36,000 artillery shells, tank shells, mortars, anti-tank missiles and munitions, alongside an ubiquitous use of armored bulldozers, razed streets and districts to the ground during last summer’s Gaza war. According to a newly published Breaking the Silence report, this is exactly what the Israeli army wanted.
In On Photography, the essayist Susan Sontag reflects on how our reliance on the photographic image has inverted our concept of reality. So accustomed have we become to recorded images showing us things we otherwise would not witness, that what cameras show us defines the boundaries of our reality. Therefore, Sontag argues, if and when we do encounter violence in real life, we unfailingly describe the experience as ‘like being in a movie’.
Sontag’s theory is borne out in Breaking the Silence’s new report on the 2014 Gaza war. Testimony after testimony by soldiers in the Strip describe the scenes of carnage as like being in a video game, or a movie. A process of derealization takes place, which stops an individual from being able to fully engage with what it is they are doing. For soldiers in a warzone, such distancing acts as insulation. But for those watching at home, not directly involved, the relegation to ‘being like a movie’ – coupled with the lack of direct experience – prevents us from fully grasping what it is we’re reading, or watching. What exactly does it mean to say that 1,000 shells were fired in one night, or that an armored bulldozer came and flattened the best part of a neighborhood?
‘With regard to artillery, the IDF let go of the restraints it once had’
It has already been reported that 36,000 shells were fired in 50 days of the conflict in the Gaza Strip. 19,000 of these were artillery shells. Artillery is not the same as tanks – they shoot at an upwards trajectory, and are far less accurate. An artillery shell weighs 40-44 kilos, and can be shot from a 20km range. The impact of an artillery shell will kill anyone within a 50-meter radius, and injure anyone within a 150-meter radius. On top of this, the standard deviation – i.e. the distance by which a shot can miss but still be considered ‘on target’ – is 400 meters. Firing such weaponry is, as described in a previous testimony, like playing Russian roulette.
Artillery shells were a significant part of the IDF’s tactic of ‘softening’ areas one to two kilometers inside the Gaza Strip, before the ground invasion was launched. Their constant firing was also part of what was termed ‘retaining tension’, the army’s phrase for keeping Hamas unsure of where and when fire would emerge from next. In the battle of Shujaiyeh, a district of Gaza City, 4,800 artillery shells were shot in the space of seven hours. The end result was, as an army sergeant described it in his testimony, far worse than how the photos depicted it: “There was total destruction of the houses there, up to about the third row of houses.” The otherwordly scenes of devastation that were beamed back from Shujaiyeh after that seven-hour period were testament to the havoc that artillery shells wreak, and the volume fired spoke to the near-absence of rules of engagement throughout the assault. Throughout the entire report, soldiers of varying ranks confirm that the protocols were “fire everywhere” and “shoot to kill.”
‘It was hard to imagine there even used to be a street there at all’
In addition to artillery shells, the war in Gaza saw heavy use of tank shells, mortars, spike (anti-missile) shells and munitions – generally of between half a ton and a ton – dropped from planes. When entering houses, the army often used a “wet” entry – the IDF’s term for entering a house with live fire (they would never go in via the door). This would generally play out as shooting a heavy round such as tank shell or a MATADOR (portable anti-tank missile) at a wall, or breaking it down with an armored bulldozer. Once the passage was clear, soldiers would either throw grenades or enter and spray every room with live bullets. As one soldier confirmed: “[G]enerally the idea is to use a lot of fire – this isn’t Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] – you want to find people in pieces inside.”
The use of mines was also frequently relied on, with massive detonations taking place because units would go out to a target with far more than they needed, and blow it all up for fear of getting caught with it on the way back. A mine contains 10 or 11 kilograms of C-4 explosive, and an engineering unit would typically take 40 or 50 mines to the location, meaning that they would be blowing up around half a ton of explosives in one spot – “like a bomb from a plane,” according to one Lieutenant.
The effect of this repeated, wanton and disproportionate use of heavy weaponry was to completely destroy entire streets. A ruinous scene in the northern Gaza Strip was described by a first sergeant whose unit was there:
“It was hard to imagine there even used to be a street there at all. It was like a sandbox, everything turned upside down … it didn’t look real. Houses with crumbled balconies, animals everywhere, lots of dead chickens and lots of other dead animals. Every house had a hole in the wall or a balcony spilling off of it, no trace left of any streets at all. I knew there used to be a street there once, but there was no trace of it left to see. Everything was sand, sand, sand, piles of sand, piles of construction debris. You go into a house by walking up a sand dune and entering it through a hole in the second floor, and then you leave it through some hole in its basement. It’s a maze of holes and concrete.”
‘One of the high ranking commanders … was a real proponent of flattening things’
Throughout the report, the army’s use of the D9 armored bulldozer is mentioned repeatedly – whether to open up a wall, flatten a building or gather rubble to act as a barrier. Their drivers were constantly at work – back and forth, demolishing, compacting. The destruction they left behind was, according to one testimony, “havoc … wrecked houses, collapsed balconies, exposed living rooms, destroyed stores … I never saw anything like it, not even in Lebanon … never in my life did I see anything like this.”
A D9 armored bulldozer is four meters high, 8.1 meters long and 4.5 meters wide, including the blade. It covers a ground area of about 36 meters squared, which is the size of a generous living room, and it weighs around 50 tons. They were ever-present in Gaza during the war – either leading the line for tanks and troops to follow, or clearing up behind them, razing already-destroyed buildings completely to the ground. A Lieutenant who had been in Gaza City reports that “the D9s alone destroyed hundreds of structures … the D9 was the main tool, it doesn’t stop working.”
Another use was found for a D9, too. After an old man had been shot and fallen to the floor, “writhing in pain,” the soldiers present didn’t know whether to “let him die slowly, or put him out of his misery.” Finally, a D9 “came over and dropped a mound of rubble on him and that was the end of it.”
‘2,000 dead and 11,000 wounded, half a million refugees, decades worth of destruction’
Considering the physical properties of the weapons that are used in warfare, along with how they are deployed, has the effect of making the destruction tangible. This is one of the critical aspects of the Breaking the Silence report – it creates a sense of proximity that photographs, as desensitized to them as we are, cannot. The words and dimensions open up images that on their own are impossible to comprehend.
Given that these words come from those responsible for the destruction, this report should introduce – or reintroduce – the sense of shock that was profoundly lacking when images started to filter out of the Gaza Strip during the war. Returning to Sontag, one can find the type of reaction that such wanton destruction demands: “Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.” There is a searching humanity in that response that was largely absent last summer; perhaps, now, questions will start to be asked in Israel.