The disclosures created a stir after first
publication Thursday in a major front-page spread in the Tel Aviv daily,
Haaretz. The charges are all the more telling in that they are based on
first-hand accounts from dozens of combat soldiers who served in the
war. Their testimonies were compiled by an academic college the soldiers
had attended in a prep course before being drafted. This represents the
first uncensored recording in Israel of what occurred within combat
units which took part in what Israeli codenamed Operation Cast Lead. The
picture drawn by the soldiers differs radically from the refined version
of the war provided by military commanders to the public and Israeli
The report includes the testimony of one NCO
(non-commissioned officer): "A company commander with 100 soldiers under
his command saw a woman walking down a road some distance away, but
close enough that you could've gunned down whoever you identified...She
was an elderly woman - whether she raised any suspicion, I don't know.
But what the officer did in the end was to put men on the roof and with
the snipers bring her down. I felt it was simply murder in cold blood."
As presented in the report, Danny Zamir, head of the
army prep-course, who compiled the transcript of the testimonies,
intervened: "I don't get it - why did he have her shot?" The soldier who
witnessed the incident replied: "That what's great in Gaza, you could
say - you see someone walking down a track, not necessarily armed, and
you can simply shoot them. In our case, it was an elderly woman. I
didn't see her with any weapon. The order was to bring the person down,
that woman, 'as soon as you sight her'. There are always warnings, and
there's always the saying - 'it could be a suicide bomber'. What I felt
was a lot of bloodthirstiness. Because, we weren't in many engagements,
our battalion was only involved in a very limited number of incidents
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 1,434 Palestinians
were killed during the Israeli offensive, 960 of them civilians, among
them 288 children. Palestinians have spoken insistently of atrocities by
Israeli troops and of random destruction of thousands of homes. Israel
has brushed off the accusations and calls for investigations into "war
crimes" committed during the war, dismissing it as "anti-Israel
In the report, another infantry squad leader gave this account of an
incident where an IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) sniper shot and killed a
Palestinian woman and her two children: "There was a house with a family
inside....We put them in a room. Later we left the house and another
platoon entered it. A few days later there was an order to release the
family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sniper position
on the roof," the soldier said.
"The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the
right. One of the women and her two children didn't understand the
instructions. They went to the left. No one told the sniper on the roof
that they had been permitted to go, that it was okay, and he should hold
his fire and he...he did what he was supposed to, like he was following
According to the squad leader's account, "The sniper saw a woman and
children approaching him, they crossed the line he was told no one
should cross. He shot them straightaway. In the end, what happened is
that he killed them. I don't think he felt too bad about it, because, as
far as he was concerned, he was doing his job according to the orders
he'd been given. The atmosphere in general, from what I understood from
most of my men who I talked to...I don't know how to describe it...The
lives of Palestinians, let's say, are very, very much less important
than the lives of our soldiers. As far as they're concerned, that's the
way they can justify it."
"I was in shock at what I heard," said Zamir in an interview on Israel
Radio. "The incidents involving the killing of civilians are the most
disturbing and need to be investigated. What I also found very
distressing was how the norms of the army's code of conduct have been
eroded and how widespread the aberrations are at junior commander
Zamir said the soldiers reported that officers never intervened when
troops deliberately damaged property, harassed civilians or wrote 'Death
to Arabs' graffiti. The report also quotes individual soldiers reporting
that, when they tried to remonstrate with fellow soldiers who were
causing wanton damage, they were met with the response, 'Because they're
Arabs'. "This is not the Israeli Defence Forces that we used to know,"
Amos Harel, the Haaretz military affairs correspondent who broke the
story, says the accounts have a ring of authenticity. "The soldiers are
not lying, for the simple reason that they have no reason to do so.
There's a continuity of testimony from different parts of the Gaza war
zone. Read the transcript and you won't find any judgment or boasting.
This is what the soldiers saw in Gaza."
Israel's army is a temple of social consensus and a national melting
pot. It is one of the fundamental tenets of Israel's social fabric that
the army does not commit war crimes, and operates according to "the
highest ethical standards," even in war time. They call it "purity of
The accounts expose a de-humanising view of 'the enemy' that seems to be
more extreme than ever among Israeli soldiers. But the deterioration has
been going on for decades - since Israel's occupation of Palestinian
lands has meant that the Israeli army has been principally engaged in
fighting guerrillas in civilian populated areas; this has included
fighting two Palestinian Intifadah uprisings and two wars in Lebanon,
one against the Palestinian Liberation Authority and one against
The report of what happened in Gaza was submitted three weeks ago to
Israel's Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi. The army says it will
investigate the allegations thoroughly.
But Harel says that "if the army never heard about these incidents, it's
a reasonable assumption that it didn't want to know. The soldiers
describe the reality in combat units, from the level of company
commander down. In debriefings, the participants usually include company
commanders up. It seems that, except for isolated incidents, the rule is
'you don't ask, we won't tell.'"
Asked on Israel Radio to comment on the report, Defence Minister Ehud
Barak stuck to the credo: "I only heard of the charges this morning. I'm
convinced that the army will carry out a thorough investigation. There
are always exceptions, but our army is the world's most moral. Our
soldiers talk openly when they return home."
Moshe Negbi, a leading legal expert, told IPS that an independent
inquiry was essential - "not only for justice to be seen, but also as a
most effective way of heading off increasing world pressure for a war
crimes inquiry against the Israeli military."
Whether there will be a major public grappling within Israeli society
that will press for such an inquiry is improbable. Ever since the
beginning of the occupation more than 40 years back, and especially in
the last decade since the Second Intifadah, attitudes and public and
political discourse in regard to the Palestinians, and to Arabs in
general, have been degraded.