Soldiers admit excess force in Gaza

15 May 2015

BREAKING THE SILENCE

ISRAELI forces involved in last summer's military operation in Gaza - in which more than 2000 Palestinians lost their lives - sometimes fired indiscriminately, and thereby killed and injured civilians, according to testimony from a number of the troops involved.

Video interviews were recorded by Breaking the Silence, an organisation of Israeli veteran combatants and a partner of Christian Aid. Both groups are calling for an independent inquiry into the allegations.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have consistently said that fire was directed only at carefully identified military targets during the Gaza offensive - called Protective Edge - and that all possible steps were taken to avoid civilian casualties.

But an Israeli staff sergeant who served in the northern Gaza Strip, and was interviewed by Breaking the Silence, contested this assertion. Asked whether the rules of engagement were explained to troops before they entered Gaza, he replied: "There were no rules of engagement. If you see anyone in that area, that person is a terrorist. In this context, it was simple. They told us they have intelligence that there are practically no civilians remaining in the area, and so if someone comes towards us, that person is a terrorist."

Another interviewee described reviewing video footage of the Shujaiya district of Gaza City, to assess the impact of an earlier strike. The neighbourhood was "scorched, burned to the ground. Entire streets where one building is half-destroyed, the next one totally destroyed, the next one half-destroyed. Entire streets were totally shelled, and I needed to verify a certain target that had clearly been obliterated.

"I opened up the footage, and saw that it was taken right after the strike had been carried out, and there were lots of people there, and lots of ambulances, and a whole lot of smoke and lots of commotion. And from what we knew, that area was supposedly devoid of civilians."

Asked who had given that assurance, the soldier replied: "The commanders, in off-the-record-type conversations, or during all kinds of briefings. Just so we'd know, for our general knowledge, that this is what's going on. That there's no civilians supposed to be there, and any who are, are there because they chose to be.

"In conversations between us, it was summed up as: 'There's nothing we can do, war is war.' You don't really talk about it - any discourse or opinions that are slightly 'deviant' are pretty much silenced."

When the force withdrew, he said, "hardly any" houses were still standing. Only rubble remained, "a mound where a building once stood, houses simply scattered around. We didn't actually get an operational order stating that that was the objective; but, ultimately, no house was supposed to be left standing. A 500-metre radius where not a single house is left standing."

The director of Breaking the Silence, Yuli Novak, said that from the testimonies given by Israeli officers and soldiers, "a troubling picture arises of a policy of indiscriminate fire that led to the deaths of innocent civilians.

"We learn from the testimonies that there is a broad ethical failure in the IDF's rules of engagement, and that this failure comes from the top of the chain of command, and is not merely the result of 'rotten apples'. As officers and soldiers, we know that internal military investigations scapegoat simple soldiers rather than focusing on policy."

The Israeli public, Ms Novak said, had a right to "know what missions its sons are being sent to carry out, and according to which norms the IDF acts in its name. We call for the establishment of an investigative committee external to the IDF which will investigate the policy behind the rules of engagement given during Protective Edge.''

Christian Aid is backing the call for an investigation. Its Policy and Advocacy Officer for Israel and the Palestinians, William Bell, said that the soldiers' testimonies reinforced "the need for an independent commission of inquiry in order to ensure that those who breach international law are held to account".

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