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Chronicle of a tragedy foretold in Gaza

If there’s one takeaway from the newly published Breaking the Silence report, it’s that the IDF is most certainly not the most moral army in the world.

By Ido Even Paz

An Israeli artillery unit fires a shell toward the Gaza Strip from its position near the border, July 24, 2014. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

An Israeli artillery unit fires a shell toward the Gaza Strip from its position near the border, July 24, 2014. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Breaking the Silence member Idan Barir published an article during last summer’s Gaza war, in which he warned against the firing of artillery into densely populated areas such as the Gaza Strip. The use of a ‘’statistical’’ weapon, he wrote, would bring about disastrous consequences, due to its inherent imprecision.

Now, nearly a year after the last shell of Operation Protective Edge fell silent, it has become clearly evident that the concerns voiced by Idan were well founded.

One of the most deep-seated conventions among Israelis is that their army is “the most moral in the world.” One of the cornerstones of this ethos is the assumption that the IDF does everything in its power to prevent harm to innocent civilians.

That assumption did not come out of nowhere. The Israeli public is force-fed this mantra by the IDF’s official and unofficial spokespersons. Loyal and obedient, they repeat, no questions asked.

The booklet of testimonies published on Monday by Breaking the Silence, a compilation of first-hand accounts of around 70 soldiers who took part in the operation, tells a markedly different story. In effect, it refutes the “most moral army in the world” paradigm entirely. The soldiers’ testimonies paint a disturbing picture of the IDF’s massive use of indiscriminate weapons, directed in some cases at densely populated residential areas. Here is, for example, an excerpt from a lieutenant’s testimony:

With regard to artillery, the IDF let go of the restraints it once had. Ahead of every ground incursion there was a day of scouting and artillery was fired at the houses that formed the front line… I have no doubt that artillery was fired on houses. Tanks, too, were firing a lot in there.

In another testimony, an officer speaks of the inherent problem in using artillery in densely populated areas:

[Artillery is] statistical – it has a 50 meter radius. In the end, that’s one of the problems, too – [mortars are] a statistical weapon and people don’t get that. There is this conception that we know how to do everything super accurately, as if it doesn’t matter which weapon is being used… But no, these weapons are statistical, and they strike 50 meters to the right or 100 meters to the left, and it’s… It’s unpleasant. What happens is, for seven straight days it’s non-stop bombardment, that’s what happens in practice.

Another lieutenant describes the meaning of returning fire, using statistical weaponry:

In the beginning, they tried to define priorities, and [we were encouraged] to avoid directing high-arc trajectory fire into built-up areas. But in practice, when we were in the field and we had a combat chopper or some other aircraft up in the air, we used it first thing [to fire at the site from which the launch was detected]. But at times when [air support] wasn’t available due to constraints – we employed [the artillery] straight away… We identify the spot where it landed – I don’t know if I could say whether it was right on target – but if we saw that it landed in the same area from which we saw the rocket being launched, then we authorize the artillery guys to fire, say, five shells.

Like Idan, I served in the Artillery Corps and I know the limits of artillery weaponry. When I heard at the end of the operation that the IDF had fired over 35,000 artillery shells in the Gaza Strip, I was appalled.

An Israeli artillery unit fire towards the Gaza Strip from their position on Israel-Gaza border, on July 21, 2014.<span class="s1"> Israeli attacks have killed 550 Palestinians in the current offensive, most of them civilians. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

An Israeli artillery unit positioned on the Israel-Gaza border,  July 21, 2014. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

In his article, Idan wrote that the use of artillery is like Russian roulette. But there is one major difference between artillery fire and that lethal game: the rules of Russian roulette are that a contestant points a gun to their own head and pulls the trigger. If a bullet is fired, they lose their life. If not, they win a prize.

But artillery fire means pointing a firearm at someone else’s head. We are not gambling with our own lives, but with the lives of 1.8 million residents of the Gaza Strip. And those who manage to survive this fatal game of roulette are not promised any prize, quite the opposite.

As experience demonstrates, and as we can learn from statements made by our leaders, another round of fighting in Gaza is only a matter of time. The people of Gaza will once again face their fate, and once again become victims of someone else’s gamble.

This warped game must be stopped. We must speak out and call on the decision-makers to immediately stop playing with innocent people’s lives. Otherwise, the blood of those killed will be on our hands, too.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Paul

      I’m not saying what we do is right or the best or we tried our hardest or anything. But can you think of a more moral army? No, all armies are terrible, and I can think of a whole lot worse armies.

      Reply to Comment
      • Yeah, Right

        Paul: “But can you think of a more moral army?”

        I would suggest an army that bases itself around light infantry and small-unit mobility – i.e. a rifleman’s army – is far less likely to act “immorally” than one that is armed to the teeth with heavy artillery and isn’t afraid to use it.

        Several spring to mind, and most of them don’t go around beating up the neighbourhood.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          BTS does not attempt to provide a balanced picture of the actions of the IDF on the battlefield. It only attempts to collect what it considers negative stories. Before one makes a judgment about the moral fiber of the Israeli forces one should examine the context of the war and Hamas battle tactics which BTS does not do. For instance, if BTS mentions that Israel destroyed the Wafa Hospital, BTS should disclose that Hamas used the hospital as a firing position and stored weapons there.

          One also should not ignore that BTS receives funding predicated on publishing stories negative stories about soldiers in the field. BTS research is only to produce stories which match its predetermined judgment and wishes of its funders to discredit Israel.

          I suggest you read

          http://ngo-monitor.org/article/europe_to_breaking_the_silence_bring_us_as_many_incriminating_testimonies_as_possible

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Paul: If disproportionate firepower in recent wars is the metric then there arguably is an army more moral: The United States Army. See the remarks of Ofer Shelah posted. (And never mind the IDF’s behavior in the occupied territories in the west which alone undermines the preening “most moral” rhetoric.) This is not to sing the praises of America’s armed forces but it is to question the absurd, hasbarist sanctification of the IDF as some branch of tikun olam. No one buys this. There have been too many reports on +972 and elsewhere of atrocious IDF behavior in the territories for anyone halfway objective to swallow that.

        In terms of courage, if we use the same metric, it tells a similar story. Without passing any judgement on individual soldiers, the IDF plus the society it’s drawn from plus that society’s decision makers, if taken as a whole, lack the courage seen in battles fought in previous decades. These days it seems the single aim that far overrides any other consideration is absolutely minimizing IDF casualties. At all costs. Why is that? Why this loss of heart, of coeur-age?

        It’s not because of any mysterious draining out of the substance of people or lack of moral fiber at the ground troop level. This is what I think is going on: deep in their hearts the soldiers and their commanders and the society from which they are drawn are less willing to accept the ultimate sacrifice in the service of a corrupt and cynical Prime Minister and an operation that is cynical, futile, senselessly repetitive in a strategic sense, and oppressive. For which despite Netanyahu’s and Bennet’s bluster there is no serious defense purpose or honorable national aim that could not be better settled otherwise. And which abets a corrupt occupation. The soldiers and commanders and the public know this on some level. They know on some level that they are doing something dishonorable and something unnecessary for Israel’s true well-being. Hence, every Israeli soldier’s death is that much more painful and bitter. Hence the desperate misuse of vast, indiscriminate firepower. This is the painful truth. It’s not the whole emotional story but it is a significant element in the complex mix of emotions young Israeli people and their parents feel. That element was simply not there in earlier generations. The Israeli public has not quite got fed up enough to realize this with clarity, and rebel. But it will. This is also why the “most moral” preening is not going over well outside Israeli society.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Whipllash

      The tragedy was that Hamas was allowed to turn civilian areas into military complexes and battlegrounds for their operations. In going through some of the testimonials of soldiers I noted one where the soldier indicated that in the theatres of war he was operating every second house was “active” meaning that it was a Hamas or other militant position. Hamas also mined and booby trapped civilian houses and residential streets. So Israel used air power and artillery to knock out these positions as it is entitled to under the laws of armed combat. Before doing so, Israel much in advance of their operations provided extensive warnings for residents to leave the urban battlefield. Not all paid heed to the warnings which the IDF provided. Some who left even came back to areas during fighting only to be killed. That whole streets were destroyed was a result of Hamas’ tactics of fighting from homes and houses.

      I also noted in another testimonial a soldier indicated how Hamas was using animals and civilian human suicide bombers. In one case Hamas sent a 70-80 year man strapped with explosives from head to foot towards Israeli soldiers. The Israeli soldiers fired at his feet until he stopped. The soldier noted in other cases where such civilians failed to stop they were shot. In another case a small herd of sheep with bombs strapped to their bellies were herded towards an Israeli position. In another case Hamas sent a retarded Palestinian girl to probe Israeli defences to see whether they would shoot her. They shot at her feet.

      Hamas also fought in civilian and women’s clothing. Jackie Fryer of CTV news commented on how she saw a Hamas fighter dressed in women’s clothing carrying a gun. Hamas men were also given suicide belts to detonate themselves and they did.

      Hamas fought a war in which it blurred the lines between military and civilian objects. This of course had repercussions for Gazan civilians. The laws of armed combat do not provide immunity to Hamas fighters because they operate among civilians and in and under heavily built up civilian areas. The laws of armed combat recognize that civilians may be killed as collateral damage in an army achieving its military goal to kill enemy combatants, infrastructure, position and weapons.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      Given the response to the recent story about Breaking the Silence I’m guessing a lot of people didn’t know about this group. They have a video library of testimonies from soldiers; watching 30 minutes of these has the educational value of a year of 972 stories.

      http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/testimonies/videos

      The videos are conveniently arranged by category: abuse, assassinations, bribery, checkpoints, children…

      Reply to Comment
      • Ricky Rocket

        I,find their,website to be poorly designed and cumbersome to use.

        And I find you to be a prick.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Joel

      “more than half of Fallujah’s 39,000 homes were damaged during Operation Phantom Fury, and about 10,000 of those were destroyed”

      Reply to Comment
    5. Yeah, Right

      Joel: “more than half of Fallujah’s 39,000 homes were damaged during Operation Phantom Fury, and about 10,000 of those were destroyed”

      And yet the civilian casualties were…. what, exactly, Joel?

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      “Now, nearly a year after the last shell of Operation Protective Edge fell silent, it has become clearly evident that the concerns voiced by Idan were well founded.”

      It is not even eight and a half months since the last shell of Operation Protective Edge fell silent. I hope that during the next three and a half months, Idan’s concerns will be seriously taken up by whatever Israeli government finally picks up the reins, if not because of its own concerns then due to those of the rest of the world.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben

      These videotapes testimonies taken by Breaking the Silence of soldiers (their voices altered, face blurred to protect identity) will put to rest any nonsense about these accounts possibly being “fiction.” It makes me realize that the extremists here claiming a few days ago that the “anonymity” renders these accounts not credible were simply engaging in a mass distraction attack–belaboring a nonissue. These reports are amazingly credible and they are damning. You have to view them to understand that. Once you hear these soldiers speak you will get it. What you’ll also realize is that these soldiers giving these testimonies are Israel’s finest.

      http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.656177

      Reply to Comment