Redefining civilians and legitimate targets: Israeli soldiers testify on Gaza war

12:00 May 4 2015 Gaza

Redefining civilians and legitimate targets: Israeli soldiers testify on Gaza war Redefining civilians and legitimate targets: Israeli soldiers testify on Gaza war Redefining civilians and legitimate targets: Israeli soldiers testify on Gaza war Redefining civilians and legitimate targets: Israeli soldiers testify on Gaza war
An Israeli soldiers walk next to a tank in the Gaza Strip during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. (Courtesy of Breaking the Silence)

Relatives walk amidst the rubble of the home of Zaki Wahdan in the city of Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza City, November 10, 2014. Eight members of the Wahdan family, mostly women and children were killed. (Photo by Anne Paq/

Palestinian children carry goods that were rescued from the village of Khuza’a, which underwent intense attacks and was largely destroyed during the Israeli offensive. (

A child in a Gaza City morgue after an Israeli air strike in July 2014. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Two themes are present in almost all of the 60-plus testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence from Israeli soldiers who fought in the last Gaza war: loose rules of engagement and systematic, wanton destruction. But can the new documentation serve as a catalyst for change inside Israel? Internationally?

By Mairav Zonszein and Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man for 972Mag

Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of military veterans, released on Monday a collection of testimonies from nearly 70 soldiers and officers who participated in Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip last summer.

It has been 10 months since the 50-day assault, which killed over 2,000 Palestinians, injured over 11,000, damaged or destroyed over 18,000 residential units and left more than 100,000 people homeless.

While the public debate in Israel has been all but silent regarding the operation, individual soldiers and officers began breaking their silence almost immediately after the final cease-fire went into effect.

Reading through the 136 pages of testimonies from soldiers and officers from nearly every involved division and brigade, two common denominators quickly become apparent. First is the massive, intentional and unnecessary destruction of homes and buildings throughout the Strip, but particularly in places that ground troops set foot.

One of the high rank commanders, he really liked the D9s [armored bulldozers]. He was a real proponent of flattening things. He put them to good use. Let’s just say that after every time he was somewhere, all the infrastructure around the buildings was totally destroyed, almost every house had gotten a shell through it. He was very much in favor of that

— Testimony #37

The second theme, central to nearly every testimony collected from nearly every unit involved in the fighting, was the massive volume and scope of fire employed.

The soldiers’ testimonies point — explicitly and implicitly — to an extremely lenient open-fire policy.

“If you spot someone, shoot.”

“They told us: ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there’.”

“If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal. First of all, because it’s Gaza, and second, because that’s warfare.”

— Testimony #17

According to estimates provided to and reached independently by Breaking the Silence, at least 35,000 artillery shells were fired during the operation. (Read more here on the use of artillery and “statistical weapons” in Gaza’s urban areas.)

Many soldiers describe the working assumption they were given by their commanders before entering Gaza: everyone is suspicious; no one in the combat zone is innocent.

Ahead of its ground assaults, the IDF dropped flyers from the air, shelled incessantly and even made phone calls to warn Palestinian civilians of the impending assault. The principle was that after such a warning, anyone who remained in that area was surely a terrorist.

The problems with that type of combat doctrine are too many to list, but here are two anyway. Firstly, there may very well be legitimate reasons why an innocent civilian would choose to stay in their home despite a warning, and many more reasons why an innocent civilian might not be able to leave, or systematically refused to even acknowledge the destruction the army was wreaking in Gaza, and anti-war protests were met with violent counter protests the likes of which hadn’t been seen in decades.

There has been no shortage of testimonies from Palestinian civilians about the horrors that rained down on Gaza this past summer (read here and watch here, for example). And while the Israeli perspective is far-too-often given disproportionate weight — or the exclusive platform — in relation to the Palestinian conflict, these testimonies nevertheless serve a crucial role, both in Israeli society and internationally.

Perhaps as an inherent consequence of the conflict, neither Israelis nor Palestinians tend to believe the other side’s narrative and even their “facts.” So the fact that Israelis, Israeli soldiers, are telling their own society what was done in their name, is crucial if there is ever to be an internal movement for change, and certainly if there is ever to be any reconciliation process.

Externally, for those Palestinians seeking justice, the testimonies could ultimately play a significant role in legal redress for any alleged war crimes. In a Haaretz interview with legal scholar Aeyal Gross last week, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that her office’s current preliminary examination process into the Gaza war, “will proceed on the basis of available reliable information. We will be looking at all credible and reliable sources of information.” And although the Israeli military censor compelled Breaking the Silence to remove any identifying information from its testimonies, their credibility and detail could still prove invaluable should an international criminal investigation be initiated.

Read the full report here.
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