A review of the testimonies given by Breaking the Silence, regarding Israel’s military activities in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, found at this BBC link shows that it is not clear what the silence had been broken over, certainly not about war crimes and not about abuse of the local population and not even over relaxed or careless rules of engagement. The hype said one thing. The picture that arises from the carefully read testimonies is different however.
The first matter that surfaced is the complexity of modern warfare, which is undeniably brutal. Coming in the Israeli soldiers and the army knew that the element of surprise was not on their side and they had to compensate for it in the only available way, a massive use of fire. On the battlefield they realized that a significant number of buildings were booby-trapped or hid tunnels and/or weapons caches. With the enemy hiding among civilians the battle was especially harsh on non combatants. But this does not erase the fact that the brutality of warfare is not what determines the morality of a fighting force. The determining factor is the treatment of the vulnerable, the unarmed civilians caught in the crossfire. And here as these testimonies show, there is a stream of consistent exonerating evidences. The testimonies show both that the IDF and its troops to tried to preserve civilians’ lives and and that these efforts succeeded.
They show how effective the leaflets dropped from airplanes in clearing vulnerable civilian population from operational areas before troops entered:
Page 1 – 2:
“Most people did leave, but some civilians stayed to watch over the houses”.
“We come in from the northwest and wanted to deepen our control towards Israel, in the northeast. Towards Hoovers Road, as it is called, the border with Israel. This was the method: we did not actually see an enemy, nor civilians – we saw absolutely no one.”
“patrolling an empty house, no combatant, no civilians” (no vandalism by Golani or the reservists - DD)
“We went in there, house after house, going around each other every time.
99% of the houses were empty.”
”You reported any suspect movement?”
“There was nothing there. Ghost towns. Except for some livestock, nothing moved.”
Besides the fliers, units on the ground tried to clear the area from civilians every step they took.
“You enter houses with live fire?”
“No. The instruction was to get everyone out of the house or concentrate them in one room. Announce it through loudspeakers. Give it a few minutes, and if the person is not out after 2-5 minutes, whoever is left inside is a dead man. Whoever comes out – assemble them outside or in one of the lower rooms, and then go upstairs with live fire. This was the instruction, and it was not always followed because often the houses were empty. So why waste ammunition? Just shooting for fun? Some people did but this was not always the case. …In general people (Palestinians) came downstairs, we'd order them to go over there, point in some direction and tell them to go there…It was obvious when we went in that the people are not allowed to stay inside the houses. We directed them towards a certain area hoping they wouldn't be hit there.
“So all the villages around there actually…”
“Were almost totally abandoned. I'm sure there were civilians here and there, but not many.”
“You didn't see even one through your binoculars?”
“None. I’m telling you, I saw none, and the guys in my company were telling me and I couldn't figure out if they were pulling my leg. I assume it was the truth.”
“Okay, what about pedestrian traffic?”
“For pedestrian traffic, the entrance was on the road coming out at Sufa Crossing. The whole road was open when the ground offensive began. They bulldozed the track parallel to the road, so it was open for movement.”
”There were many incidents of people, towards the third or fourth day, where you'd be informed on radio or just simply suddenly see in front of you a group of about twenty people walking south with white flags. It's so insane.”
“So when there's information of people with such flags, what do you do?”
“You're told not to open fire. If you get this information, or if there's a report of something humanitarian supposed to pass.”
At pages 25 and 26, the training based "outpost procedure", which gave the troops necessary protection from enemy combatants pretending to be civilians, had a clearing procedure. The soldiers would verify the identity of unidentified persons before they reach the lethal 15 meter "red line" limit surrounding the troops. Then the soldiers would send them indoors.
“Suddenly we see an old man, about 60-70 years old. He comes out with a white kerchief and says in Arabic, 'Don't shoot, don't shoot'. About 30 more people follow the old man, all of them in one piece, no one wounded or hit.”
Page 73 describes an episode when the witness’s unit found a diabetic old man in a house whose family left him there because he could not walk. The soldiers shared food with him (some of it was from his house and some of it from the tasteless army supplies) and got the unit’s doctor to examine him.
Even armed enemy combatants were wanted alive:
“I'm not sure either about the 'pressure cooker' procedures there (referring to the use of D9 bulldozers to force barricaded enemy combatants to come outside — DD), they could be different. Essentially the point was to get them out alive, go in, to catch the armed men.”
The Abulaish tragedy
The heartbreaking story of Dr. Abulaish from Beit Hanoon who lost his three daughters to an Israeli tank shell has an echo in this booklet, not of the actual tragedy but of the circumstances that led to it. The Israeli explanation was that the soldiers operating at Beit Hanoon at the time were concerned about enemy lookouts, spotters, directing enemy fire at them, and mistook the family members for such spotters; as the account below show these concerns were not limited just to Beit Hanoon.
“What's a lookout?”
“I don't know the exact definition, someone who gives the coordinates to their mortars or snipers, whatever.”
“He's two kilometers away, how do you know he's a lookout?”
“I have, you know, this thermal sighting device, and it picks up weapons and stuff. But who knows, it could be a camera, or binoculars, it could be a cup of coffee, you can't tell.”
With most of the civilian population gone an enemy spotter is a more likely identification, but tragically that is not always the case, and when not even the best of technologies can guarantee accurate identification, accidents will happen. Sadly, no matter how much effort the Israeli side puts into preventing and minimizing the impact of the horrors of war on the local population, it will never be 100% successful. And whether it is 2% or 15% failure, to those concerned it is unimaginably horrific. Nonetheless the evidence is clear that an effort to save civilian lives was made and it was mostly successful. It is important to remember that fact as the current waves of anti Israeli propaganda claim otherwise.