“The instructions are to shoot right away,” said a first sergeant in an engineering unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “Whoever you spot—be they armed or unarmed, no matter what. The instructions are very clear. Any person you run into, that you see with your eyes—shoot to kill. It’s an explicit instruction.”
“No incrimination process is necessary?” asked the interviewer from the Israeli veterans’ organization Breaking the Silence.
“Zero. Nothing,” the soldier replied.
On Monday, May 4, Breaking the Silence released a collection of testimonies from more than 60 soldiers who served in Gaza during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the July–August 2014 air and ground campaign that left more than 2,000 Palestinians and 73 Israelis dead. Taken as a whole, the testimonies paint a picture of a military operation shocking both for the scale and the arbitrariness of its violence.
While the testimonies mostly speak of individual acts of malfeasance, they allude to a broader military standard during the operation of maintaining permissive open-fire policies and lenient rules of engagement, from small arms to artillery. In the words of Breaking the Silence, “The guiding military principle of ‘minimum risk to our forces, even at the cost of harming innocent civilians,’ alongside efforts to deter and intimidate the Palestinians, led to massive and unprecedented harm to the population and the civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.”
Breaking the Silence is an Israeli organization that collects and publishes anonymous interviews from soldiers who have served in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Their goal, they say, is “to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”
The testimonies that Breaking the Silence collected after Operation Protective Edge are often brutal. There’s the infantry first sergeant who explains that “if you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal…. They made it clear that there were no uninvolved civilians.” Another infantry soldier recalls two unarmed women who were killed and listed as combatants: “they were fired at—so of course, they must have been terrorists.” A staff sergeant in the armored corps talks about how tank drivers had “this sort of crazy urge to run over a car.”
A soldier whose rank and unit are left anonymous talks about the bombing of a building of “five or six stories” because of a meeting between Hamas militants happening there, without giving civilians time to leave. “I didn’t follow up to see whether harm was inflicted upon civilians there, whether innocent people got killed there,” said the soldier. Even if there were known to be civilians, the soldier continues, the attack “would be carried out if there weren’t too many civilians. When I say ‘too many’ I mean a double-digit number.”