Israel deliberately pounded civilians in last summer’s 50-day bombardment of Gaza which killed over 2,000 Palestinian civilians, according to the testimonies of over 60 Israeli soldiers.
The affidavits compiled by the human rights group, Breaking the Silence, are in a series of interviews with Israel Defence Force (IDF) soldiers on the ground, command centers, personnel and high ranking officers.
Israeli soldiers were told all Gazans were a “threat” and they should “not spare ammo” and that tanks fired randomly or for revenge on buildings without knowing whether they were legitimate military targets or contained civilians.
Soldiers describe a laissez-faire to non-existent rules of engagement. The group also claims that the IDF ran a different safety margins for bombing near civilians and its own troops, with Israeli forces at times allowed to fire significantly closer to civilians than Israeli soldiers.
Post-conflict briefings to soldiers suggest that the high death toll was treated as “achievements” by officers who judged the destruction would keep Gaza “quiet for five years”. According to one sergeant, that attitude was set before the ground offensive that began on July 17, 2014 in pre-invasion briefings that preceded the entry of six brigades into Gaza.
“[The commander] said: ‘We don’t take risks. We do not spare ammo. We unload, we use as much as possible,’” recalled a sergeant.
“The rules of engagement [were] pretty identical,” added another sergeant who served in Deir al-Balah.
“Anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat. The area has to be ‘sterilised,’ empty of people – and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming: “I give up” or something – then he’s a threat and there’s authorisation to open fire … The saying was: ‘There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.’ In that situation, anyone there is involved.”
“The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in,” recalled another soldier. “The assumption being that the moment we went in, anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist.”
Soldiers were also expected to treat Palestinians who came too close or watched from windows as “scouts” who could be killed. “If it looks like a man, shoot. It was simple: you’re in a motherf#@king combat zone,” said a sergeant.
“A few hours before you went in the whole area was bombed, if there’s anyone there who doesn’t clearly look innocent, you apparently need to shoot that person.” Defining ‘innocent’ he added: “If you see the person is less than 1.40 metres tall… If it’s a man you shoot.”
Palestinian women were not spared either. One solider described how two women were killed because one had a mobile phone. A soldier described the incident: “After the commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies] … it was two women, over the age of 30 … unarmed.”
“One of the main threads in the testimonies,” said Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer and legal adviser to Breaking the Silence, “is the presumption that despite the fact that the battle was being waged in urban area – and one of most densely populated in the world – no civilians would be in the areas they entered.”
That presumption, say soldiers, was continued by virtue of warnings to Palestinians to leave their homes and neighbourhoods delivered in leaflets dropped by aircraft – in the IDF’s interpretation – that anyone who remained was not a civilian.
Even at the time that view was deeply controversial because – says Sfard and other legal experts interviewed – it reinterpreted international law regarding the duty of protection for areas containing civilians.
A lieutenant said, “You could feel there was a radicalisation in the way the whole thing was conducted. The discourse was extremely rightwing … [And] the very fact that [Palestinians were] described as ‘uninvolved’ rather than as civilians, and the desensitisation to the surging number of dead on the Palestinian side. It doesn’t matter whether they’re involved or not … that’s something that troubles me.”
Testimonies describe the IDF randomly shelled buildings either to no obvious military purpose or for revenge.
One sergeant who served in a tank recalls: “A week after we entered Gaza and we were all firing a lot when there wasn’t any need for it – just for the sake of firing – a member of our company was killed.
“The company commander came over to us and told us that one guy was killed due to such-and-such, and he said: ‘Guys, get ready, get in your tanks, and we’ll fire a barrage in memory of our comrade’ … My tank went up to the post – a place from which I can see targets – can see buildings – [and] fired at them, and the platoon commander says: ‘OK guys, we’ll now fire in memory of our comrade’ and we said OK.”
How Israeli forces used artillery and mortars in Gaza, says Breaking the Silence, has raised other concerns beyond either the rules of engagement or the actions of specific units.
According to the Group’s research during the war, the Israeli military operated two different sets of rules for how close certain weapons could be fired to Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.
Breaking the Silence founder and former soldier Yehuda Shaul, said their research uncovered “three designated ‘Operational Levels’ during the conflict. What the operational level was set higher up the chain of command. Above the level of the Gaza division. What those levels do is designate the likelihood of civilian casualties from weapons like 155mm artillery and bombs from ‘low’ damage to civilians to ‘high’.
“What we established was that for artillery fire in operational levels two and three Israeli forces were allowed to fire much closer to civilians than they were to friendly Israeli forces.”
Ahead of the conflict – in which 34,000 shells were fired into Gaza, 19,000 of them explosive – artillery and air liaison officers had been supplied with a list of sensitive sites to which fire was not to be directed within clear limits of distance. These included hospitals and UN schools being used as refugee centres, even in areas where evacuation had been ordered.
“Even then,” explains Shaul, “we have a testimony we took that a senior brigade commander issued order how to get around that, instructing that the unit fired first outside of the protected area and then calling for correction fire on to the location that they wanted to hit.
“He said: ‘If you go on the radio and ask to hit this building, we have to say no. But if you give a target 200 metres outside then you can ask for correction. Only thing that is recorded is the first target not the correction fire’.”
The debriefings treated the destruction and high civilian fatalities and causalities as an accomplishment that would discourage Hamas in the future.
“They went over most of the things viewed as accomplishments,” said a Combat Intelligence Corps sergeant. “They spoke about numbers: 2,000 dead and 11,000 wounded, half a million refugees, decades worth of destruction. Harm to lots of senior Hamas members and to their homes, to their families. These were stated as accomplishments so that no one would doubt that what we did during this period was meaningful.”