Cast Lead Expose / What Did the IDF Think Would Happen in Gaza?

Soldiers' testimonies about improper behavior forces IDF Spokeman's Office to confront a new reality.

GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant's meticulous planning for Operation Cast Lead was mapped out to the last detail. The information gathered by the Shin Bet security service over the preceding two years provided excellent intelligence. But the General Staff also knew that hovering above was a conflicted political triumvirate, one member of which (Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) was eager to amend the dubious legacy he left behind in Lebanon, while the other two (Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni) were preoccupied with the impending election. In the backdrop was a fickle public and an impatient and demanding media. The General Staff expected that Israelis would have trouble accepting heavy Israel Defense Forces losses.

The army chose to overcome this problem with an aggressive plan that included overwhelming firepower. The forces, it was decided, would advance into the urban areas behind a "rolling curtain" of aerial and artillery fire, backed up by intelligence from unmanned aircraft and the Shin Bet. The lives of our soldiers take precedence, the commanders were told in briefings. Before the operation, Galant and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi painted a bleak picture for the cabinet ministers. "Unlike in Lebanon, the civilians in Gaza won't have many places to escape to," Ashkenazi warned. "When an armored force enters the city, shells will fly, because we'll have to protect our people."

The politicians promised backing. Two weeks before the incursion, a member of the General Staff, talking to a journalist, predicted that 600-800 Palestinians civilians would be killed in an Israeli operation.

The terrorists operated from within a large and densely crowded civilian population, which they used as a human shield. This is asymmetrical warfare, of the type waged by the Americans after the occupation of Iraq and by the Russians in Georgia. Presumably, the IDF operated with more restraint than most armies, but the question is whether Israel uses this as a pretext to justify its actions.

A large part of the operation was conducted by remote control. "The Palestinians are completely transparent to us," says A., a reservist whose brigade was posted in the Gaza Strip. "The Shin Bet has people everywhere. We observe the whole area from the air and usually the Shin Bet coordinator can also tell you who lives in what house." The Shin Bet defines the enemy and, for the most part, someone who belongs to Hamas' civilian welfare organizations (the da'awa) is treated the same way as a member of its military wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam.

Essentially, a person only needs to be in a "problematic" location, in circumstances that can broadly be seen as suspicious, for him to be "incriminated" and in effect sentenced to death. Often, there is no need for him to be identified as carrying a weapon. Three people in the home of a known Hamas operative, someone out on a roof at 2 A.M. about a kilometer away from an Israeli post, a person walking down the wrong street before dawn - all are legitimate targets for attack.

"It feels like hunting season has begun," says A. "Sometimes it reminds me of a Play Station [computer] game. You hear cheers in the war room after you see on the screens that the missile hit a target, as if it were a soccer game."

The one who makes the final decision of whether to fire is usually not the brigade commander (who is with the forward forces in the field), but the "director" of combat, stationed at a command center in the rear: the deputy brigade commander, the headquarters' chiefs or majors who are studying and return to the brigade in times of combat. Another change in operational methods involved reducing reliance on the independent judgment of Israel Air Force personnel, who are located relatively far from the field.

'Little racists'

After the intense firepower employed at the outset, the forces were surprised to discover that they were not fighting in a "sterile," civilian-free environment as they had in Lebanon, 2006. Soldiers' testimonies, from graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course at Oranim Academic College in Tivon, and also from the watered-down descriptions supplied by the army's Bamahaneh weekly magazine, make this crystal clear. There were civilians who were too frightened to flee or who didn't read the leaflets dropped by the IAF, and remained in their homes. As in every war, prolonged time in the field led to brutish behavior in some of the units.

"The impact of the long confrontation with the Palestinians cannot be ignored," says a senior reserve officer, "and one should also bear in mind what sort of values inductees have when they come to us these days. Every year, the education system produces a significant number of little racists."

Periodic studies conducted by the IDF contain soldiers' testimonies about the use of the so-called "neighbor procedure" (forcing Palestinians to enter nearby houses to ask inhabitants to come out), abuses at checkpoints, shooting at medical personnel and more. In Gaza, too, while the official orders called for preserving the dignity and rights of Palestinian civilians, there were some junior officers who followed their own code and ignored improper actions by their troops. And there were, of course, impressive instances where the opposite occurred, such as the soldiers from a Golani patrol battalion who helped evacuate dozens of wheelchair-bound Palestinians from the combat zone.

There is a discrepancy between the official military response, of denial and horrified disapproval, the testimonies of the Rabin pre-military preparatory course graduates, and the response to those reports by key officers, unwilling to be identified.

"What did you think would happen?" a senior officer wondered this week. "We sent 10,000 troops into Gaza, more than 200 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 100 bulldozers. What were 100 bulldozers going to do there?"

The IDF estimates that approximately 2,000 houses were destroyed in the fighting. The Palestinians say the figure is twice that. IDF officers, who were not surprised by the testimonies, recalled that during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, military courts convicted soldiers for killing civilians, including the British peace activist Tom Hurndall, who was killed in Gaza in 2003.

Until the soldiers' testimonies were published, the IDF Spokesman's Office had been highly successful in promoting its version of events. The international media may not have bought it, but the army managed to sell the Israeli public an almost impossible package: We were victorious in Gaza, we suffered minimal casualties and we also came out of there smelling like roses.

On Monday, during a visit to an IDF induction center, the chief of staff addressed this matter. His statements ("I do not believe this happened") raised a few eyebrows in the defense establishment. Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi is also the commander of the investigators in the IDF criminal investigation division (CID), who are coordinating the two investigations that were launched in the wake of the soldiers' testimonies. Even when we are told time and again that "the IDF is the world's most ethical army" (copyright: Shaul Mofaz), we are not obliged to answer "Amen."

Criminal proceedings

This story is reminiscent of both intifadas: A complex, morally problematic mission, combined with lots of maneuvering room for field commanders, is liable to culminate in conduct that crosses the red line. This is what happened under then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin during the first intifada ("break their bones"), and it happened to prime minister Ehud Barak with the outbreak of the second intifada (in the form of millions of shots fired in the West Bank by the IDF, in October 2000). Sometimes, legal intervention can actually help reinstate the norms, but during the second intifada, the last IDF judge advocate general, Maj. Gen. Menachem Finkelstein, annulled the practice of opening an investigation into every killed Palestinian. His successor, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, is launching his first investigations only now, after the publication of the testimonies from the Rabin course graduates.

During the two initial, gloomy years of the first intifada, four criminal proceedings shaped the rules of conduct: the Yehuda Meir case, the Golani case, and the Givati Alef and Givati Bet cases. Col. Emanuel Gross, who presided over the court in the Givati Alef case, made it clear to the army that breaking bones was unacceptable, that it was an illegal action "with a black flag fluttering above it." The Golani brigade commander at the time was today's chief of staff, Lieut. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.