The Israel Defense Forces tacitly changed its core wartime values during last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip, opting to minimize the risk to soldiers at the expense of Palestinian civilian lives, an Israeli watchdog group claimed in a report issued Monday.
Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran combatants founded in 2004 to document and publish alleged misconduct by Israeli soldiers, collected more than 60 testimonials of IDF troops up to the rank of major who were active in service during the war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge. Breaking the Silence withholds the names of the soldiers testifying, it said, in order to prevent scapegoating and at the soldiers’ request.
“The IDF took its ethical code and threw it out the window, without telling the soldiers or the citizens of Israel,” Avner Gevaryahu, a spokesman for Breaking the Silence, told The Times of Israel.
The army said it was “committed to properly investigating” all claims against it, and that Breaking the Silence’s method of gathering evidence was faulty. “Today, as in the past, the organization Breaking the Silence has been asked to provide any evidence or testimony related to IDF activities prior to publication, in order for genuine investigations to be carried out,” the army said in a statement. “Unfortunately, as in the past, Breaking the Silence has refused to provide the IDF with any proof of their claims.”
Zvi Fogel, a former head of the IDF Southern Command, said the allegations were false and beneath contempt. “Those who seek to falsely portray the IDF as murderers,” Fogel told Army Radio on Monday, “are not worthy of a response.” He denied that the army had eased its open-fire regulations, and said all allegations of abuse of IDF regulations were thoroughly investigated.
The report, published on Monday, painted a picture on an Israeli army deploying excessive firepower in order to “frighten and deter Palestinians” in the Hamas-controlled territory, as well as blurry rules of engagement in which soldiers are authorized to open fire at will at any moving target in specific areas. It also highlighted massive use of inaccurate artillery fire at various stages of the 50-day conflict.
“Although specific testimonials exist regarding wrongdoing on the part of soldiers in the field, a more worrying picture concerns the systemic policy guiding the activity of IDF forces across ranks and fields of operation,” read the report, spanning 111 individual testimonials.
“The principle guiding the military policy — minimum risk to our forces, even at the price of harming innocent civilians — as well as an attempt to terrify and deter the Palestinians, led to massive, unprecedented harm to Gaza’s population and its civilian infrastructure. Policymakers could have predicted this result prior to the fighting, and were aware of it as it unfolded.”
“The operation was conducted as part of a policy set by the highest commanding authorities, dictating a mode of operation for the forces whose morality is severely questionable,” the report read.
The IDF launched a ground incursion in the northeastern town of Beit Hanoun on July 17, with the stated intention of curbing massive rocket fire at Israeli communities and destroying a network of cross-border tunnels that the army feared would be used to stage attacks against soldiers and Israeli border towns.
During the operation, the army warned Palestinian civilians to vacate entire areas of the Gaza Strip ahead of the entry of Israeli troops. The IDF operated under the assumption that all civilians left the areas after being warned with pamphlets and loudspeakers. But the testimony of a staff sergeant in the infantry showed that was not necessarily the case.
Before soldiers entered homes in the Strip to expose tunnel shafts, a tank would fire a shell or shoot into the structure with a machine gun. But one home, which was overlooked by the tank, was found to harbor dozens of civilians hiding inside.
“The first home we reached had 30-40 guys [Palestinians] inside. We created an opening in the outer wall using a break-in frame — that’s a type of device with explosives — and then went inside,” the soldier told Breaking the Silence. “This specific home we entered was not shelled by a tank. As far as I understand, that was a mistake; it was supposed to be. They’re lucky it wasn’t.”
One major spoke of the frequency with which artillery was used during the operation.
“The use of artillery is to allow troops to enter [the area] without being hurt. Every place that is pinpointed by intelligence or is an open space gets fired at. But when you examine how many open spaces there are in Gaza, you find there aren’t many. We talk about artillery, but the air force strikes endlessly… the air force knows how to take down a house within a row of houses, but that doesn’t mean the houses in the vicinity aren’t damaged,” he said.
Although the IDF has been running its own internal investigation into alleged crimes during the fighting, indicting a number of soldiers last month for looting, Breaking the Silence called on Israel to initiate an independent commission of inquiry.
“An investigation can only be effective and meaningful if carried out by an external, independent body, with members authorized to examine the upper echelons of the security establishment and political officials. Any other investigation will only lay responsibility on the lower and middle ranks,” the report argued.
The independent UN commission tasked with investigating the 2014 Gaza conflict is set to present its findings in June, after having asked for a deferral of its initial March deadline.
At the request of The Times of Israel, the IDF submitted the following response to the report:
The IDF is committed to properly investigating all credible claims raised via media, NGOs, and official complaints concerning IDF conduct during operation Protective Edge, in as serious a manner as possible.
Today, as in the past, the organization Breaking the Silence has been asked to provide any evidence or testimony related to IDF activities prior to publication, in order for genuine investigations to be carried out. Unfortunately, as in the past, Breaking the Silence has refused to provide the IDF with any proof of their claims.
For obvious reasons such conduct makes any investigation by the relevant IDF bodies impossible, and does not allow for the claims and incidents brought up to be dealt with in an immediate and appropriate manner.
This pattern of collecting evidence over an extended period of time and refusing to share it with the IDF in a manner that would allow a proper response and, if required, an investigation indicates that contrary to its claims, this organization does not act with the intention of correcting any wrongdoings it allegedly uncovered, therefore we are unable to respond to the allegations raised.
As in the past, the IDF calls on Breaking the Silence to turn to the relevant parties in the IDF immediately upon receiving complaints and evidence that raise suspicion of improper conduct or offenses, to allow investigation of events in due process.
It should be noted that following Operation Protective Edge, thorough investigations were carried out, and soldiers and commanders were given the opportunity to present any complaint. Exceptional incidents were then transferred to the Military Advocate General for further inquiry.
A number of Israeli NGOs, including Im Tirtzu and NGO Monitor, also harshly criticized the report. They also argued that Breaking the Silence receives European government funding, in some cases via Palestinian organizations based in Ramallah.
“As with many other BtS publications, this report lacks all credibility and objectivity,” said NGO Monitor. “Contrary to Breaking the Silence’s claim that ‘the contents and opinions in this booklet do not express the position of the funders,’ NGO Monitor research reveals that a number of funders made their grants conditional on the NGO obtaining a minimum number of negative ‘testimonies’,” it added.
Im Tirtzu said that “an Arab-Palestian Foundation based in Ramallah called the Arab Human Rights Fund ordered and financed the report. They provided Breaking the Silence US$300,000 to write the report. Last August, the fund approved emergency funding at the request of partner organizations who approached the fund regarding this issue. The foundation’s aim was to explore and focus on ‘documenting human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law during the ongoing military assault of the Gaza Strip by Israel…'”
Gevarayahu, the Breaking the Silence spokesman, said that “the allegations of extreme right-wing organization Im Tirtzu are simply a lie. We have never received money from a Palestinian fund or organization in Ramallah. Once again, the organizations on the right fail to address the arguments themselves and try to divert the debate to fallacious and hallucinatory places.” Breaking the Silence insisted that all testimonials were fact-checked and validated to ascertain their authenticity.