Israeli soldier testimonials stoke Gazans' claims of war crimes

Palestinians believe a report of firsthand accounts by Israeli soldiers and officers who fought in the 2014 Gaza war prove that Israel committed war crimes in its conduct of the conflict.

al-monitor Palestinians walk past the ruins of houses that witnesses said were destroyed by Israeli shelling during the 50-day war last summer, Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, May 10, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Suhaib Salem.
Adnan Abu Amer

Adnan Abu Amer

@AdnanAbuAmer74

Topics covered

war crimes, operation protective edge, israel defense forces, israel, international criminal court, hamas, gaza

May 15, 2015

Breaking the Silence, an organization founded in 2002 to document the Israeli army's activities in the occupied territories, surprised Palestinians on May 4 with a report on the 2014 Gaza war. The 240-page "This Is How We Fought in Gaza," published in English and Hebrew, features 111 testimonials by 60 Israeli soldiers and officers who participated in Operation Protective Edge.

According to the report, the Gaza war, which lasted 50 days, claimed the lives of more than 2,200 Palestinians and wounded more than 11,000, most of them civilians. In addition, the total population of Gaza is slightly less than 1.8 million, and more than half a million of them were displaced. Some neighborhoods were completely destroyed.

Avner Gvaryahu from Breaking the Silence said on May 7 that the army had weakened the rules of engagement for opening fire and that its command had deceived officers and soldiers in the field, telling them that there would be no civilians in some of the neighborhoods they were about to enter. The Israeli army had issued a statement May 4 in which it declared its commitment to an internal investigation into complaints by Palestinians and human rights organizations about the behavior of its forces during the war. It also said Breaking the Silence had refused to provide it access to the testimonies it cites in its report.

"This Is How We Fought" reveals that Israeli soldiers received orders to approach all Palestinians in Gaza as enemies, not civilians, in terms of the rules of engagement. Palestinians had previously attested to harsh treatment and abuses at the hands of Israeli soldiers during the war. Israeli practices ranged from the alleged indiscriminate killing of civilians to prohibiting ambulances from reaching the wounded to destroying houses with people inside them. The report's significance and legitimacy stems from its being issued by Israelis and based on firsthand Israeli testimonies rather than press reports.

Hamas commented on the report on May 9, including a demand that Israeli army leaders be charged with war crimes. Some soldiers had testified to having deliberately shelled places where Palestinians had sought shelter, so their leaders should be tried accordingly.

Ramy Abdu, head of the Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor, “The testimonies of the Breaking the Silence organization prove that the Israeli army committed war crimes in Gaza, and the testimonies of the families of Palestinian victims complete them and prove their authenticity. The testimonies indicate that these were not individual violations, rather a systematic course of action adopted by the army.” 

Indeed, some Palestinians view the Breaking the Silence report as an opportunity to make legal claims against Israel. They have sought to spread news of the report through the media and published bloody testimonies on social media, along with a January report by Physicians for Human Rights, in an effort to present proof that Israel committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on May 8 that the Palestinian Authority (PA) had contracted lawyers to prepare cases it will refer to the International Criminal Court against Israel.

Hamas spokesman Hossam Badran spoke with Al-Monitor by phone from Qatar. “Breaking the Silence's report shows part of the truth behind the Israeli army’s war crimes in the recent Gaza war. It asserts that the army’s behavior is closer to the approach of bloody gangs that feel they are safe from international sanctions or judicial pursuits,” said Badran. “Our expectations are that the next military confrontation with Israel will be the fiercest and strongest. We believe that the Israeli army will commit more crimes than in the recent war, faced with the Palestinian militants’ ability to undermine the Israeli soldiers and to strike the deterrence system that the Israeli army shows off in the region. But, we will extract lessons to prevent the army from targeting civilians.”

Hamas officials who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said the large number of Palestinian civilians and fighters during the Gaza war burdened the movement's leadership, which was disturbed by the attacks and their aftermath shown live via satellite and broadcast news coverage. A few days into the war, the number of Palestinian victims had already reached a hundred. Hamas was aware that with every Israeli retaliatory strike for the rockets launched from Gaza at Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba, dozens of Palestinians would die, hundreds would be wounded and many more displaced. Hamas would at some point no longer be able to afford the war's high human cost, which would force it to halt the war.

A Hamas military official speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “The Israeli army worked on compensating its loss against the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades’ militants by committing massacres against civilians to pressure the resistance leadership and push it to retract its demands and goals, namely, lifting the Gaza blockade and opening the crossings.” He also said, “Many battles occurred between the Palestinian militants and the Israeli army in open areas at the entrances of Gaza — Shujaiyya, Bureij, Rafah and Khan Yunis — but they were mostly areas that were evacuated. Still, the army went on raiding houses, hospitals and schools far from the areas of the clashes to make up for its failure to target the militants.” The testimonies of the Israeli soldiers indicate that when the Hamas militants caught them off guard, they became rattled and considered everyone and everything a target or enemy location, from cyclists to adjacent houses.

Perhaps the Israeli testimonies have prompted Hamas leaders to think that the next conflict with Israel will pick up where the last one left off — that is, more Palestinians dying and Gaza's infrastructure targeted for destruction. If so, maybe they will also think twice before heading into another military confrontation.

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