A new wave of damning testimonies by Israel Defense Forces soldiers who took part in the recent fighting in Gaza has unleashed a knee-jerk reaction from the already sensitive Israeli public. (Leading the charge was Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who on Wednesday demanded that all criticism in military matters be directed at him, not the soldiers.)
The testimonies were released by "Breaking the Silence," an organization of former soldiers who use personal experiences to illustrate what they perceive to be the folly of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories. Once again, the organization has been singled out for rebuke.
The response to the testimonies was taken - admittedly very skillfully - in one very specific direction: the reliability of the witnesses and their betrayal of IDF and Israeli society as a whole.
The IDF Spokesman's Office dismissed Breaking the Silence as a private body focused on media manipulation. Kadima MK Otniel Schneller, a resident of the Maaleh Michmas settlement, demanded the anonymous soldier witnesses identify themselves. This demand took center stage in the efforts to discredit the troops who had spoken out.
So, it was asked, why won't Breaking the Silence give any identifying details in their accounts, tying them to a specific sector, date or unit? Who would know, reporters heard IDF officers wonder aloud, whether the testimonials were delivered by actors reading from a script?
The nay-sayers should simmer down. The men behind the testimonies are soldiers, that is certain. Three of them met with Haaretz, at the paper's request. While there is no definite way of vouching for the credibility of their reports, it is safe to say that they did fight in Gaza and that they provided enough authentic detail to prove that they are not imposters.
The refusal to disclose their identities, especially for those witnesses still completing their mandatory military service, stems from a fear of possible retribution, both from their commanders and from their peers.
Telling their stories to outside organizations, in particular the media, is seen as tattling. It was enough for these soldiers to hear from graduates of a pre-army prep course about the onslaught they faced after previous Cast Lead testimonies - vehemently denied in the Military Advocate General's subsequent report - to understand that their fears are not unfounded. It will be interesting to hear the full version of events once these soldiers are discharged.
On the flip side, Breaking the Silence, founded in 2004 by veterans of the second intifada, has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classed as a "human rights organization." Any organization whose website includes the claim by members to expose the "corruption which permeates the military system" is not a neutral observer.
The organization has a clear agenda: to expose the consequences of IDF troops serving in the West Bank and Gaza. This seems more of interest to its members than seeking justice for specific injustices. The fact that the material was published just six months after the end of the conflict will diminish its impact in the eyes of a public supportive of their troops.
But this does not mean that the documented evidence, some of which was videotaped, is fabricated. It goes without saying, however, that the vague contextual descriptions hamper the possibility that the IDF could use such testimonies in a criminal investigation.
During the conflict in Gaza earlier this year, Israel did not use even close to the amount of firepower the U.S. military unleashed on Iraq's civilian population. The IDF, as can be concluded from the reports themselves, did not systematically kill innocent people. It did use intense fire in crowded areas and issued fairly loose rules of engagement in order to meet the unwritten goal of the operation - a minimum of IDF casualties.
Among the lower ranks of some units, this translated to a certain unraveling in the wake of eight years of Qassam rockets (a period in which, despite our celebrated policy of restraint, several thousand Palestinians were killed) and a sentiment among some soldiers that the time had come to settle the score with the Gazans.
So where can Israel draw the line between self-flagellation and introspection? A month ago, Colonel Hertzi Halevy of the IDF Paratroopers Brigade held a conference on battle values, in which all battalion and brigade commanders took part. It was an extensive and thorough discussion, which heard from legal experts, journalists, a philosophy professor and even (good heavens!) a bona fide leftwing activist.
The Paratroopers officers felt they had done nothing for which they should feel ashamed. Instead of curling up in a defensive ball, they listened to the criticism with interest, although they rejected much of it in their own detailed responses.
International criticism, including an upcoming harsh UN report, will continue regardless. We can and must lead a debate on the matter within Israeli society, instead of responding to every claim with a chorus of "The IDF is the most moral army in the world" - as if that issue had already been settled in an Olympic event in which nations' armies compete in a moral high jump.
One would hope that the IDF as a whole can follow the Paratroopers? lead, not just in the way its soldiers behave during battle, but in how it examines itself once the battle is over.
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