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Israeli Troops 'Breaking the Silence' on Gaza Ignite Debate Over Alleged Misconduct

The Israeli military and other critics of interviews that suggest potential war crimes in Gaza last summer argue that they are unverifiable, misleading, and out of context.
May 7, 2015, 6:45pm
Photo by Jack Guez/Getty Images

Newly published testimony from members of the Israeli military who took part in last summer's assault on Gaza has painted a picture of an intervention that encouraged soldiers to shoot first and ask questions later, leading to the abuse of civilians caught in the crossfire.

If accurate, the testimony, released earlier this week by a group of former and current Israeli soldiers known as Breaking the Silence, could contain evidence of possible war crimes that might ultimately be reviewed by the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, the Israeli military and other critics of the report have countered that the interviews are unverifiable, misleading, and out of context. For now, it's unclear what, if anything, will come of them.


Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip — a narrow piece of land less than half the size of New York City — on July 8, officially targeting Hamas militants who were launching rockets into Israel. By the time the operation ended on August 26, more than 2,100 Palestinians had been killed, according to UN statistics, including more than 1,400 civilians, while 66 Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli civilians had died. More than 9,000 homes in the area were completely destroyed during the assault.

Related: Fallout in Gaza: Six Months On (Full Length)

Testimony from more than 60 soldiers who served in the operation, including some of high rank, include accounts of receiving orders to hit targets with as much firepower as possible, and to shoot anyone in zones that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had already occupied or where they had dropped leaflets warning civilians to evacuate immediately. Breaking the Silence claims that safe-distance guidelines for artillery bombardments differed for targets near Israeli troops and those that were near clearly identified Palestinian civilians.

"Anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat, the area has to be 'sterilized,' empty of people — and if we don't see someone waving a white flag, screaming, 'I give up' or something — then he's a threat and there's authorization to open fire," said an infantry first sergeant who, like all of the soldiers in the report, remained anonymous. "The saying was: 'There's no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.' In that situation, anyone there is involved."

'When the premise of war is that anyone in this area is a legitimate target, then the shooting, even if it isn't intentional, causes extreme damage.'

Another first sergeant in the armored corps was asked whether his superiors had discussed how the troops should deal with uninvolved civilians.

"No one spoke about that at all," he answered. "From their point of view, no one should be there at all."


Avner Gvaryahu, a member of Breaking the Silence who served as a paratrooper in the West Bank between 2004 and 2007, told VICE News that the testimony was more disturbing than the accounts it collected after Israel's previous invasion of Gaza in late 2008.

"The whole methodology used in the operation was very troubling," said Gvaryahu, speaking of last summer's ground offensive. "The citizens were given notice by pamphlets that were thrown down from the air, and hours after that entire areas were basically declared war zones, meaning anyone in them was declared not innocent."

Particularly alarming for Gvaryahu was the IDF's deployment of some 35,000 artillery shells, including 19,000 explosive shells capable of killing anyone in a radius of 50 meters.

"The Gaza Strip at the end of the day is totally closed," he noted, referring to the area's confinement between Israel and Egypt. "There wasn't really anywhere people could go."

Among the testimony are accounts of instructions to enter houses only after expending a great deal of fire.

"During training, in that respect, [they told us] that we only enter houses 'wet,' with grenades, and the more of them the better," said one soldier. "Aim, fire and only then go in. You don't know if there is or isn't someone in there."

Other IDF members discussed using disproportionate amounts of fire.

"We were firing purposelessly all day long. Hamas was nowhere to be seen," said one. "You have no idea what's going on, and because you don't, your human nature is to be scared and 'over' defensive, so you 'overshoot.' "


Related: 'Paradise Is in This Life, Not the Next': The Marxists of Gaza Are Fighting for a Secular State

Damage in Gaza during Israel's offensive in July, 2014. (Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

Critics of the report question the authenticity of the soldiers' testimony and argue that low-level soldiers were not in a position to evaluate specific military maneuvers in Gaza. They also contend that the narrative presented by Breaking the Silence belies the danger posed by Hamas fighters during the incursion.

IDF spokesperson Peter Lerner said in a statement that the Israeli military does not deliberately target civilians, and stressed that it was fighting Hamas militants who had embedded themselves in civilian areas.

"Breaking the Silence repeatedly refused to provide the relevant IDF authorities with any proof of their claims," he said. "The report and its contents remain unsubstantiated, unverified, and unnamed. For obvious reasons such conduct makes any investigation by relevant IDF bodies impossible, and does not allow for the claims and incidents brought up to be deal with."

Other groups, including the Israeli organization NGO Monitor, which claims to "publicize distortions of human rights issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict," have accused Breaking the Silence of pandering to international critics of Israel.

"Breaking the Silence aims many of its activities at foreign (non-Israeli) audiences, including journalists, who usually have little knowledge or independent capabilities to assess the allegations," Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor's president, told VICE News via email.


Breaking the Silence insists that it seeks to properly inform the Israeli public and prompt the military to reconsider its internal laws of war. It also wants the testimony to ultimately lead to an independent Israeli investigation into the IDF's strategy in Gaza.

The report comes at a sensitive time. In April, Palestine officially joined the International Criminal Court (ICC). Though Palestinian officials have not officially lodged complaints against Israel at the Hague-based court, its prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has launched a preliminary inquiry into any crimes that were committed in Palestinian territory after June 13, 2014 — a month before Operation Protective Edge was launched and just as Israel began a severe crackdown in the West Bank.

Related: Occupation: Voices from the West Bank

Any future investigations and possible prosecution could target illegal Israeli settlement activity and abuses committed by Hamas in the past year, along with violations perpetrated by Israel during Operation Protective Edge — alleged crimes that are described by the Breaking the Silence report.

"Some of the allegations in the report are quite shocking," Jens Ohlin, a professor of international law at Cornell Law School, told VICE News. "If true — and that's a big if — they might constitute evidence of multiple war crimes."

Ohlin said that the testimony could reflect the crime of disproportionate collateral damage to civilians, but cautioned that the soldiers' testimony didn't fully address the military value of targets within Gaza — a critical element in weighing possible violations.


"Second, there is the war crime of intentionally targeting civilians," he added. "For that crime, the real question is whether the alleged war crimes were the result of rogue soldiers or a top-down policy that can be traced to higher officials in the military hierarchy."

Though the ICC would theoretically attempt to conduct similar interviews on its own, court judges are expected to be able to evaluate evidence that hasn't been directly gathered. Ohlin, like other observers, said a case implicating Israel's military command structure will be hard to prove, but added that the report's testimony might at least illustrate for the court negligence on the part of military leadership to avoid civilian casualties.

The Breaking the Silence report arrives in a context that is by now familiar to Palestinians: alleged Israeli mistreatment overshadowed by more demanding international issues and a disinclination among American officials to antagonize Israel.

Among the various criticisms directed at Breaking the Silence is the point that the IDF is singled out among advanced militaries that also enjoy vastly superior firepower and inflict so-called "collateral damage." Former AP journalist Matti Friedman said as much in a Facebook post that was later picked up by elements of the Israeli and Jewish press.

"Civilian casualty rates are high — compared to what? Compared to the US in Fallujah? The British in Northern Ireland? The Canadians in Helmand Province?" wrote Friedman, who has for years criticized what he believes are unfavorable media portrayals of Israel.


If the debate over what crimes, if any, Israel might have committed in Gaza is contentious, it is also true that the ICC would be breaking new ground in tackling that very question.

Ohlin pointed out that the ICC and other global justice mechanisms have not focused on disproportionate force employed by advanced militaries instead preferring clearer-cut cases of atrocity crimes. In fact, the ICC has not prosecuted anyone outside of Africa.

"If you look at Nuremberg, at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, if you look at the ICC, the Special Court for Sierra Leone and Cambodia, none of those cases involve cases of violating the rule on proportionality," said Ohlin.

George Bisharat, a Palestinian-American professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, told VICE News that in lieu of serving as direct proof, the soldiers' testimony could give the court political cover to pursue what would be by far its most controversial case yet.

"These statements are not in themselves evidence at this point," cautioned Bisharat. "But there is little question to me that some of these incidents described would be considered war crimes cognizable under the Rome Statute."

The Rome Statue is the ICC's founding text, which Palestine signed last December. The move came a day after a resolution setting a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory was shot down at the United Nations Security Council, one vote shy of forcing a likely US veto. Palestine officially joined the court in April.


Related: Little Comfort Taken as Palestine Formally Joins the International Criminal Court

Bisharat said that with Israel and Palestine peace talks all but dead, Palestine's decision last year was as much political — intended for both domestic audiences and diplomatic leveraging purposes — as it was a statement of principal.

France has publicly pushed for a toned down Security Council resolution to set parameters for peace talks. In March, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters at the UN that his country would propose such a text "in the coming weeks." No resolution has yet been introduced, and council diplomats say that none should be expected ahead of the resumption of talks over Iran's nuclear program in June. Despite the Obama administration's cold relations with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it appears in no hurry to act on Palestine.

"There is only so much political capital that the administration believes it has to deal with Israel, Palestine, and Iran," said Bisharat. "The administration is having to choose between the Iran deal and the Palestinians."

The Breaking the Silence report arrives in a context that is by now familiar to Palestinians: alleged Israeli mistreatment overshadowed by more demanding international issues and a disinclination among American officials to antagonize Israel.

Israel has launched probes into several high-profile incidents during the 50-day war, including the shelling of a beach in Gaza City on July 16 that resulted in the deaths of four children. Lerner said that 19 criminal investigations had been initiated and indictments filed against three soldiers accused of theft and obstruction of justice.

But Gvaryahu is discouraged that Israel's military has shown no willingness to reconsider its conduct of an operation that killed more civilians than purported targets.

"The military is not questioning its rules of engagement," said Gvaryahu. "That's what we think should be investigated, and that can't be investigated by the military because it is ultimately subordinate."

The experts that VICE News consulted agreed that, for the time being, an ICC investigation into the Gaza conflict is a long way off. If any cases on Palestine do come, the court will find it easier to consider Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, which even its closest allies have characterized as illegal.

In the meantime, Gvaryahu notes that Breaking the Silence's testimony should not be taken as evidence that Israel troops intended to murder Palestinian civilians.

"I think there is a very big difference between indiscriminate fire and intentional killing," he said. "But when the premise of war is that anyone in this area is a legitimate target, then the shooting, even if it isn't intentional, causes extreme damage."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford