Breaking the Silence has harshly criticized the Israel Defense Forces for its operational policy during last summer’s war in Gaza, saying it led to “immense and unprecedented harm to the civilian population and infrastructures in the Gaza Strip.”
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The army veterans’ organization has released a report containing testimonies of 60 IDF soldiers and officers who fought during Operation Protective Edge last July and August. According to the group, the testimonies are indicative of a general principle that governed the entire military operation: minimum risk to the Israeli forces, even if it meant civilian casualties.
The rules of engagement basically established that “Anyone found in an IDF area, which the IDF had occupied, was not a civilian. That was the assumption,” one of the soldiers stated.
An armored infantry soldier reported that, at some point, it was understood that any home which Israeli forces entered and used would be destroyed afterward by large D9 bulldozers. “At no point until the end of the operation did anyone tell us what the operational usefulness was in exposing [razing] the houses,” he said. “During a conversation, the unit commanders explained that it wasn’t an act of revenge. At a certain point we realized this was a trend. You leave a house and there’s no longer a house. The D9 comes and exposes [it].”
Another soldier added, “There was one senior commander who really loved the D9 and was really in favor of flattening; he worked a lot with them. Let’s just say that anytime he was in a certain place, all the infrastructures around the building were totally destroyed – nearly every house had a shell in it.”
An infantry soldier recalled an incident in which a force identified two suspicious figures walking in an orchard, only a few hundred meters away. The lookouts couldn’t immediately identify them, so a drone was sent up to take a look. It was two women walking through the orchard, talking on cell phones. “The aircraft took aim at these women and killed them,” he said. A tank company commander who arrived afterward to check the area found the bodies of the two women, who were both over 30 and unarmed.
According to the soldier, the fact that the women were carrying only cell phones was reported to the battalion commander. Despite this, in the reports written afterward, the women were classified as “terrorists” – lookouts who were operating in the area. “[The tank commander] left and we moved on. They were counted as terrorists. They were shot, so it’s clear they were terrorists,” he said.
There were several other reports of shooting at civilians. A woman who was clearly unstable and no threat was reportedly ordered by the battalion commander to walk westward, toward an area where tanks were stationed. When the woman approached the tank force, she was machine-gunned to death. (This is apparently one of the incidents being investigated by the Military Police.)
Another soldier who fought in northern Gaza spoke of an old man being shot when he approached a force one afternoon. Previously, the forces had been briefed to look out for an older man who might be carrying grenades. “The guy who was in the [guard] position – I don’t know what came over him; he saw a civilian, shot him, and didn’t hit him so well. The civilian was lying there writhing in pain,” the soldier said.
Another soldier describing the same incident said another soldier eventually shot the man to death. “No paramedic wanted to go near him [for fear he had explosives on his person],” he explained. “It was clear to everyone that one of two things would happen: Either we let him die slowly, or we relieve him of his agony. In the end, they relieved him of his agony. A D9 came, piled dirt on him and that was the end of the story.”
The detailed testimonies in the report include other practices that some units adopted during Operation Protective Edge. An Armored Corps soldier said that after the death of a fellow platoon member, the platoon commander announced they would fire a volley of shells in his memory. “Fire like they do at funerals, but with shells and at houses. It wasn’t [firing] in the air. You just chose [where to fire]. The tank commander said, ‘Choose the house that’s furthest away, it will hurt them the most.’ It was a type of revenge,” he said.
Another Armored Corps soldier said that after three weeks of fighting, a competition developed between the members of his unit – who could succeed in hitting moving vehicles on a road that carried cars, trucks and even ambulances.
“So I found a vehicle, a taxi, and I tried to shell it but missed,” he recalled. “Two more vehicles came, and I tried another shell or two, but couldn’t do it. Then the commander came and said, ‘Yallah, stop it, you’re using up all the shells. Cut it out.’ So we moved to the heavy machine gun,” he added.
He said he understood he was firing at civilians. Asked about it, he said, “I think, deep inside, it bothered me a little. But after three weeks in Gaza, when you’re firing at everything that moves, and even things that don’t move, at a psychotic pace, you don’t really good and bad get a little mixed up and your morality starts to get lost and you lose your compass. And it becomes like a computer game. Really, really cool and real.”