Sunday, September 13, 2009

A review of Breaking the Silence testimonies on Operation Cast Lead, Part II


The report makes three grave charges besides the allegation that the army relaxed its rules of engagement. An allegation that isn’t substantiated, because in the entire pdf format there isn’t a single case of civilian casualties, witnessed by the testifying soldiers, other than one case of mistaken identity, which even the authors of this report acknowledge as such. Those charges are the use of human shields, the white phosphorus accusation and wanton destraction of houses, buildings and other properties.

Human shields
The 'neighbor procedure', which the witness testifies to on page 2, is not a case of human shields, because the Palestinian civilian in that story does not give the Israeli soldiers cover from enemy fire. He does act as a negotiator between them and the enemy combatants barricaded inside a house. He is a forced negotiator, which is distinctively different from a human shield.

The allegations that locals were compelled to use 5 kg hammers to break walls and then were forced inside at gunpoint by IDF soldiers are rumors. The specific description says that the soldiers were aiming their guns at the civilians' shoulders. The witness heard of it but did not see it. It also doesn’t sound probable; won’t explosives do a better and quicker job, and a safer one for the Israeli soldiers waiting outside? Explosives can shock the combatants hiding inside, while the use of hammers can give them time to escape and booby-trap the army's intended place of entry.

The testimonies tell us that there were plenty of rumors going around:

Page 17:
“Rumors ran that our tank was shelled by a mortar. Three hours later someone said to us, Didn't you hear you'd been fired at? We had no idea we were fired at.”

“We heard that company L opened fire a lot, there were rumors around the battalion, can't tell you how true they were, but rumor had it that they had emptied large amounts of ammo together with the infantrymen. Beyond these rumors I don't know what happened or didn't.”

This story on page 14 is not much different from a rumor: “I hear from other crews that they fired at people there. Tried to kill them. The younger guys, eager to raise their score. They seem to think it's cool to wield such power with no one wanting to rein them in.” The witness did not witness this story. He heard of it from people who could have equally invented it, thinking it to be cool to brag about things that did not happen.

Emotions, mindset of the troops and their commanders, personal views and interpretations of the various situations the interviewees were in, which are scattered across the booklet; also do not count as war crimes or wrong doing, or as testimonies of such. Either those witnesses saw a war crime, or some other misdeed, or they did not. Apparently they did not.

White phosphorus
Most white phosphorus accounts are told from a distance, including the one on the cover: "We saw the planes flying out and you see from which building the rocket is launched against Israel and you see the four houses surrounding that building collapsing as soon as the airforce bombs. I don't know if it was white phosphorus or not.”
What the witness saw was an attack on Israeli civilians, common place before and during Operation Cast Lead, answered by Israeli warplanes that dropped something he could not identify. It could be white phosphorus or not. He also couldn’t tell whether civilians were there or not, nor what brought down those buildings. Was it caused by the air attack, or by secondary explosions from weapons and ammo stockpiles on the ground? The rest of the white phosphorus testimonies are the same except this one.

At page 45 there is the only on the scene testimony of the use of white phosphorus by the IDF. It aimed at a house, which army intelligence was confident had a lot of ammo and weapons inside. The purpose of the white phosphors was to ignite it and blow it all up, which it did, confirming decisively the intelligence information. The explosions included several Qassam rockets. Now, does Breaking the Silence claim that this action was illegal or immoral? If so under what wording or interpretation of international law do they base this? Because the purpose of international law, as I understand it to be, is to protect unarmed civilians, not the stockpiles of weapons intended to kill them.

Wanton destruction
There is no doubt there was plenty of destruction in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead, but was it all unnecessary or unavoidable?
This dense urban area is the battlefield chosen by Hamas. They booby-trapped the houses and buildings, turned others into weapons storages and hideout for tunnels, and used their cover to fire rockets, mortars and missiles at Israeli population centers, not to mention against Israeli troops. Could Israel have engaged in battle successfully without destroying those houses and orchards, without denying the enemy the military use of those places? That question isn’t even asked. The focus on the destruction creates the appearance of careless excesses but with no arguments to support it, it could be just an illusion. On the contrary, at pages 48 and 49 a soldier lists the entire reasoning for that destruction. The IDF destroyed houses from which fire was opened on Israeli troops. It destroyed houses that commanded strategic high ground. The high ground is something any army has to deny from its enemy. It’s elementary warfare. This is why rooftops were also targeted (in areas evacuated of civilians) and mosques’ minarets, where snipers could hide. Mosques also were used by Hamas to store weapons. These are all obvious military targets, but Breaking the Silence creates the impression that those were hit on whims of the soldiers and officers on the ground. This is a manipulation of the facts. The question is, who is doing the manipulation, Breaking the Silence, their witnesses, or both?

Same suspicion rises from their description of “Day After” demolitions. Those demolitions happened because of what took place in the days before, when buildings, trees and the like served as immediate hideouts for Qassam launch crews seeking cover immediately after firing their rockets. The Israeli army had the duty to chase those crews in order to protect the civilian population in Israel. And knowing fully that their stay in the Gaza Strip would be short, they tried to ensure as much as possible that the day after they leave won’t be like the days before they went in, and the Qassam crews will have fewer places to hide.
Yes the destruction in the Gaza Strip was vast, but so was the military use Hamas has made of the Gaza Strip civilian infrastructure. Three years earlier, before the disengagement from the strip, when some of those reservists served as conscripts there, that too did not exist in Gaza.


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