It is in the Israeli army’s interest to throw sand in the eyes of both the Israeli public and world media by casting doubt on the IDF soldiers’ accounts of possible Gaza war crimes. And there are those journalists and publications who willingly participate in the moral obfuscation. Though he is by no means the only one, Ethan Bronner is a case in point.
But before we talk about his latest piece of hopelessly compromised journalism, let’s talk about the circle of proof ever-tightening like a noose around the IDF’s neck. In response to the original series written by Haaretz’ Amos Harel in which IDF soldiers reported on incidents of cold-blooded murder perpetrated by fellow soldiers, AP reporters hunted down the incidents from the Gaza side and named the actual victims. While the specific incidents don’t always match up detail by detail, they are close enough to allow most reasonable people to conclude the original stories were based on incidents that actually happened. In the passage below, the A.P. reporter notes the result of his Gaza-based research and compares this with the soldiers’ testimony:
When Israeli soldiers expelled Abir Hijeh, her five children and their neighbors from homes in a Gaza war zone, she said they warned her in broken Arabic: Go south or you might get shot.
The group went the wrong way and came under fire from Israeli soldiers. Hijeh was wounded and her 2-year-old daughter was killed.
…In the most explosive testimony, a soldier, identified only as Ram, said a sniper in his area killed a Palestinian woman and her two children after they misunderstood orders and walked in the wrong direction, entering a no-go zone.
In the following passage, the reporter begins with the IDF soldier’s story and compares it to a specific death documented by Gazans:
Another soldier, Aviv, described a sniper killing an elderly woman as she walked in the street…
Mohammed Ghannam, a field researcher for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights…and another researcher, Mohamad Abu Rahma of the Al Haq group, said they believe the woman was Mahdiyeh Ayyad, who was in her 70s. After Israeli forces withdrew, the woman’s body was found on a dirt road, near what had been an army position, her relatives said.
She had been shot, according to Ghannam…
Haaretz’ Harel today produced yet another in his series on the depredations of the war:
The army chose…an aggressive plan that included overwhelming firepower. The forces, it was decided, would advance into the urban areas behind a “rolling curtain” of aerial and artillery fire…The lives of our soldiers take precedence, the commanders were told in briefings. Before the operation, Galant and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi painted a bleak picture for the cabinet ministers. “Unlike in Lebanon, the civilians in Gaza won’t have many places to escape to,” Ashkenazi warned. “When an armored force enters the city, shells will fly..
Two weeks before the incursion, a member of the General Staff, talking to a journalist, predicted that 600-800 Palestinians civilians would be killed in an Israeli operation [ed., approximately 900-1,000 civilians were killed]
…A large part of the operation was conducted by remote control. “The Palestinians are completely transparent to us,” says A., a reservist whose brigade was posted in the Gaza Strip. “The Shin Bet has people everywhere. We observe the whole area from the air and usually the Shin Bet coordinator can also tell you who lives in what house.” The Shin Bet defines the enemy and, for the most part, someone who belongs to Hamas’ civilian welfare organizations (the da’awa) is treated the same way as a member of its military wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam.
Note here that the Shin Bet defines someone who is clearly a civilian non-combatant as no different than an armed combatant. This again, is clearly a breach of the Geneva Convention and a war crime.
Essentially, a person only needs to be in a “problematic” location, in circumstances that can broadly be seen as suspicious, for him to be “incriminated” and in effect sentenced to death. Often, there is no need for him to be identified as carrying a weapon. Three people in the home of a known Hamas operative, someone out on a roof at 2 A.M. about a kilometer away from an Israeli post, a person walking down the wrong street before dawn – all are legitimate targets for attack.
“It feels like hunting season has begun,” says A. “Sometimes it reminds me of a Play Station [computer] game. You hear cheers in the war room after you see on the screens that the missile hit a target, as if it were a soccer game.”
In the following passage you see the clear limitation of a high tech military campaign devoid of much of the old-fashioned hands-on military strategy and tactics of a bygone era. It is, of course, no accident that 70% of those killed were civilians when the IDF waged war from trailers, bunkers and command centers far removed from the combat zone.
The one who makes the final decision of whether to fire is usually not the brigade commander (who is with the forward forces in the field), but the “director” of combat, stationed at a command center in the rear: the deputy brigade commander, the headquarters’ chiefs or majors who are studying and return to the brigade in times of combat. Another change in operational methods involved reducing reliance on the independent judgment of Israel Air Force personnel…
Tellingly, Harel quotes a senior officer appraising the impact of the long Israeli Occupation on the attitudes of new IDF recruits:
“The impact of the long confrontation with the Palestinians cannot be ignored,” says a senior reserve officer, “and one should also bear in mind what sort of values inductees have when they come to us these days. Every year, the education system produces a significant number of little racists.”
Harel quotes another officer expressing surprise that anyone would’ve expected less than outright carnage given the massive weaponry and firepower the IDF used:
“What did you think would happen?” a senior officer wondered this week. “We sent 10,000 troops into Gaza, more than 200 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 100 bulldozers. What were 100 bulldozers going to do there?”
In the following passage, Harel aptly sums up the impact that the soldiers’ testimonies and the reporter’s own series have had on the smug equanimity of the IDF and the Israeli public:
Until the soldiers’ testimonies were published, the IDF Spokesman’s Office had been highly successful in promoting its version of events. The international media may not have bought it, but the army managed to sell the Israeli public an almost impossible package: We were victorious in Gaza, we suffered minimal casualties and we also came out of there smelling like roses.
In Bronner’s N.Y. Times account, he completely misses the A.P. story documenting specific Gazans murdered by Israeli forces. Instead he parrots an IDF claim that:
…a killing of a woman and her two children appears to be an urban myth spread by troops who did not witness it.
He quotes a top level commander who attempts to refute the murder charges by the soldiers with vague assurances that from everything he knew the war was fought just fine…except for those few instances in which we killed people we shouldn’t have and destroyed homes we shouldn’t have:
“I’m not saying that nothing bad happened,” Bentzi Gruber, a colonel in the reserves and deputy commander of the armored division, said in an interview. “I heard about cases where people shot where they shouldn’t have shot and destroyed houses where they shouldn’t have destroyed houses. But the proportion and effort and directions we gave to our soldiers were entirely in the opposite direction.”
If what Gruber says is true, then how were 4,000 Gazan homes destroyed and nearly 1,000 civilians killed? Not to mention that he’s only aware of orders given by him, but certainly not aware of orders given by others nor of how subordinates interpreted those orders in the field. Clearly, scores of officers and soldiers behaved in reprehensible ways. The attempt to minimize and obfuscate the violations is entirely consistent with IDF modus operandi in these situations. But it doesn’t mean journalists like Bronner should aid and abet the IDF PR campaign.
I note that Bronner’s refutation of one of the incidents below is based on a Maariv account relayed by the commanding officer of the unit blamed for the killing. Yet Bronner does not reveal this incriminating information, nor does he reveal that the “investigation” on which the debunking claim is based was a personal, unofficial one carried out by the commander. Maariv did not directly quote the sniper alleged to have killed the woman (nor does Bronner) who supposedly denied involvement, but instead relayed the alleged statements of the sniper via the commander. Note these omissions as you read the passage below:
But officers familiar with the investigation say that those who spoke of the killing of the mother and her children did not witness it and that it almost certainly did not occur. Warning shots were fired near the family but not at it, the officers said, and a rumor spread among the troops of an improper shooting.
The prevailing notion of Bronner’s reporting is that the entire Gaza war is so hopelessly embroiled in controversy that we can’t possibly draw any clear conclusions. The effect of such doubt is to relieve Israel of any responsibility for its moral and legal violations of international law.
In another passage, Bronner raises charges published in Haaretz (without crediting the paper) by IDF soldiers that the chief military chaplain distributed propaganda to the troops urging them to see the Gaza fight as a holy war of Jew against Muslim. Further, the rabbis urged soldiers, again in printed and quoted materials, not to have mercy on Gaza civilians, but rather to treat them as if they might be terrorists. Haaretz reported this story quoting the materials distributed to the troops.
Yet Bronner allows a supposed academic expert to undermine the story with vague generalizations:
Stuart Cohen, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University who is religiously observant, says that the army has indeed grown more violent toward civilians in the past 25 years, partly because the Palestinians have. But he says it has nothing to do with the increase of religious soldiers.
For 12 years he has been studying the correspondence between religious soldiers and rabbis on combat morality, and overwhelmingly the rabbis have urged restraint. While he cannot measure how that advice has been put into practice, he suspects it has had a real effect. And other religious soldiers said their behavior in Gaza was especially respectful.
I suppose if NO IDF soldier did any of the things alleged, then those homes destroyed and civilians killed must’ve happened at the hand of some alien extra-terrestrial force.
One especially bizarre claim by the IDF which Bronner passes on without comment relates to the discrepancy between the Israeli claim that 1,100 Gazans were killed and Palestinian human rights groups’ claims that 1,400 were killed:
The Israeli military argues that about 400 people die from natural causes in Gaza every month, a possible cause for the gap in the two counts.
Sometimes you just scratch your head and say: “what, are these people idiots or do they just take everyone else for being so?” The IDF would have you believe that Palestinians counting the war dead somehow included Gazans who died of natural causes during the month in which the war was waged. As if Gazans either cannot tell the difference between a person with their body split in two by an Israeli drone missile and another who dies in their sleep of old age. If some of this weren’t so chilling and Kafkaesque you might actually be able to find it humorous (in a VERY dark way).
In closing, I’d like to ask my readers, especially those who deny any claim of war crimes to consider if the shoe was on the other foot and Hamas had killed 1,400 Israelis (God forbid). What would you do? How would you want the world to react? If you’d demand a robust response from the international community and an immediate call for war crimes charges, then why wouldn’t you do so in this situation? Or is it possible that when Israel kills it is righteous, but when Palestinians kill it is inherently evil?