Israeli forces may have committed ‘grave violations’ of the international laws of warfare during last summer’s bloody Gaza conflict, according to the accounts of soldiers who fought in it.A collection of harrowing testimonies published on Monday by Breaking the Silence, an NGO run by former Israeli soldiers, describes lax rules of engagement that allowed troops wide discretion to open fire in built-up areas – leading to mass non-combatant casualties and devastating damage to homes and civilian infrastructure.
Forces operated under the assumption that they were entering areas that had been cleared of inhabitants after the Israeli army launched its military offensive, Operation Protective Edge, last July. Soldiers were told to target any Palestinian encountered as a ‘terrorist’ and to shoot to kill.
In reality, many residents had remained behind in neighbourhoods where military officials had dropped leaflets or made phone calls ordering inhabitants to evacuate – leaving them at the mercy of massive shelling, air attacks or gunfire from troops who identified them as militants.
Israeli forces also made devastating use of inaccurate missiles such as cannon and mortars in civilians areas, causing widespread destruction and breaching two basic principles of the law of war – distinction and proportionality – according to Michael Sfard, Breaking the Silence’s legal adviser.
The distinction principle required combatants to minimise civilian casualties by distinguishing between them and fighters.
Proportionality forbids belligerents from attacking military targets if the damage to civilians is expected to be greater than the military advantage gained from its destruction.
Basing its report on testimonies from more than 60 participating soldiers and officers, Breaking the Silence said its findings painted a ‘very disconcerting picture’ about Israeli forces’ conduct in Gaza and cast ‘grave doubt on the IDF’s [Israeli Defence Force] ethics’.
‘The more disturbing picture that arises from these testimonies reflects systematic policies that were dictated to IDF forces of all ranks and in all zones ,’ the 136-page report says.
‘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. Policymakers could have predicted these results prior to the operation and were surely aware of them throughout.’
Nearly 2,200 Palestinians – the vast majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed in the 51-day conflict, which also resulted in 73 deaths on the Israeli side, most of them soldiers. Around 18,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.
Israel’s leaders said they embarked on the offensive to stop indiscriminate rocket and missile fire at Israeli communities from Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza.
While previous reports on the conflict – including from B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group – have accused Israel of breaching international law, the Breaking the Silence investigation carries extra weight for being based on the first-hand testimony of soldiers in the field.
Some accounts describe scenarios in which rules of engagement were virtually absent, along with a cavalier attitude to Palestinian deaths and the destruction of their homes and property.
‘The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in,’ said one infantry soldier who operated in Gaza City. ‘The assumption being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist.’
Another infantry sergeant, whose unit was in northern Gaza, said: ‘There weren’t really any rules of engagement. It was more protocols. They told us, ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot’. Whether it posed a threat or not wasn’t a question, and that makes sense to me. If you shoot someone in Gaza, it’s cool, no big deal.
‘They told us ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot.’ And they made it clear to us that there were no uninvolved civilians.’
On one occasion, two women were killed after being spotted in an orchard in southern Gaza by Israeli forces stationed more than half-a-mile away. The women were ‘implicated’ as targets after drone footage showed them talking on mobile phones. The pair were listed as ‘terrorists’ even though later inspection by an Israeli commander found them to be unarmed.
Some testimonies record soldiers behaving in an inappropriate – even cruel – manner while other accounts describe a racist atmosphere.
A sergeant stationed at Deir al-Balah in central Gaza described how his unit was ordered at 7am to begin firing at random targets in al-Bureij, a nearby refugee camp, despite it being quiet and there being no apparent threat.
‘We are carrying out a Good Morning al-Bureij guys,’ the commander said, according to the sergeant. ‘Basically to wake up the neighbourhood, to show these guys that ‘the IDF is here’, and to carry out deterrence.’
Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and other Israeli officials have previously pinned responsibility for Israeli firing in civilian areas on Hamas, accusing the group of using the Gaza population as ‘human shields’.
Soldiers described losing their sense of morality after weeks of combat. One recounted how he fired a heavy machine gun at a man on a bicycle after failing in his attempts to hit cars and taxis with tanks shells.
‘I saw a cyclist, just happily pedalling along. I said OK, that guy I’m taking down,’ said the sergeant. ‘I calibrated the range, and didn’t hit – it hit a bit ahead of him and then suddenly he starts pedalling like crazy, because he was being shot at, and the whole tank crew is cracking up, ‘Wow, look how fast he is.’
‘After that I spoke about it with some other gunners and it turns out there was a sort of competition between all sorts of guys, ‘Let’s see if this gunner hits a car, or if that gunner’.’
Houses were routinely destroyed if they were considered to occupy a ‘superior’ – or higher – position to those where Israeli troops were stationed, as a precaution to stop them being occupied by militants.
Homes and orchards were flattened by bulldozers.
Mr Sfard called for an independent inquiry into the army’s rules of engagement, which he said allowed far greater firepower than in previous Gaza conflict or the 2006 war with Hizbollah in Lebanon.
‘International law demands that an investigation into suspicions of violations of the laws of war be carried out by an independent body.’
He said: ‘Israel does have the needed legal framework for such an investigation but it takes political will and a political decision, which in the current climate seems unlikely.’
Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the IDF, said other reports contradicted Breaking the Silence’s findings that Israel’s conduct had broken the laws of war.
‘Other reports have reached a different conclusion and they don’t seem to get media attention,’ he said. ‘However, we will look at this report to see if there is any matter requiring further investigation or action.’
See: 05/04/15 Breaking the Silence: Army Deliberately Targeted Civilians in Gaza for further information.