As it has after every extended military operation of the past decade, Breaking the Silence compiled an extensive report on last summer’s war in Gaza, releasing it on Sunday. As usual, the NGO tells the Israeli public things most of us would rather not hear. Combat soldiers and officers recount in detail incidents they either witnessed or participated in, during which the Israel Defense Forces allegedly violated international law as well as the army’s own declared fighting values.
- Report: Army Vets Slam IDF Policy in Gaza War
- Breaking the American Jewish Silence
- Investigate or Face the ICC
- Don't Advocate for Israel Until You've Done This
- Investigate Israel's Political Leaders Over Gaza Civilian Deaths
The report’s authors describe Operation Protective Edge as Operation Cast Lead on steroids, referring to the 2008-09 Gaza war. The IDF, according to their impression, utilized more firepower during the war and caused many more casualties than it had during the previous ground operations in Gaza. The army does not dispute some of these figures. The Palestinian fatality rate last year was around 70 percent higher than in Cast Lead. At least half of the fatalities were noncombatant civilians, according to all accounts (the Palestinians say it was two-thirds).
Still, a new development that cannot be ignored has arisen. Between the campaigns, Hamas has also significantly improved its capacity to cause damage. This ability came to fruition in the massive volley of rocket fire that penetrated as far as the Dan Region and northward; in Cast Lead the rockets only reached Be’er Sheva. It could be seen in the multi-branched tunnels the group has dug – some reaching Israeli territory – and particularly in its defense system, which operated explosives, artillery shells, snipers and anti-tank missiles that killed 67 soldiers during the fighting over the tunnels.
When the danger level to soldiers rises – in the Cast Lead, 10 soldiers were killed, most of them by friendly fire – the risks that commanders are willing to take decrease accordingly. Clearly, the more Israeli casualties rise during the operation, and with the danger of abducting a soldier looming in the background – which came to the fore with the kidnapping of the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul – more firepower is employed to prevent further Hamas successes.
Using massive firepower was also a hallmark of Cast Lead. Although the IDF never officially adopted the code of minimizing risks to its forces when dealing with civilian populations, it seems this approach was used in many places as a given.
It’s important to differentiate between fighting, Gaza-style, and the day-to-day operations to maintain the occupation in the West Bank. When Breaking the Silence or B’Tselem report on the killing of an unarmed Palestinian in the West Bank, there is, from the start, an enormous gap between the available force and danger level for soldiers and that for civilians, so a higher level of caution is demanded of soldiers in these circumstances. When fighting in a crowded urban space, like in Gaza, the circumstances are substantially different. The commanders’ sense of danger is real. It doesn’t free the IDF of every restraint in the use of force, but it certainly dictates different considerations in light of the danger.
The commander of the Paratroops Brigade, Col. Eliezer Toledano, put matters simply when he was interviewed over the weekend on the Walla website. “We don’t enter a house in which I have identified a terrorist,” he said. “If I have identified a terrorist at home, this house will be destroyed. We don’t level a city on top of its citizens in the name of war, but we also don’t fight the enemy with a tweezers in the name of human values. It isn’t all or nothing.”
He admitted that every place where his brigade fought last summer “is not fit for living quarters [any longer].”
“I will never call the IDF the most moral army in the world,” said Gen. Danny Efroni, the Military Advocate General, in an interview with Haaretz last month. The line by the army’s top attorney, which his colleagues at General Staff headquarters took bitterly, shows a healthy sense of perspective toward the last war. It removes from the discussion some of the sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness that characterized IDF responses to charges against its behavior in the past, particularly in Cast Lead. The reality is more complicated than the Morality Olympics transpiring in the imaginations of some commanders and columnists.
IDF has its ways
In practice, there are ways in which the army takes notably appropriate measures to limit harm to civilians, relative to other Western armies, such as the “knocking on the roof” policy before destroying homes.
And then there are other ways, like those described in the new Breaking the Silence report. What stands out in many of the testimonies is the limited supervision of units on the edges of the ground forces. When the air force accidently kills four children on a Gaza beach, everyone knows about it and it isn’t particularly hard to clarify what went wrong.
When a tank commander allows his gunners to practice firing from a distance at vehicles that no one has declared dangerous, or when infantry troops fire at Palestinian so-called lookouts, who turn out to be two women carrying no observation equipment, it’s doubtful if someone higher up the military command chain knows all the details.
Shelling or damaging the surroundings with bulldozers appears in some of the testimonies as revenge for injured soldiers or as a way to break the boredom. These are also familiar phenomena from previous wars and certainly should not surprise us.
Breaking the Silence has an agenda. Its founders established it in 2004, influenced by their experiences as Nahal fighters at the height of the second intifada. Clearly, they operate according to their leftist worldview – but that should not be a reason to avoid debate of the claims themselves.
Pavlovian reactions to its report will no doubt accuse the testifying soldiers of besmirching the IDF and State of Israel, and try to label them as traitors to the homeland. Based on conversations with some of the these soldiers, it seems these accusations are baseless.
Testimony was taken from dozens of fighters – indeed a small percentage of all who participated in the war – who report things they experienced and saw that bothered them. It would be good if the IDF did not get dragged into the political controversy surrounding Breaking the Silence’s claims, as it did after Cast Lead, and simply investigate them. As that’s how the Military Advocate General acted in dozens of other instances that from Cast Lead, there’s no reason not to investigate the complaints in these new cases, too.