An IDF soldier recalled an incident during the Gaza War 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. Afterward, the two women were found to be over 30 (and therefore very unlikely to be terrorists) and unarmed. But in the official reports both women were classified as terrorist lookouts. “They were shot [by the IDF], so it’s clear they were terrorists,” the IDF soldier said, meaning that because they were shot by the IDF, in the eyes of the IDF they must be terrorists – even if they weren't.
Breaking the Silence, a group of IDF combat veterans upset with what they say are excesses by the IDF caused by a doctrine of minimizing danger to IDF soldiers to such an extent that large numbers of Palestinian civilians are killed. They say this policy led to “immense and unprecedented harm to the civilian population and infrastructures in the Gaza Strip” during last summer’s war, and have now released a report with the testimony of 60 IDF soldiers to back up that claim.
Ha’aretz summarizes the report:
…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.”
On top of all that, the IDF bulldozed or imploded a very large number of Palestinian homes, apprently for no reason, the report says.
And then there is this chilling quote from one IDF soldier about the IDF's rules of engagement: “Anyone found in an IDF area, which the IDF had occupied, was not a civilian. That was the assumption,” the soldier said.
Israel's problem is that this is the view of the Gaza War much of the international community has, and this impact Israel negatively in both trade and security issues for years, if not decades, to come. It may also lead to war crimes charges followed by convictions in the International Criminal Court.Bad things happen in war. Unintended things happen in war.
But pervasive reports from IDF dissidents, journalists, international aid workers and others point to an army that is becoming increasingly inhumane.
Some of this descent toward barbarism may be due to desensitization of young soldiers by years of playing violent video games and similar influences. However, that is only speculation, and it may take years of studies to see if that speculation is true.
Similarly, we do know that the percentage of Orthodox and right-wing IDF commanders has risen dramatically over the past decade or so, and we do know that both right-wing leaders and right-wing Zionist Orthodox rabbis (and a few haredi rabbis, as well) have called for increasing behavior that indiscriminately hurts civilian Palestinians during war. From Naftali Bennett's carpet bomb Gaza call to similar calls from rabbis, soldiers not only hear racist and illegal venom spewed – they get religious imprimatur for it, as well.Did this play any role in the IDF's misadventures in Gaza? Likely it did. But how much of a role it played we don't yet know with certainty.
Wars are not humane. They are brutal, horrible, horrific things we all need to work very hard to avoid. And no one, even the IDF's harshest critics, can deny the fact that fighting a war against terrorist groups who hide amongst civilians and who use civilians as shields is a very difficult war to fight.
Add to that the compactness of the field of battle, the density of its population, and the fact that the IDF's terrorist enemies started the war by indiscriminately firing rockets and mortars at Israeli towns and cities – in other words, at the IDF soldier's parents, grandparents, children and siblings – and you have the recipe for excessive response.
But that excessive response was arguably made worse by the Naftali Bennetts and Rabbi Dov Liors and by the IDF officers who follow them.
This is something the IDF and Israel need to carefully investigate and then, if true, come to grips with and mitigate quickly before the next war leads to widespread international trade embargoes, boycotts, and the slow strangulation of the State of Israel.