CORRECTION: On closer examination of sources it appears that Lt. Col. Aliyan left his position as Rotem commander in May 2008, six months before Operation Cast Lead. Therefore, he is not the Rotem commander who suppressed the death report in the following post. My apologies for not vetting the source more carefully. But thanks to two other Israeli sources we’re all convinced that we now have the right guy.
In what is likely the first use of the IDF Dirty 200 list for further investigation and analysis of specific potential war crimes incidents already known, an Israeli reader has done some excellent forensic research, connecting dots between Israeli media reports and the list to expose the previously unknown identity of a senior Israeli commander accused of covering up a military investigation of the killing of a Gaza woman during Cast Lead.
As is the Israeli media custom, they refuse to identity by name soldiers accused of crimes. They will usually use an initial to name someone. But in this particular case, they didn’t even do that. Here’s what happened:
During Cast Lead some 30 members of the Abu Hajjaj family, bearing white flags approached an outpost of the Rotem battalion (a unit within the Givati brigade, which was one of the main units that served during Cast Lead) after being ordered by another IDF unit to evacuate their homes. Soldiers fired “warning shots,” which somehow managed to kill two of the group, Majeda Abu Hajjaj (35), and Raya Abu Hajjaj (65). A surviving family member and witness said this about the killings:
Salah Abu Hajjaj…was among the targeted group: “My mother was shot and injured. The bullet went through her arm and into her chest. After 15 meters my mother fell down. Majeda, was also shot. She died immediately.” Salah’s mother and sister were the only two individuals killed in the incident.
Somehow in the immediate aftermath of the incident the IDF managed to claim that not two women, but a man was killed. As a result of the supposed confusion investigators decided they couldn’t clarify what really happened and refused to pursue the matter farther.
In a subsequent investigation, Staff Sergeant S., accused of killing the women, claimed he shot only at their legs when he deemed this group of composed largely of women and which was totally unarmed was a “threat” to his comrades. Somehow he managed to shoot the women in the chest instead.
A battalion-level report was written on the incident but it was suppressed and never filed with the proper authorities…until two months later, a reserve officer received a laptop on which he found the report titled, “Normative Incident–killing of innocent civilian during Operation Cast Lead.” The officer deliberated for eight months what he should do with the report. Finally, he decided to take the matter up the chain of command and wrote letters to the Givati Brigade senior command, the IDF southern command, and the IDF military prosecutor.
As a result, a complaint was filed against Staff Sergeant S. in the killing this past June. Alongside this, the IDF launched an investigation into the cover-up of the original incident and the burying of the report. Neither the Haaretz report or any other Israeli source has named the senior officer being investigated. But a close examination of the Dirty 200 List clearly indicates he is number 174 on the hit parade, Lt. Col. Yehuda HaCohen, Givati 453 Rotem commander. Now, it becomes more difficult for the IDF to sweep Lt. Col. HaCohen’s misdeeds under the rug. Let it be a lesson to all other commanders when soldiers under their command kill a Palestinian in cold blood that there will no longer be impunity.
HaCohen is 35, married and the father of two children. One wonders whether he thought of either of them at all when he buried that file in his laptop which concealed the cold blooded murder of a Gaza mother and daughter, whether he thought: that could’ve been my wife and daughter. Foolish me. Of course, he didn’t think of that.
Here are some words of wisdom from our proud warrior published in Bibiton (where else?) which should tell you a lot about why he would cover up the killing of a few white-flag waving Gaza ‘terrorists:’
HaCohen moves from a faith in the righteousness of Israel’s path as reflected in its policies and military action, to a strong human sense of the tragedy caused by war. He doesn’t hesitate using the slogans of Zionism and appears to be someone who believes in them.
He completed tens of operations in Gaza and speaks of the place almost romantically.”There isn’t any place in Gaza I haven’t been. The best times for me are those when I am on the border [with Gaza]. The times that are even better are those when I cross the border [and enter Gaza]. It’s something that’s hard to explain. As someone who spent years in Gaza, HaCohen felt the Operation [Cast Lead] approaching. “It was clear that this was about to happen.”
Before they left on their first mission, HaCohen exhorted his soldiers, telling them they would complete it at all costs, even if there were wounded or dead. “We wouldn’t stop till we had conquered our objectives. In recent years in our nation, we have allowed ourselves to become confused as we count the dead,” he says critcizing the level of psychological prepardedness of Israeli society. “The key measure in war is not the number of dead. That’s a price that we have to grapple with. The people of Israel have to learn the lessons of history and understand that if we don’t defend ourselves through war–we will pay.
HaCohen has reveals no signs of regret or second thoughts about the conduct of the war. “The IDF doesn’t have to apologize. We have the most advanced technology and therefore we are strong. The other side decided practically not to resist because we came in such strength. Where there was resistance it was was quickly ended and they paid a very high price.”
Regarding the claim that disproportionate force was used, he dismisses the notion out of hand. “I don’t know what this means: using disproportionate force. You must understand mentally that you are facing a threat and that you will not lose. At any cost. You must respond aggressively so that the other side will not succeed in doing what he wants. It’s very hard to to create a situation in which no civilians will be harmed and in the course of the Operation, to my regret, they were [gee, d’ya think?].”
HaCohen points a finger of blame at the enemy. “I greatly criticize Hamas for fighting behind the disguise of [civilians], and the one who should criticize this is the Palestinian people. They should decide whether they are prepared to be human shields and, if so, they make things difficult for us. Nevertheless, we know how to deal with this [indeed you do].”
His greatest criticism he reserves for our “friends” in the outside world. He blithely dismisses the claims found in the Goldstone Report about war crimes. “I don’t think we have to get excited about this Report so that we don’t feel we can explain why we protected our own citizens. It’s not a question of morality [!]. There is a conflict between two peoples, one of which kidnaps soldiers and fires on civilians [!!!!]. This is war and civilians are harmed in it. On our side too civilians were harmed. Goldstone has to understand that we evacuated Gaza so they could lead their own lives. The ball is in their court.”
“I think other countries should examine themselves first [before blaming us]. The British should reflect on what they did in Ireland and Afghanistan. And the Americans should reflect on the nature preserves they built for the Indians.”
HaCohen also criticizes the effort to detain Israeli officers abroad: “If they believe in London there are senior IDF officers who are war criminals I wouldn’t want to visit there [little likelihood of that now, I’d say]. There are other nice places. At the end, the only test we have to pass is the mirror test. I can look in the mirror and say that I am at peace with what I did. Everything was done according to the spirit of the IDF and for a higher purpose–to return quiet to the South.”
All I can say in HaCohen’s defense is that he didn’t pull the trigger in this case. His subordinate did. But if he can look himself in the mirror after covering up such wanton killing and still be at peace, then maybe someone in the IDF or the attorney general’s office has to step in and tell him that they don’t like what they see in the mirror: the image of an officer covering up a war crime.
Haaretz also exposes HaCohen’s identity though it does not disclose how it put two and two together. Given the timing, it had to be through the Dirty 200 list. The fact that Haaretz appears unwilling to admit that it at least in part may’ve used the list to confirm the officer’s identity is hypocritical. They’re afraid of being linked to a list which many Israelis hate, but not so afraid as to refuse to exploit the list’s existence and what it contains.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.