An Honest and Brave Reckoning Must Occur Before the Next Round of Violence Is Upon Us

A state's comptroller report on 2014's Operation Protective Edge exposes the Israeli soldiers who fought in the Gaza Strip to the risk of prosecution under international law

A Palestinian protester runs for cover from teargas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, April 6, 2018
Khalil Hamra/AP

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira surely didn’t intend this, but his report on Operation Protective Edge exposes the Israeli soldiers who fought in the Gaza Strip to the risk of prosecution under international law.

In ignoring the permissive and lethal rules of engagement practiced in the 2014 war, the comptroller proved that Israel cannot and does not want to examine itself. Shapira described an ideal, and ignored the reality in the field as the soldiers experienced it. Worse: While tailoring a defense for senior political and military officials, Shapira abandoned the soldiers who were required to carry out the policy he failed to discuss and perhaps also signaled international organizations that Israel won’t hesitate to use similar practices in the future.

The comptroller’s findings on Israel Defense Forces’ activity from the perspective of international law were not directed at the Israeli public, and attracted little interest from the media and political circles. The report, which was translated into English, was designed to satisfy (or distract) international investigative bodies. This is a sad and troubling situation, especially for those who believe investigations and the drawing of conclusions should be done in Israel. This is what we in Breaking the Silence believed when we declined to testify before the United Nations investigative bodies that contacted us after the Gaza operation in December 2008 and January 2009 and again after the 2014 war. We sought to show the Israeli public the risks and costs of again using imprecise (statistical) weapons in a densely populated place like the Gaza Strip. We hoped our call to establish an independent state commission of inquiry to fully examine this policy and its implications would be heeded.

Not only was no such commission formed, but measures decided by previous commissions were not implemented. Barring a pivot, we can expect the IDF’s “policy regarding the use of firepower” to persist in the next campaign. The import of this hazy term, under which during the 2014 Gaza war 35,000 artillery shells were fired, can be seen in the testimonies of officers and soldiers who took part in the operation: “There’s this notion that we can do everything very surgically. But no, these weapons are statistical, and they fall 50 meters to the right, or 100 meters to the left,” said one officer. As a result, more than 16,000 homes were destroyed and more than 1,000 Palestinian noncombatants were killed.

The rules of engagement given to the forces in the field appear different, not to say opposed, to the directives that Shapira ascribes to the most senior officials. By erasing the responsibility of the ministers and generals, the comptroller places all the blame on the shoulders of the soldiers in the field, who depict the orders they were given differently: “The only emphasis in terms of opening fire was to make sure you are not firing on the IDF. But aside from that, it’s ‘anyone that you see,’” testified one. Another said: “There are no orders for opening fire. If you see someone in that area (where the forces are) — it’s a terrorist.” The firing of tank shells, machine guns, grenades and personal weapons occurred within neighborhoods after warnings were issued and flyers distributed, and the IDF’s working assumption was that these areas were “sterile.” This dangerous assumption proved to be misguided and led to the killing of innocent civilians.

Gaza is the place we always remain silent about. Between one conflict and another, the Gaza Strip is slowly dying and eating up all its resources. In each of these operations, we employ a record-breaking amount of firepower against this densely crowded area, and in between, we ignore the crisis affecting our neighbors. The army itself has stated repeatedly that the humanitarian crisis there is at an extreme level, and that Gaza is on the brink of total collapse. An honest and brave reckoning with this reality must occur before the next round of violence is upon us, and candid criticism is the first step. The comptroller’s report only distances us from this.

Avner Gvaryahu is the executive director of Breaking the Silence.