Israeli combatants in the Gaza war against Hamas were told by commanders to minimize their own casualties even if it meant risking the lives of Palestinian civilians, a group of Israeli soldiers have alleged.
On Wednesday, Breaking the Silence published 54 anonymous testimonies from more than two dozen soldiers on its website. The organization, founded for the express purpose of compiling such accounts, accused the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of sacrificing more rigorous rules of combat engagement for a political end: preventing high Israeli casualty numbers that would have splintered the country's unity over the January war.
During and after the war, Israeli officials often referred to the IDF as "the most moral army in the world."
Israel's army, which received an advance copy of the testimonials on Tuesday – nearly a week after the press – disputed the anonymous accounts as impossible to verify and therefore unreliable.
The soldiers who gave the accounts included both conscripts and reservists active on all four military corridors of invasion into the Gaza Strip, according to the organization. Some said that they were disturbed and disillusioned by what they saw as an erosion of the Israeli army's code of ethics, which requires soldiers avoid deliberate harm to civilians.
"An IDF soldier does not shoot for the sake of shooting nor does he apply excessive force beyond the call of the mission he is to perform," read one testimonial.
In another account, a soldier described a pep talk by one of his commanders that seemed to contradict that standard.
" 'I am not willing to allow a soldier of mine to risk himself by hesitating. If you are not sure – shoot. If there is doubt, then there is no doubt," read the testimony. "This is the difference between urban warfare and a limited confrontation. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents."
"Shoot for the body," soldier says he was told
The latest allegations of a policy to use overwhelming force with little regard to identity of the civilians jibes with allegations made by international and Palestinian rights groups. The testimonials also claim to confirm the use of white phosphorous shells in civilian areas, widespread damage to homes, and the use of civilians as human shields.
Breaking the Silence, which was started five years ago by a religious soldier and has since gained the respect of many Israeli human rights groups, held a press briefing July 8 and provided copies of its 112-page report.
M., a combat reserve medic, was the sole soldier present and spoke to reporters about his war experience on condition of anonymity.
M. said that before going into Gaza a rabbi exhorted his unit to "shoot for the body." M.'s reservist unit was sent in to secure territory already under Israeli control in central Gaza, which he said had been emptied of Palestinians. Still, in order to boost security, one of their jobs included "exposure" of buildings. "Exposure is a nice way [of saying] systematic destruction of the area," M. said.
Army spokeswoman: Anonymity undermines credibility
Maj. Avital Leibovitch, an Israeli army spokeswoman, responded that the anonymous nature of the testimonies made them impossible to verify and therefore could not be taken seriously.
"How do you know these people are soldiers? I don't know who they are," she told reporters. "This is not credible and this is not reliable. And this puts under considerable doubt the intention of the organization."
Prominent Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, who authored an opinion piece to coincide with the report, says that it is an offense under military regulations to be interviewed without the approval of the IDF spokesperson and notes that soldiers have been put on trial for leaks to the press. In addition, the soldiers' testimonies could incriminate them or their friends.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday night, Major Leibovitch insisted that the army has already conducted an investigation into various claims of misconduct and found that, with few exceptions, Israeli soldiers conducted themselves in keeping with international rules of warfare and with the army's code of warfare. Another 10 or so soldiers are under investigation for war-related charges.
Shortly after the war, other testimonials about misconduct in Gaza came to light when the principal of a military prep school submitted a series of soldiers' anecdotes to the army for investigation. Though the army opened an inquiry, it was swiftly closed on the grounds that none of the charges was based on first-person knowledge of the incidents described.
"The goal [of Breaking the Silence] is part of the overall aim of anti-Israel propaganda," says Gerald Steinberg, who runs NGO Watch, which monitors political activities of Israeli nonprofits. "It's to delegitimize Israel's defense against terror, and to exaggerate in an extreme way the few incidents and soldiers that might violate basic norms."
Clear victory needed after 2006 Hezbollah defeat
What emerges from the testimony is the dissonance between soldiers' fear of and expectations for a tough house-to-house fighting against a determined foe akin to Hezbollah, and the reality of meeting relatively little resistance.
Breaking the Silence testimonials alleged open-fire guidelines didn't take into account civilians, a noticeable switch from the army's stricter rules of engagement in the West Bank. Instead, the soldiers said, any civilian who remained behind in the battlefield was considered a de facto combatant.
Yehuda Shaul, a combat veteran and a founder of Breaking the Silence, said the army needed a victory against Hamas to offset the perception that it lost a month-long battle with Hezbollah 2-1/2 years earlier. Minimizing Israeli casualties was seen as a way to give the army enough time to create an air of victory.
"The story of [Operation] Cast Lead [as the Gaza offensive was called] is the Israeli army's adoption of a different concept. It's the story of: 'In order to get a victory we need minimum casualties, and to do that we won't put our soldiers in danger. We prefer the mistakes to be on their body count and not ours," said Mr. Shaul at the media briefing. "In a way the IDF replaced the meaning of being a civilian with being a soldiers."
Mr. Sfard, the human rights lawyer, wrote that the testimony suggested the army was guilty of failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians.
"The No. 1 principle in international laws of war is the principle of distinction," he wrote. "Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants."