Out of Proportion

During a break at a conference in Tel Aviv, someone came up to me to ask questions about Gaza and Operation Cast Lead. We think the subject is being buried, but here it is, coming to haunt us again. That was about a month ago. To protect the privacy of someone who got involved in our conversation, the date, time and exact location of the event will remain confidential.

The person who asked me about Gaza is doing a doctorate in political philosophy and had already spoken to soldiers who participated in the attack on the Gaza Strip as part of his research. "Did the army know it was hitting civilian targets?" he asked me. I have no doubt about that, I replied. The army, the Civil Administration and the Shin Bet security service have detailed information about every home and family. We have access to the Palestinian population registry, including that of the Gaza Strip - from addresses to height, eye color and number of children. The Civil Administration and the Shin Bet have additional information about the residents of almost every house. They know when a cement factory owner has last requested an exit permit, they know who is sick and who was allowed to leave Gaza for medical treatment. They have Gaza residents' landline phone numbers and their cell phone numbers. The computers of the IDF, the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry have it all. The military has detailed maps of every neighborhood, as well as sketches and aerial photos, and everything has been cross-checked with the names of the residents.

Does that mean, the doctoral student wanted to know, that Cast Lead was an example of disproportionate warfare? He asked if it fit into the army's "Dahiyeh concept," which refers to the policy of targeting civilian infrastructure that Israel says is used by terrorists.

Take as an example the American school that is situated in the north of Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip, I suggested. When they dropped a bomb there, did they not know that it was a stronghold of Gazans whose culture is vastly different from that of Hamas? True, it is no longer a stronghold of senior Palestinian Authority officials (who are now in Ramallah or Cairo), but of parents who are interested in a liberal education for their children and of people with means who can afford to pay high tuition fees in a school that looks like it has been transplanted from abroad. The school building takes up three dunams of a 36-dunam area that boasts playgrounds and gardens and is far from residential areas and the bustle of the city. The school's guard, Salem Abu Qleiq, was killed during the bombing; he was one of six permanently employed guards who worked shifts.

When it became clear that the attack on Gaza would not end within a short time, Abu Qleiq asked the school administration if his family could move into the building, which was considered safe. He was aware of the management's insistence that the school should not be misused by any group with ulterior motives, either for the shooting of Qassam rockets or for harboring armed men. The school had an agreement to that effect with Hamas. After the school was bombed on January 3, the administration was thankful it had been tardy in agreeing. That saved the lives of Abu Qleiq's wife and children.

As we were discussing this, the guard at the entrance to the Tel Aviv hall politely asked if he could intervene and correct me. You have no idea what we found in the school, he said. "What we found" was said with great assurance and knowledge, the same assurance and knowledge demonstrated by many Israelis who support the onslaught. I thanked my lucky stars - I had finally found a soldier who would be able to report actual details without the mediation and filtering of the Israel Defense Forces spokesman. I would be happy if he could contradict what I knew.

At the time, the IDF spokesman told me: "The American college [the mistake is his] in the Beit Lahia area was used as the central site for the firing of Qassam rockets from the area and as a storage place for arms and ammunition, and therefore constituted a terrorist target." The school administration utterly denied these charges. Now I was about to hear what the Tel Aviv guard had found there.

He described the following picture in explicit detail: "There was a network of tunnels under the school, something inconceivable. Twelve armed Palestinians were killed there, three kilos of explosives had been hidden there, and wires had been placed leading to all the houses in the area."

The houses are far from the school, but that certainly would not bother the wires. On the other hand, the statement that 12 armed Palestinians had been found under the rubble confused me. Why would the IDF spokesman not mention a fact that supports his version of events? On the other hand, the boasting by Hamas about the low number of casualties among their armed men has never convinced me, and anyway one should never rely on the credibility of figures given by government sources. And the tunnels? True, when I reached the site, three weeks later, I did not see any remnants of tunnels nor the remains of attempts to hide them. But that is not proof.

"Is three kilograms of explosives a large amount?" I asked the guard, who said he had been an infantry soldier there. It is a lot, he told me. (It is indeed a lot, confirmed Noam Chayut, a former combat officer who is now a member of Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects the testimony of soldiers who have served in the Israel Defense Forces since the beginning of the second intifada.)

"Did these three kilograms hurt our soldiers?" I asked. Of course, he replied with the self-assurance and knowledge of someone who had been there and fought. I noticed that the doctoral student was also listening attentively. A few minutes earlier, he had told me that the soldiers whom he had spoken to said they hardly encountered any fighting from the Palestinians. Now we were being offered another picture: The school was bombed on January 3, on the eve of the ground invasion, then the Hamas fighters who had done such a good job hiding the explosives in the tunnels (after all, there were no secondary explosions) pulled them out of the debris and used them against the Israeli fighters. That explanation sounds like it could come straight from Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV, perhaps from a show called something like "How We Won."

The IDF spokesman always gives the exact number of our fallen. That is axiomatic. "Of the 10 IDF soldiers who fell during Cast Lead, we know that four were killed by friendly fire," I told the soldier who had been there. "So how many of the six were killed there?" He answered immediately, with his characteristic self-assurance and knowledge: "What do you mean six, what do you mean 10? A lot more soldiers were killed during Cast Lead, it's just that the IDF doesn't tell us."