Breaking the Silence

Sadly, I must once again write about accusations of Israeli war crimes in Gaza. This is not because Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch says they happened. It’s because a new report has been released by an organization of Israel Defense Forces soldiers called “Breaking the Silence” (Shovrim Sh’tika). Their booklet has testimonies from 26 soldiers concerning IDF actions during the recent Gaza war, and they reflect badly on Israel—some of them very badly.

I wrote before about reports that the Orthodox rabbinate is exerting undue influence over IDF troops in the field, pushing young soldiers to take harsher action against Palestinians. That is disturbing because it might reflect a systemic problem in the army, and because it would represent a historic departure from the secular humanist (alright, socialist Zionist) traditions that prevailed in it for most of its existence.

The new collection of testimonies has been heavily criticized by the IDF on the grounds that all of them are presented anonymously, making it difficult to impossible to counter or investigate the allegations. Breaking the Silence replies that these are serving soldiers who fear reprisal. That fear in itself is a serious accusation against the army. But if you watch or read their testimony, it seems honest and heartfelt.

Breaking the Silence summarizes them by saying that "accepted practices" during the Gaza war included “the destruction of hundreds of houses and mosques for no military purpose, the firing of phosphorus gas in the direction of populated areas, the killing of innocent victims with small arms, the destruction of private property, and most of all, a permissive atmosphere in the command structure that enabled soldiers to act without moral restrictions.” Several of these could be prosecuted as war crimes.

A soldier said he was walking on the beach and found an area of glazed sand that would result from a white phosphorus bomb. He went on to say, “in training you learn that white phosphorus is not used, and you’re taught that it’s not humane”. It turns out that these bombs are not illegal (Israel has admitted using them) if they are used within the guidelines of the laws of war. But were they?

Another soldier, from the elite Golani brigade: “Sometimes a force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian’s shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield.” This is illegal, period, not to mention immoral. Several soldiers testified that there was an atmosphere that encouraged indiscriminate killing and destruction.

So the question is, were they really accepted practices? If so, high-level commanders could end up being prosecuted. If not, there is still a heavy responsibility to punish any and all wrongdoers.

Another organization, “Soldiers Speak Out,” has posted videos of many other soldiers testifying to the humane nature of actions they witnessed and took part in during the Gaza war—for example, helping a woman in labor get to the hospital, helping a man get back the chickens scared off by the conflict, and most importantly, refraining from firing to make sure they were not shooting civilians.

These are heartening stories. These soldiers took serious risks to do these things. They also talk about finding rocket launchers in a Palestinian ambulance and arms caches under schools and clinics. Hamas doesn’t merely use civilians as human shields, it makes that practice a central part of its doctrine of war.

These testimonies provide balance and show that there was no pervasive cavalier or inhumane attitude in the force as a whole. But they don’t negate those other stories. Every army has its bad apples and excesses in the heat of war. The IDF must leave no stone unturned in investigating them.

During the war, Colonel Richard Kemp, who had been one of the British commanders in Afghanistan and who knows Gaza, calmly responded to BBC questions about Palestinian casualties. After saying that any civilian deaths are “absolutely tragic,” he said, “but Israel doesn’t have any choice apart from to defend its own people.”

He went on to say, “From my knowledge of the IDF and to the extent to which I’ve been following the current operation, I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more effort to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza.”

Pressed on UN reports that the IDF told Palestians to go into a house that was then bombed, he said, “The Israeli army operate under a strict code of conduct, and they’re answerable to the Israeli government and the Israeli courts, and if it turned out that there was a deliberate crime committed there, I’ve no doubt that people would be held to account.”

In the end he said, “War itself, the whole nature of war, any military commander will tell you this, war is chaos, war is full of mistakes . . . It’s a real tragedy, but it’s just what happens when you go to war.” Israel must find out what was a mistake and what was a violation of its own code of military conduct. It must thoroughly justify Colonel Kemp’s statement: I’ve no doubt that people would be held to account.

It must also consider very carefully whether there is, in part of the army, the kind of attitude that the Breaking the Silence soldiers describe. If there is, and if it is not rooted out, then war crimes will surely be committed—if they haven’t been already—and not just international condemnation but international prosecution may follow.