Israeli soldiers’ accounts of the fighting last winter further undermine the official rationale of the war.
March 26, 2009
The soldier had served as a squad commander during the Israeli army’s invasion of the Gaza Strip last winter. His unit was assigned to advance into Gaza City. His initial orders, he recalled, were that after an armored vehicle broke down the door of a building, his men were to enter, spraying fire: “I call it murdering … going up one floor after another, and anyone we spot, shoot him.” The word from his higher-ups was that anyone who hadn’t fled the neighborhood could be assumed to be a terrorist. The orders fit a pattern: In Gaza, “as you know, they used lots and lots of force and killed lots and lots of people on the way so that we wouldn’t be hurt,” he said.
Before the operation began, he recounted, the orders were softened. The building’s occupants would be given five minutes to leave and be searched on their way out. When he told his squad, some soldiers objected. “Anyone there is a terrorist; that’s a fact,” one said. The squad commander was upset. “It’s pretty frustrating that inside Gaza you’re allowed to do what you want,” he explained at a discussion in February among graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin Academy, a pre-army training course.
A transcript from that gathering, published in an academy newsletter, reached the Israeli media late last week. (The full Hebrew text is here; a Ha’aretz report in English is here.) Predictably, it set off a storm. In contrast to earlier criticism of the Gaza campaign, this time charges of disregard for civilians’ lives came not from Palestinians or the foreign media but from Israeli soldiers. Their testimony challenged the story of the war that is widely accepted in Israel and indicated a change, apparently dictated from above, in the Israel Defense Forces’ rules for fighting.
The soldiers who spoke at the academy hadn’t served together and weren’t talking about a breakdown in a single unit. Instead, they described an atmosphere in which “the lives of Palestinians were, let’s say much less important than the lives of our soldiers,” as one put it. Every civilian was presumed dangerous, a potential suicide bomber. In one segment of the testimony that received wide media attention, a soldier told of marksmen shooting a mother and her two children after they took a wrong turn as they fled their home. (In response, the army hastily announced that the brigade commander had investigated and that the marksmen had only fired warning shots, without harming the mother and children.)
There were counter-instances. A soldier identified as Binyamin (not his real name) described leading a patrol along the fence between Israel and Gaza. If the soldiers saw a Palestinian come within 300 meters of the fence, the orders were to treat him as a potential terrorist: Shoot in the air; if the “suspect” didn’t flee, shoot at his legs; then, if necessary, shoot to kill. But the 300-meter zone included farm land. Binyamin spotted an old man working in the fields. At first, the patrol’s marksman fired over the farmer’s head. The old man, apparently inured to gunfire, didn’t respond. Binyamin and the marksman looked at each other. “We simply understood that neither of us … wanted a farmer on our conscience.” The patrol drove on. Telling the story, Binyamin added, “Anyone who thinks I hurt Israeli security can come talk to me afterward.” His defensive tone suggested that his restraint was an exception to the wider atmosphere during the Gaza fighting.
Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza began with an air campaign in late December, followed by the ground invasion in early January. The immediate catalyst was heavy rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Strip at southern Israeli communities, after a six-month ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ran out. (The actual chain reaction leading to war was more complex, as I wrote at the time.) From the start, Israel deflected charges of causing excessive civilian casualties with several arguments: Palestinian casualty figures were inflated; many of the supposed civilians were really combatants; and by fighting from within urban areas, Hamas had turned the civilian population into human shields. The Israeli army also feared that nearly anyone in Gaza could be a suicide bomber. None of those arguments should be dismissed out of hand. The Palestinians were also engaged in a public-relations battle. Hamas did base itself in urban areas, and it is infamous for its use of suicide bombers.
Most Israelis regarded the war as defensive, and the reports from Gaza have gained little traction in the Israeli domestic arena. The soldiers’ accounts may boost domestic criticism. As one of the soldiers commented, their experience reflected “a change in the rules for ‘purity of arms’” — meaning military ethics — compared to previous Israeli wars. Another soldier explained massive use of firepower as a response to Israel’s heavy casualties in the Second Lebanon War of 2006. “The intent was … to protect soldiers’ lives,” he said.
Any army will seek to minimize its losses. That said, the Israeli army does have a code of ethics that demands a balance between protecting its own forces and avoiding harm to noncombatants. If the code were not simply violated but superseded by new orders this time, a critical question is, who gave the orders — mid-level commanders, the top brass, or the country’s political leaders?
One lesson that generals and politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, may have learned from Lebanon, and from wars elsewhere, is that public support for a war can turn to opposition when the number of fallen soldiers increases. Similarly, direct media coverage from the battlefield can spur political debate. During the Gaza fighting, the Israeli army prevented both local and foreign journalists from entering the Strip.
There is at least one more reason that domestic support for a war can evaporate: failing to achieve the war’s goals. At the outset of the Gaza campaign, Olmert said its purpose was to “change the situation in the south part of our country” — a deliberately modest and ambiguous goal. Other officials spoke of weakening Hamas and restoring Israeli deterrence. While Israel decided to stop the fighting unilaterally in January — just before Barack Obama’s inauguration — it sought a new ceasefire arrangement with Hamas, negotiated indirectly via Egypt. Olmert then injected the additional goal of a prisoner exchange to free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza since 2006.
There’s still no agreed ceasefire in place. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in January, over 180 rockets have been fired from there at southern Israel, according to the Israel Defense Forces. That’s less than the rate last November and December, as the ceasefire unraveled and expired. But it’s much more than the sporadic launchings when the truce was in place. Arguably, Gaza’s rulers have not been deterred from launching — or from allowing other groups to launch — missiles at Israel. Meanwhile, the talks on a prisoner exchange broke down last week, just before the soldiers’ testimony was published nationally.
This is the familiar arc of a poorly conceived war. At first, it looks like necessary defense. The public rallies around in the adrenaline rush of solving an intolerable problem by force. The critics are few, or foreign, and easily dismissed. As time passes, it becomes more difficult to name what has been gained amid the horror. The moral price reveals itself. Criticism becomes mainstream and respectable and is entirely too late.