TEL AVIV — Eyewitness accounts published Monday from last summer's war in Gaza paint a disturbing portrait of overzealous, often indiscriminate fire on the part of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
But even more disturbing to Israel and its supporters worldwide is that the searing accounts — 111 in all — came not from Palestinian survivors, but from Israeli veterans of Operation Protective Edge.
In "This is How We Fought in Gaza," the Tel Aviv-based Breaking the Silence organization published transcripts and essays from some 70 IDF combatants of a 50-day war that killed 73 116 Israelis — 67 75 of them soldiers — and more than 1,200 Gazans.
"We've been recording testimonies from our IDF comrades for more than a decade, ever since the second intifada, and I've never heard of such systemic, permissive rules of engagement," said Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of the organization.
The report notes that while military orders allow for fire only after identifying a weapon, intent or the enemy's realistic capability, many soldiers testified that they were told to shoot at any threat, whether real or imagined.
"The use of weapons and means of warfare that required approval in the past by senior officers — like firing a tank shell — were permitted at the discretion of junior commanders."
Moreover, "Soldiers were briefed by their commanders to fire at every person they identified in a combat zone, since the working assumption was that every person in the field was an enemy."
According to the 32-year-old veteran of the IDF's Nahal infantry brigade, the IDF "appears to have made a deliberate shift in doctrine to what you might call zero risk to our troops at all costs."
He said the organization took testimonies from active-duty conscripts as well as reservists from air-, sea- and ground forces, 25 percent of whom are officers with ranks as high as major.
"It was the most extensive research we've compiled to date, and I'm pained to say I can barely recognize the values I grew up on in terms of purity of arms."
To illustrate what he considered to be a sea change in IDF rules of engagement, Shaul cited a sentence drummed into every IDF soldier throughout the generations: "Every soldier is taught, 'When there's a doubt, you have no doubt.' For me, this used to mean when you're not sure what the rules of engagement are, you ask for clarification; you don't automatically shoot.
"But now, it appears to be the opposite, when you have a doubt, you pull the trigger because we'd prefer to see casualties from the other side."
"The guiding military principleal of minimum risk to our forces, even at the cost of harming innocent civilians, alongside efforts to deter and intimidate innocent civilians led to massive and unprecedented harm to the population and the civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip," the report claims.
In one account, a lieutenant from an infantry unit operating in Rafah in the southern part of the Gaza Strip said assaults on houses involved multiple firings of anti-tank rockets before "opening' them up with grenades and breaching equipment:
"When I got to a house, it was already half destroyed. Lots and lots of bullet holes inside it, everything inside a total mess. … Before a tank makes any movement it fires, every time. Those guys were trigger happy, totally crazy. Those were their orders, I'm certain of it, there's no chance anybody would just go around shooting like that."
Another infantryman, a first sergeant operating in the north part of the strip, testified: "They told us: 'There aren't supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot.' Whether it posed a threat or not wasn't a question, and that makes sense to me. 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. That, too, was made clear to us; they told us, 'Don't be afraid to shoot,' and they made it clear that there were no uninvolved civilians."
The report cited dozens of cases where soldiers were directed to fire unabated on so-called suspicious points.
But, it noted, "Commanders did not clearly define the meaning of the term 'suspicious point,' so soldiers were free to interpret it in the field as they saw fit. In fact, almost every object or structure within the forces' eyesight had the potential to be considered suspicious and thus [was] targeted."
In a May 4 interview, Shaul repeatedly stressed that the IDF does not intentionally, as a matter of policy, target innocent civilians. But in such a congested urban theater where the IDF repeatedly warns civilians to evacuate, civilians who remain are viewed as legitimate targets.
"Don't get me wrong, we are not trying to kill as many civilians as possible, but we're far away from the official line of trying to avoid civilian casualties. … And that brings us to another interesting shift in that the IDF no longer classifies anyone as innocent.
"Now they're either involved or uninvolved people."
Shaul said every word in the 240-page manuscript was cleared by Israel's military censor.
"The last thing we want to do is to harm national security," he said.
When asked if his organization aimed to make its information available to UN investigating bodies or the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Shaul replied: "We're Israelis. Our focus is here. We're not going to all those places you mentioned; we're going to try to do what we can in the Knesset. We'll also go to parlor meetings across the country to try to force people to listen to what happened there."
He also said the organization was not interested in triggering a military police "witchhunt" of individual transgressors, but rather a wholesale reassessment of the system. "There are systemic problems that go all the way up the chain … so a few scapegoats getting caught up in a military police net is not going to change things for the better."
Ultimately, Shaul said he hopes the public will demand a commission of inquiry.
"We're going to do whatever we can to try and prompt a public discussion, and hopefully a commission of inquiry into what happened last summer. … Moral lines appear to have been crossed and we need to make a stand as a society."
In a prepared response, the IDF spokesman's unit said the IDF is committed to serious and proper investigations of all "credible claims." However, because Breaking the Silence did not provide evidence or testimony prior to publication, no investigations could be carried out, the IDF said.
"Unfortunately, as in the past, Breaking the Silence has refused to provide the IDF with any proof of their claims. … This pattern of collecting evidence over an extended period of time and refusing to share it with the IDF in a manner which would allow a proper response, and if required investigation, indicates that contrary to their claims, this organization does not act with the intention of correcting any wrongdoings they allegedly uncovered.
"Therefore, we are unable to respond to the allegations raised," the IDF said.
Contrary to IDF charges that the organization was unwilling to share its findings prior to today's publication, Shaul provided Defense News with a letter to Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, IDF chief of staff, dated March 23. In it, the organization requested a meeting to present testimony it had acquired from hundreds of incidents that took place "throughout the operation, in every combat zone."
"We are reaching out to you prior to the publication of the testimonies, due to their severity and due to the troubling systemic picture that arises from them," the organization continued.
"Alongside this, given that the public has a right to know … and we will not be able to wait for a long time before publishing the testimonies. As such, we ask to hold the meeting as soon as possible."
It concluded by saying: "We have no doubt in our hearts that the testimonies that we heard from the soldiers need to arrive, first and foremost, to the leaders of the State and the IDF, and to every house in Israel, in order to begin a public discussion that is genuine and serious."
As of press time, the IDF still had not responded to their letter.