Gaza: Killing Gets Easier

Gaza rescuers.jpg
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos
Rescuers looking for survivors and bodies at the Qassam Mosque in the Neuseirat refugee camp, Gaza Strip, August 9, 2014

In early May, Breaking the Silence, the organization of Israeli ex-soldiers that is by now well known for its meticulous independent accounts of IDF operations, published a report on the Israeli army’s campaign in Gaza last summer. The result of many months of recorded interviews with over sixty soldiers, including many lower- and middle-level officers, the report revealed that the large number of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side was a consequence, among other things, of military tactics and orders explicitly adopted by the IDF.

The report sparked off an immediate response in the Israeli and international media, with predictable attempts to vilify its authors as “traitors.” Israelis like to think that their army holds to high moral standards, and they react badly to hard evidence that shows this is not the case. There has been particular outrage at the suggestion that there is anything wrong about the new “Gaza rules” and the high civilian body count. Most Israelis simply, and simplistically, blame Hamas for the fighting and its cost, which they also see as the natural result of fighting in the thickly populated urban space of Gaza. As it happens, there were few surprises in the interviews, which mostly confirmed what we knew from reports in the press last summer, as well as from the evidence of earlier IDF campaigns in Lebanon and in Gaza. The deeper significance of the interviews, then, may lie in what they suggest about IDF operations over many years and, indirectly, about longstanding policies in the occupied West Bank.

The seven-week operation known as “Protective Edge” (Tzuk Eitan, “Steadfast Boulder,” in Hebrew) was a violent conflict aimed at stopping rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. According to the United Nations, some 2,200 people were killed, of whom 1,492, or more than two thirds, were civilian. The overwhelming majority of these were Palestinian. (The Israeli military recorded the deaths of sixty-six Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians in the conflict.)

The evidence presented in the Breaking the Silence report can be summarized relatively simply: soldiers briefed by officers before they went into Gaza were instructed to avoid all risks to themselves even at the cost of certain, possibly substantial, civilian casualties. In practice, this meant they shot at everything that moved in their zone of combat, including animals and, inevitably, civilians who for whatever reason could not get out in time. This point is a weighty one. The army delivered warnings to civilians to evacuate areas slated for attack; usually these took the form of leaflets or text-messages to cell phones, but there was also the Israeli invention called “a knock on the door”—a small missile or shell shot at a building as a warning that heavier shelling was about to begin. Civilians who failed to heed such warnings were, according to the army briefings, fair game. They were not supposed to be there.

The difficulty with these measures is by now well known and has been discussed at some length. At times the interval between the knock on the door and severe or total destruction was so short—measured in minutes or even seconds—that there was simply no time for civilians to get out. Moreover, such warnings are largely meaningless unless there is a corridor of safety for evacuees fleeing the battle zone and some provision for their survival once they get beyond the immediate threat, as the prominent human-rights lawyer, Michael Sfard, wrote last summer while the battles were still raging. Such measures were, in general, absent during last summer’s fighting. Many civilians certainly died in a desperate attempt to reach safety; some troubling cases are documented in the report.

For the sake of comparison, we might recall the Israeli army’s traditional rules of engagement, taught to generations of recruits. A potential enemy can, we were told, be killed if he has a weapon, an apparent intent to cause harm, and a realistic capability of doing so. “Gaza rules” were far more lenient, as many of the Breaking the Silence interviews state directly:

What were the rules of engagement?
There weren’t really any rules of engagement, it was more protocols. The idea was, if you spot something—shoot. 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.

The same approach—massive fire, sometimes uncontrolled or indiscriminate—held true at much higher levels of operation, as in the destruction of buildings, indeed of entire neighborhoods, such as Shuja’iyya in the central zone and Khuza’a in the far south, either by ground artillery or from the air. The heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side included some five hundred dead children. Destruction of homes and infrastructure in Gaza was immense, some of it clearly meant to teach a lesson, or to take revenge, or to create a passable illusion of military victory or some form of deterrent against future attacks.

We have to keep in mind the setting in which this campaign unfolded. Hamas fired many thousands of missiles, deliberately aimed at civilians, into Israeli territory. There is no question that Hamas is guilty of grievous war crimes. It also deliberately embedded fighters in the midst of the Palestinian civilian population, dug combat tunnels whose entry point was in homes, mosques, or other public buildings, and planned and attempted to use these tunnels for lethal attacks on civilians within Israel. For many Israelis, all this is more than enough to justify the human losses on the Palestinian side. The same could be said for attitudes toward civilian casualties during earlier IDF campaigns, including Lebanon in 1978 (Operation Litani), and the so-called Second Lebanese War in 2006. A popular bumper-sticker one still sees on cars in the streets of Jerusalem says: “The lives of our soldiers take precedence over the lives of enemy civilians.”

This principle has been formulated in somewhat more abstract terms by Professor Asa Kasher and General Amos Yadlin, authors of the army’s current code of ethical conduct. The Asa Kasher Doctrine, as it is called, states from a certain cool height that “when we have made effective efforts to minimize collateral damage but the combatant is still in the vicinity of some noncombatants, the state does not have any justification for jeopardizing the troops, when the territory is not under its effective control.” One wouldn’t want to be one of those noncombatants. Stated more simply and generally: the soldier should exert “as much compassion as possible without aborting the mission or raising risk to Israeli soldiers.” One can’t help wondering if the word “compassion” in this context was meant seriously and not ironically. In a situation like Gaza, moreover, every individual soldier is faced with his or her own non-trivial moral choices. (Female soldiers were very much present in identifying possible targets for bombing and in getting these targets approved.) I think the Asa Kasher code falls short of addressing those choices in anything but a superficial way, as the Breaking the Silence report makes clear.

Again: the findings of the report—including the results of the fighting and the orders that brought them about—are nothing very new. What is more striking is how they suggest the impressive persistence and, indeed, continual intensification of practices that have occurred over the last three or four decades. Significant change lies only in the fact that the acts in question now reflect deliberate and explicit policy of a systemic nature coming down from the top. The Israel army once claimed to hold, nominally at least, to moral considerations of an entirely different order than those officially adopted last summer. Now, even that pretense seems to be gone.

It is easy to say things like: the Allies did worse in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 (some 25,000 civilian casualties). There is no dearth of terrible precedents. None of that alleviates the responsibility of the IDF for the deaths of innocents, whether by virtue of the lax rules for opening fire or as the result of massive, careless, and in many cases superfluous, fire. Seen from the vantage point of the victim, such a death is always singular, personal, and unjust. Nothing can make these killings just. Invidious comparisons are beside the point.

How did we get to this point? It’s important to remember that Gaza has a history that goes back far beyond last year, and that Hamas rule there developed as part of the longue durée, or the lethal dialogue, of Israeli-Palestinian relations, including the last forty-eight years of Occupation. Israel was not an innocent bystander to the rise of the Hamas and its assumption of power in Gaza in 2007. If this process is repeated on the West Bank—elections to the student council at Birzeit on April 22 produced a Hamas victory, a possible indication of where things are going—it will be, in large measure, because of Israeli’s policy of colonizing the West Bank, including the massive theft of land, the disenfranchisement of millions of Palestinians, an entrenched regime of state terror, and the lack of meaningful legal recourse to those living under the Occupation. It will also reflect Israel’s adamant refusal to make peace.

To my mind, the true significance of the Breaking the Silence report lies just here. There is a sinister link between the conduct of the army in Gaza last summer and the system now firmly in place on the West Bank—despite attempts by the government (and large sections of the electorate) to deny any such connection. Three recent examples may suffice:

• On May 17, 750 olive saplings were uprooted and savagely destroyed, undoubtedly by settlers, on Palestinian land east of the Etzion settlements in the south Hebron hills. The land is privately owned by the Abu Shanab family. Destruction of Palestinian olive trees is a routine event in the south Hebron hills; I have seen the results myself, near the village of Twaneh and elsewhere. One needs to bear in mind that many Palestinian herders and small-scale farmers subsist largely, even primarily, on olives, and the ancient trees themselves are often treated as beloved members of the family—hence, I suppose, the settlers’ delight in uprooting them. It goes without saying that no attempt has been made by the police or the army to find the perpetrators of this wanton act.

• Nearby Khirbet Susya, whose four hundred inhabitants have been repeatedly expelled from their homes and agricultural grounds, is in acute danger of being demolished in toto. Demolition orders have been hanging over the village for years, based on the transparent excuse that the village has no master plan (the plan the villagers submitted was of course rejected by the committee, mostly manned by settlers, that deals with such matters in Area C of the West Bank). Although houses and other Palestinian buildings are regularly destroyed by the army—it is virtually impossible for a Palestinian in Area C to get a building permit of any kind—this would be the first time in recent years that an entire village in the territories is ruthlessly obliterated. Two weeks ago the Supreme Court removed the last legal impediment to the impending destruction by the Civil Administration, that is, the occupation authority. We are doing whatever we can to save Susya, but the government might act at any moment.

• On May 19, an order apparently from the Minister of Defense, Moshe Ya’alon, attempted to impose separate public buses for Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers, equipped with permits issued by the army, enter Israel to work each day and return home to the territories at night. Israeli settlers have long been agitating for just such a rigorous separation in public transport, and the rationale they offer comes straight from Alabama circa 1950. Palestinians, say the settlers (I heard their spokesmen on the radio several times on May 19), are a sexual threat to chaste Israeli women. Palestinian men look at women with lust. They also smell bad. And so on. Vocal protest within Israel (including from the office of the president, Reuven Rivlin, perhaps the most interesting politician in Israel today) and in the international press led Netanyahu to revoke the new orders within a day—but Ya’alon is reported to be working on a modified version of the plan, to be put into effect when the hullabaloo dies down.

If Palestinians—all of them—are the enemy; if they are different enough from Israelis to be seen as a separate (lower) category of human beings; if their civilian casualties don’t really count for much (to say nothing of the now notorious posts from last summer in Israeli social media actually celebrating these deaths); if official Israeli policy is based on maintaining the cruel system of the occupation indefinitely, denying elementary human rights to Palestinian residents; if the Prime Minister allows himself to speak even of Israeli Arabs, citizens of the state, as constituting a threat to the domination of the Jews and the rule of the Israeli right, as he did on the day of the recent election—if all this is now acceptable public discourse inside Israel, then killing more of them will become easier and easier and look less and less like the crime it is.


The report This is How We Fought in Gaza: Soldiers’ testimonies and photographs from Operation “Protective Edge” (2014) can be read in full at breakingthesilence.org.