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IDF Testimony of Possible War Crimes

IDF graffiti: Death to Arabs (AP)

IDF graffiti--'Death to Arabs' (AP)

Haaretz continues today with its coverage (in Hebrew) of testimony by IDF soldiers regarding their treatment of Gaza civilians during the recent war.  Based on the information recounted it seems clear that a serious, in depth investigation of potential war crimes perpetrated by Israeli forces on orders from their superiors is necessary.  The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din and Amnesty International have each called for such an inquiry.

Amnesty also brings word that 17 of the world’s most eminent jurists, many of whom conducted international war crimes tribunals (including Richard Goldstone), along with human rights activists  (including Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu)  have called for a UN investigation of potential war crimes.  Their letter to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon can be read at the Amnesty site.

Amos Harel, the Haaretz reporter who first broke this story reports today that the IDF has launched a half-hearted investigation of the charges.  But while going through the paces, it has also launched a frontal attack on Danny Zamir, the director of the Oranim College military preparatory program, who sponsored the meeting at which the soldiers revealed their stories.  Clearly, this is an IDF attempting to get out of dealing with the issues rather than addressing them forcefully.  In the IDF, there is no such thing as bad behavior when it comes to mistreating Palestinians.  The only time such activities are investigated and punished is when they’ve been videotaped for the world to see and the army cannot dispute what happened.

In this case, there is no documentary footage though there is the strong eyewitness testimony of soldiers on the ground.  It remains to be seen whether this is of sufficient weight to rouse the military behemoth into action.

What follows is my translation of portions of the latest Haaretz story.  Pay attention especially to the discussion of the religious zealotry of the Orthodox soldiers and how the rabbinate has turned the battle against the Palestinians into a holy war:

On Friday, Feburary , [Danny] Zamir brought together soldiers and captains, graduates of the military preparatory program, for a long discussion about their battle experiences in Gaza.

Zamir said: “I do not intend that we will delve into the political meaning of the Operation Cast Lead.  But a discussion is necessary because this was a military operation unprecedented in the history of the IDF, which defined new boundaries from the point of view of the ethical code of the army and the state of Israel.

This was a campaign which sowed destruction in the midst of the civilian residents [of Gaza].  It’s not clear whether it was possible to do it any other way.  But at the end of the day we’ve completed the operation and the Qassam have not really been silenced.  It is very possible that we will return to a future operation of even greater magnitude in the coming years, since the problem in Gaza is not simple and it’s not even clear that we can solve it.

Aviv: I am a commander of a company in the Givati brigade.  Towards the end of the operation there was a plan to enter a very densely populated sector in the middle of Gaza [City] itself.  The leaders began to speak with us about the rules of opening fire within the city.  Because as you know there was a great deal of fire and they killed many, many people so that we would not be injured or fired upon.

In the beginning, our aim was to get into a home.  We were supposed to go in with an armored vehicle and break through the door, firing within and then…I call this simple murder.  Basically, we were supposed to go floor by floor and any human being we came into contact with we shot at.  This is something that at the beginning I said to myself: “does this make any sense?”

The higher-ups said it was permissible because anyone left in the vicinity or in the city was a terrorist, because they didn’t flee.  I couldn’t understand it.  On the one hand, they didn’t have anywhere to flee to, and on the other hand they didn’t flee and therefore it was their own fault [if they were killed].

I tried to influence, to the extent it was possible given my lowly assignment, to change this.  Finally, they changed the orders and told us on entering the home to use loudspeakers and tell them: “let’s go, everyone get out, you have five minutes to exit the house, whoever doesn’t will be killed.”

I came to my troops and told them the orders had changed.  We enter the house, tell them they have five minutes to flee, check everyone leaving to ensure they have no weapons and THEN go into the house and shoot anything that moved, to toss a hand grenade.

Then came a moment that unnerved me.  One of my soldiers came to me and asked: “Why?”  I replied: “What’s not clear?  We don’t want to kill innocent civilians.”  He said: “Why, anyone remaining there is a terrorist, that’s well-known.”  His buddies then joined in: We needed to kill anyone we found there.  Everyone in Gaza is a terrorist.

I tried to explain to him that not everyone we would encounter would be a terrorist.  After he killed three children and four mothers on the bottom floor he would go up a flight and kill another 20 people.  With eight floors times five apartments on each one, you’d kill a minimum of 40-50 families.  I tried to explain to him why we needed to allow them to leave.  But it didn’t work.  I was frustrated to see that they believed that in Gaza it was permissible to do what you wanted, to break down doors as you pleased.

One of our captains saw an elderly woman walking at quite a distance [from him].  But close enough that you could tell whether she was suspicious or not.  He sent guys up to the roof to take her down.  From the description of the story, I simply felt this was cold-blooded murder.

Zamir: I don’t understand.  Why did they shoot her?

Aviv: This is what is seen as proper in Gaza.  You see a person passing by on a path, it’s not even necessary that they be armed.  You don’t have to identify him.  You can simply shoot him.  The orders were to take down this woman at that moment.

Tzvi: Aviv’s description is correct. But it’s possible to understand from where this ideas comes.  From their point of view she was not supposed to be there because there were announcements and warning shelling.  Logic tells you she shouldn’t be there.  You describe this as cold blooded murder.  But that’s not right.  It’s well known that sent out people to spy on us and all that.

Gilad: Before we entered [Gaza], the regimental commander took pains to clarify to us that one of the lessons from the second Lebanon war was the way we entered [Gaza], with lots of firing.  The intent was through the firepower to protect the lives of the soldiers.  During the operation the IDF’s losses were light, but this resulted in many dead Palestinian civilians.

The entrance of the infantry was very aggressive.  There were tanks with us.  Every inch of ground was covered by firing.

Zamir: After incidents like this involving mistaken killings, were there any investigations?  Do they check how they can prevent things from happening like this?

Ram: No one has yet come to investigate.

Moshe: The attitude is very simple.  It’s not nice to say this, but if it doesn’t move anyone to act we don’t investigate.  That’s what happens in battle.

Ram: The military rabbis sent us lots of material and in these articles the message was clear: we are the nation of Israel.  We arrived by a miracle in Israel.  God returned us to the Land [of Israel].  Now we must battle to remove the non-Jews who disturb us in our conquest of the Holy Land.  That was the main message.  And the sense of many of the soldiers in this operation was that it was a religious war.  From my perspective as a commander, I tried to talk about politics and various strains within Palestinian society.  That no everyone in Gaza was Hamas and not every resident wants to conquer us.  I wanted to explain to them that this war was not about Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the name of God), but about stopping Qassam fire.

Zamir: Among the pilots was there any sense of denial?  It surprised me that on the first day of the campaign they took down Gaza’s traffic police.  They took down 180 traffic police.  This would arouse a question within me if I were a pilot.

Gideon: Let’s divide this into two.  First, they are armed and second they are Hamas.  On a good day, they take Fatah members and throw them off roofs.

From the moment you start your aircraft to the moment you turn it off, every thought is on the assignment you have to execute.  If you allow yourself to doubt, you are likely to make a much worse mistake and knock down a school with 40 children inside.  The price of such an error is very, very high.

Question from the audience: Were there any among the pilots who didn’t press the button or thought twice?

With the weapons I used, my ability to arrive at a decision that contradicts what they’ve told me up to that point is non-existent.  I send off my missile at such a distance that I can see all of Gaza.  I also see Haifa.  From a great distance.

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{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Suzanne March 20, 2009, 3:54 AM

    Thank you for this translation Richard. This should be published more broadly in English and I hope it will be. Also I am relieved there are still soldiers that can feel some conscience and that they are not all yet brought up to hate and dehumanize all Arabs.

    I wonder how many Israeli’s will read this and still feel their own consciences and will be moved and shocked by it or whether it will be rationalized in some way as I just experienced a few days ago when still in Israel with friends.

    To that thought I add that I am grateful for articles like Bronner’s in yesterday’s NYT After Gaza, Israel Grapples with Crisis if Isolation

    ie the reaction internationally (including amongst Jews) to Operation Cast Lead coupled with the rise of Netanyahu/Lieberman.

    The reaction in Israel seems to be “they don’t know what we are up against” and so the remedy is a more effective PR campaign and the need go back into Gaza and get the job done.

    My experience from this trip is very limited. Friends who I consider on the “left” are outwardly very much on the defensive about the need to use force but also show concern and worry about how Israel appears to the rest of the world.

  • Nomi March 20, 2009, 7:55 AM

    Thank you, Richard, for this translation and post. I have linked to it on my blog.

  • Donald Johnson March 20, 2009, 9:57 AM

    I don’t expect an IDF investigation to be anything more than a whitewash. The real villains will probably escape, or get a slap on the wrist.

    And not because it’s Israel–I doubt that any military organization anywhere is capable of conducting an investigation that would go after people at the very top. You get some honest people within the organization (like General Taguba when he investigated Abu Ghraib), but there are limits on what one honest person can do in a morally corrupt organization.

    Sharon got a slap on the wrist after Sabra and Shatila, but in a just world he probably should have gone to jail. Actually, in a just world he’d have gone to jail after Qibya.

  • orgo March 20, 2009, 8:32 PM

    Good to know there men like Zamir in the army. I’m frightened to think what the next war will look like. the level of dehumanization of Palestinians, exemplified by those t -shirts, is clearly rising.

  • Lazynative March 21, 2009, 7:33 AM

    Valuable translation here; it is becoming increasingly difficult to cover over the IDF’s policy of indiscriminate killing of civilians. It won’t change though unless pressure is brought from Israeli civil society or put on Israel by the US. both look some way off now.

  • Margaret March 21, 2009, 10:26 AM

    McCLatchy News printed much of this information, which is a break-through.

    Thank you once again!

  • Mary Rizzo March 21, 2009, 2:31 PM

    Richard, thanks for your outstanding work. We are translating it into Spanish, Arabic and other laguages are to follow.

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