“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.”
Yehuda Shaul, a founding member of Breaking the Silence, told The Nation that “the basic principles of IDF Rules of Engagement were pushed aside” during Protective Edge. “The IDF betrayed its own moral, ethical code.”
Many of the testimonies describe the destruction of homes and property based on hypothetical threats or otherwise without operational necessity. Several soldiers mention that when they occupied homes as defensive posts, armored bulldozers would destroy every house they stayed in after they left. One soldier’s testimony recalls taking part in a tank attack on a neighborhood called al-Bureij; when the soldier asked the tank commander what to fire at, the officer said to “pick wherever you feel like it.”
The testimonies also suggest a pattern of increasingly permissive rules of engagement and decreasing restrictions on both the amount of fire and the possibility of collateral damage as the operation progressed, especially after IDF soldiers were killed or wounded. After seven soldiers were killed by a rocket attack on an armored personnel carrier in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood, one infantry soldier describes firing artillery cannons and mortars at a civilian power station to “take advantage” of the upsurge of target authorizations.
In a statement, the IDF questioned the credibility of the anonymous testimonies from Breaking the Silence. “Unfortunately, as in the past, Breaking the Silence has refused to provide the IDF with any proof of their claims,” the army said in the statement.
Along with the report, Breaking the Silence released a letter to IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Gadi Eizenkot dated March 23, in which the organization requested a meeting to discuss the testimonies they had recorded.
Other recent investigations have turned up similar reports of last summer’s hostilities. Physicians for Human Rights in Israel (PHR-I) sent two teams of international medical experts to Gaza for a fact-finding mission between August and November 2014, where they interviewed 68 Gaza residents who had been injured during the campaign and conducted site visits around Gaza to witness the aftermath of the hostilities.
The PHR-I report, released in January, documented many of the same practices that appear in the Breaking the Silence testimonies, especially the widespread destruction of homes and killing of civilians in or near them, “the use of exceptionally powerful and indiscriminate forms of explosives,” and “a lack of precautions to protect civilians.” The PHR-I report also argues that the warnings used to pressure civilians to leave buildings or neighborhoods prior to an attack were often ineffective, noting their inconsistency and lack of credibility; these warnings appear frequently in the Breaking the Silence testimonies as justification for the use of indiscriminate force against ostensibly abandoned areas.
Mor Efrat, who works with Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, told The Nation in an e-mail that the testimonies from Breaking the Silence bolster PHR-I’s finding that “the warning mechanism held by the army totally failed.”
By just about any metric, 2014’s Protective Edge appears to have been significantly more destructive than Israel’s other major military operations in Gaza in recent years—2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense and the three-week Operation Cast Lead that spanned from December 2008 to January 2009. Estimates of the Protective Edge casualty count vary somewhat, but they generally range around 2,100–2,200 Palestinians killed, largely civilians, against 73 Israeli fatalities, 67 of them soldiers. An additional 11,000 Palestinians were wounded during Protective Edge, and almost 500,000 were forced out of their homes.
During Cast Lead, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem documented 1,391 Gazans and nine Israelis killed. In the eight days of Operation Pillar of Defense, the dead numbered 167 Palestinians and six Israelis.
Breaking the Silence has been collecting testimonies since its founding in March 2004, in the midst of the second intifada. Shaul, a former first sergeant who served in the army for three years before founding Breaking the Silence, told The Nation that the testimonies gathered in the aftermath of Protective Edge appear to reflect a war that was not only more devastating but less discriminate than campaigns of the past.
“I’ve heard stories from hundreds of soldiers,” Shaul told The Nation. “We’ve never heard rules of engagement that were more permissive than in Protective Edge.” The change of policy, he said, started during Cast Lead, but it became dramatically worse during Protective Edge. “Now we’re just bombing people and then we try to understand if we got a good one.”
Some of the soldiers interviewed spoke to that escalation as well. One engineering sergeant said of the aftermath of the violence in a neighborhood in Gaza City where his unit operated, “[there were] serious levels of destruction everywhere, levels we hadn’t seen in ‘Cast Lead.’ No houses.”
So far, the IDF’s military advocate general has looked into 126 incidents that occurred during Protective Edge, referring six for criminal investigation. But Shaul says that investigating individual violations isn’t enough to change how the IDF operates.
“What needs to be investigated in Protective Edge is not the behavior of individual soldiers; what needs to be investigated are the rules,” Shaul told The Nation. He added, “This is how young, small, tiny soldiers pay for the mistakes of generals.”