the first time soldiers' stories have challenged the official accounts. In March, the Yitzhak Rabin Academy -- a pre-army training course -- published a transcript of its graduates discussing their experiences in Gaza. They described incidents in which innocent Palestinians had been shot, amid a wider atmosphere of using unrestrained firepower. Following a brief probe of the specific incidents, the chief army prosecutor ruled that the soldiers were merely repeating rumors, and closed the case. The wider question of military policy wasn't investigated. After a flurry of public debate, the affair blew over. Breaking the Silence is aimed at reviving that debate by putting much more evidence, clearly eye-witness, before the Israel public.

Breaking the Silence began five years ago, when soldiers who had served in Hebron in the West Bank created an exhibition of photos and video testimony to bring home to other Israelis the moral dilemmas of occupation duty. The original exhibition was funded by the veterans' discharge bonuses. Since then, says Mikhael Manekin, one of the group's leaders, Breaking the Silence has continued collecting soldiers' testimony, conducting tours for Israelis in the West Bank, and running other educational activities aimed mainly at young Israelis. The goal, as Manekin puts it, is " accountability and… transparency."

The group's new effort is a grunt's-eye view of last winter's conflict, which began when after ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza expired. Responding to heavy rocket fire from Gaza, Israel first launched an air campaign, then invaded the Strip in early January. The IDF reported 1,166 Palestinian deaths, most of them "terror operatives." Amnesty International's statistics show over 1,400 Palestinian dead, including hundreds of children and other civilians. Three Israeli civilians were killed, and ten soldiers -- four from friendly fire. "You have to remember where we were operating, in a place where Hamas turned neighborhoods into war zones and public buildings into armories," Israeli chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazy said in March, explaining the havoc in Gaza.

That argument has resonated publicly because the army has had internal restraints in the past, including an ethical code that every soldier is supposed to know. "I've been critical of the military for years," says Manekin, who completed his regular service as an infantry lieutenant, "but there were certain moral boundaries that you could identify. Gaza worked differently."

A key element of the difference: Throughout the testimony, soldiers explain that there were no clear "rules of engagement" -- instructions from commanders on when to open fire, when to fire warning shots, when to shoot to kill. Normally, such orders are given even before a soldier begins guard duty. In briefings before going into Gaza, they were vague at best.

One soldier describes the instructions from his brigade commander and other officers as, "Shoot if you like. If you're afraid, or you see someone, shoot … we were not ordered to open fire only if there was real threat." Another soldier states, "There were no clear red lines… we were told to enter every house under live fire. A grenade or two, shooting, and only then we enter." Yet in the field, Hamas fighters offered much less resistance than expected. And the assumption that all civilians had heeded leaflets warning them to flee proved wrong. Meanwhile, troops had instructions, Manekin says, that would "theoretically make sense only in situation where everyone on the front is a combatant."

The "shoot first, ask no questions" attitude, soldiers repeatedly state in the testimony, was aimed at eliminating all risks to Israeli forces. "The goal was to carry out an operation with the least possible casualties for the army, without its even asking itself what the price would be for the other side. This was the thrust of things that we heard from more than one officer," as one soldier says. Any army, of course, seeks to minimize casualties. At the same time, the IDF's ethical code (in Hebrew here) does require a soldier "to do all he can" to avoid causing death or injury to non-combatants. It's clear from the testimony that soldiers in Gaza did at times take risks to fulfill that requirement -- but it appears that their orders did not encourage them to do so.

As a result, soldiers report, immense firepower was used. When sniper fire was detected inside refugee camps, one soldier reports, "at times we directed combat helicopters and tank fire at the house that was supposedly the source of fire" from over a kilometer away. Others describe the use of white phosphorus shells against houses suspected of containing explosives. Such shells create a canopy of intense fire above the target. They succeeded, according to the soldiers, in detonating the explosives. But Manekin notes that the radius of the fire would be much larger than one house -- and that some of the incendiary material can remain in the area, flaring up later if someone touches it. International law severely restricts use of the weapon. An Israeli Foreign Ministry statement in late January stated that "there was no illegal use of phosphorus" in Gaza. The testimony gives reason to question that.

The soldiers' testimony deals with how the Israeli army fought in Gaza, not with the separate question of whether the operation itself was justified. And even in terms of how the battle was conducted, there's no laboratory-style control -- no way of knowing how Hamas's fighters would have behaved had the Israeli army been more selective in its fire.

A lengthy response from the IDF spokesman, published today, stresses that because the accounts were given anonymously, "a detailed examination that could lead to an investigation is not possible." There is a dilemma here: Breaking the Silence says that it promises anonymity so that "whistleblowers won't be turned into scapegoats." But by focusing on whether individual incidents can be investigated, the army response misses the more important question that the book raises: the policies set at the top.

In pure military terms, Manekin says, "everything can be justified … Hamas justifies terror on a military basis." But he adds, "The boundaries we put on ourselves aren't just survival boundaries, but survival as what? What kind of human beings do we want to be? Under the justification of 'In war, everything's allowed,' it's very easy to [reach the level of] Hamas, and we don't want to be there. We think our society should have much higher standards."

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