When in doubt, kill.

Israeli soldiers who participated in the war on Gaza say the Israeli army used reckless force against Palestinian civilians earlier this year, according to a report published by a group of ex-Israeli soldiers. In their testimonies, the soldiers speak of "permissive" rules of engagement and how they were encouraged to fire on any building or person deemed suspicious, and that civilians were at times used as human shields.
Palestine Gaza israeli soldiers
About 1400 Palestinians were killed and over 5000 injured during Israel's 22 day military assault on Gaza. © Carlos Latuff

BEIRUT, July 15, 2009 (MENASSAT) — "If you're not sure, kill. Firepower was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.”

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly accused Israel of using disproportionate force during its military operation in Gaza this past winter, causing civilian deaths and acts of wanton destruction.

These claims have been strongly denied by the Israeli authorities, which have stressed all along that the Israeli military’s conduct, in their purported goal to end rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israel’s southern towns, was in line with international law.

But now, some of the Jewish state’s own soldiers who partook in Israel’s military offensive on Gaza are painting quite a different scenario of Israel’s behavior, describing in detailed testimonies ––such as the aforementioned account–– how they used firepower beyond what was necessary and were instructed by their commanders to shoot first and dwell later on distinguishing civilians from combatants. As one soldier testifies in the report: "There was not much said about the issue of innocent civilians.”

The accounts, a total of 26 testimonies, were published in print and on video by the Israeli ex-soldiers’ activist group “Breaking the Silence.” Except for a sergeant named Amir, all the accounts are anonymous and the faces of the soldiers have been blurred in the videos. Many of the soldiers’ statements echo the allegations made by human rights groups that Israel used indiscriminate and disproportionate force during “Operation Cast Lead” in the Gaza Strip.

In January, for example, Human Rights Watch claimed Israel was using the chemical white phosphorus gas in densely populated areas in the enclave. The organization said the use of the chemical, whose incendiary effects can cause severe burns to people and set buildings on fire, in highly populated areas such as Gaza constituted a violation of international humanitarian law.

HRW’s allegation was reiterated by several soldiers, whose testimonies in the report corroborated that white phosphorus was indeed used in civilian areas. “I do recall… that looking north we saw Giv'ati infantry troops in Zaytoun, and witnessed quite a lot of phosphorus being used. … Phosphorus was definitely used there, I saw this and you cannot go wrong, you actually see the flaming umbrellas,” read one account.

Soldiers also said in their testimonies that they used human shields, entering houses and buildings before troops. Amnesty International reported in January that Israel was using human shields in Gaza and that the troops should suspend this practice. The practice of using human shields in conflict is banned under the Geneva Conventions.

Testimonies of the soldiers, 14 conscripts and 12 reserve soldiers, published in the report also reveal: 

• Unclear rules of engagement that urged soldiers to first and foremost protect their own lives whether or not Palestinian civilians were harmed.

• Vandalism of property belonging to Palestinians on numerous occasions.

• Mass-demolition of houses and buildings based on suspicions that they might cover tunnels or be booby-trapped.

•  A general aggressive and undisciplined attitude by some of the troops. Testimonies said soldiers shot at water tanks because they were bored, at a time of severe water shortages for Gazans.

According to Breaking the Silence, one point that was repeatedly emphasized in the soldiers’ testimonies were the “permissive” rules of engagement that “enabled soldiers to act without moral restrictions.”

“We did not get instructions to shoot at anything that moved," said one soldier. "But we were generally instructed: if you feel threatened, shoot. They kept repeating to us that this is war and in war opening fire is not restricted."

Many of the soldiers also stressed they had little direct contact with Palestinian militants and spoke of not seeing "the enemy before their eyes.”

"You feel like an infantile little kid with a magnifying glass looking at ants, burning them," one of the soldiers revealed. "A 20-year-old kid should not have to do these kinds of things to other people."

IDF lashes out at report

Commenting on the report, Mikhael Mankin from Breaking the Silence blames in large part the system for allowing the “immoral way the war was carried out,” rather than the individual soldier. Mankin directed stark criticism at the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and at the people who justified the actions of the troops for letting the atrocities take place. “Together,” he said, they are "slid[ing] down the moral slippery slope.”

“The testimonies prove that the immoral way the war was carried out was due to the systems in place and not the individual soldier. What was proven yesterday is that through the IDF, the exception becomes the norm, and this requires a deep and reflective discussion. This is an urgent call to Israel's society and leadership to take a sober look at the foolishness of our policies,” Mankin continued.

The “system,” however, appears to remain defiant and defendant of its policies, dismissing the report as “word of mouth” and stressing the IDF’s “uncompromising ethical values” in its missions.  "The IDF regrets the fact that another human rights organization has come out with a report based on anonymous and general testimony - without investigating their credibility,” said Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich.

"The IDF expects every soldier to turn to the appropriate authorities with any allegation," Leibovich added. "This is even more important where the harm is to non-combatants. The IDF has uncompromising ethical values which continue to guide us in every mission." In another statement, the Israeli military questioned the report's credibility and accused Breaking the Silence of "defaming and slandering the IDF and its commanders."

Numerous probes

Several investigations have been launched into the conduct of Israeli troops during the Gaza war, and both Israel and Hamas have been accused of committing war crimes by various groups. 

After Israel ended its military operation in Gaza, the army conducted an internal probe into the behavior of its troops during their mission. The report concluded that the Israeli military had fought lawfully in the Strip, although it admitted that some “errors” were being committed.

For example, the deaths of 21 people in a house that had been wrongly targeted.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has requested more than $11 million in compensation from Israel for damage inflicted on UN property in Gaza during the war. In one incident, 40 people were killed and 55 injured when Israeli artillery shells landed outside a United Nations-run school in Gaza in early January.

On January 15, a few days after the attack on the school, the UN headquarters in Gaza stood in flames after being hit by Israeli white phosphorus shells. Israeli leaders said the troops were only responding to fire that had come from within the UN compound. The UN Relief and Works Agency, meanwhile, said that the building had been used to shelter hundreds of people fleeing the Israeli offensive.

The Arab League also made its own investigation into Israel’s military operation in Gaza. Their report concluded that there was enough evidence to prosecute the Israeli military for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The commission said that “the Israeli political leadership was also responsible for such crimes."

Israel said the purpose of the 22-day operation that ended on January 18, 2009 had been to end rocket fire from Gaza aimed at its southern towns. About 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the operation while thirteen Israelis died in the conflict, including 10 soldiers.

According to UN figures, Israel’s 22-day long military attack that ended on January 18 this year damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, 39 mosques and two churches.