Sunday, September 13, 2009

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


Manipulation of the witnesses
Did “Breaking the Silence” try to manipulate their witness?
This possibility rises from several places in the booklet.
It starts with a very important question that hasn’t been asked in the booklet or the videos:
What made you come forward?
A necessary prolog when the main theme in each interview supposes to be a confession, yet it is missing. Why?
Only one soldier gives his reason for approaching Breaking the Silence, He does this in a by the way manner, at page 29. He describes the role of the rabbinate unit in the preparations to enter the Gaza Strip. His story is very important to every Israeli; it is a part of an important internal discussion about the relations between religion, military, and politics. His testimony paints a picture of right- wing rabbinic ideologues, with their own separate political agenda, involved in military affairs. This is indeed disturbing, to say the least, but nowhere in the booklet is there any mention of any impact it had on the conduct of the soldiers and the IDF during the fighting. What is clear is that this anonymous soldier approached Breaking the Silence to talk about one thing, those right wing Rabbis, and they, Breaking the Silence, got him to talk about different things, the events inside the Gaza Strip, a related but separate topic.
How did one subject slip into another?
Are these really confessions or just war stories?
Only they can tell us.

And then there is this.
Page 22:
“What do you mean by 'waiting for something to move'? What were your rules of engagement? What were you told at the briefings?”
"Anything looks suspicious to you, open fire."
“What is suspicious? Arms and intent are both valid there, too?”
“Yes. You have to detect weapons, verify that person is not one of ours. If he has something on him, that is grounds enough to…”
“No intent, even without intent.”
“They were assuming that anyone present in a bombed-zone, carrying a Kalashnikov, is no weapons collector.”

This is a fishing attempt by the interviewer. First he is looking for unarmed civilians in this story; when it turns out that they are not available, he tries a question based on the reasoning that armed men in war zone can be considered victims just like unarmed civilians if they don’t have the intention to kill. This is a ludicrous assumption, which the interviewee noticed and made a mockery of.

And from page 14:
“It's a city, you know. Flyers were distributed, but people are bound to be on the move, obviously there would be civilian traffic. It's not a military area. People live there. No one addressed this in briefings? Commanders, anyone? No distinction was to be made between people and civilians, such as would escape in your directions? There are plenty of possible scenarios.”
“That's right. No special mention was made of innocents.”

Enough emphasis was made to clear civilians from 99% of the buildings. There can always be more possible scenarios, and no one can be prepared for all of them. It is the job of the relevant levels of command to assess probable scenarios and make determinations for the troops on the ground. Here the interviewer creates an over emphasis on this issue, when there is no evidence it was needed. And unfortunately here the interviewee fell for this maneuver.

And then there are the absurdities. In pages 21 and 22 a soldier describes what he sees as the inhumane use of white phosphorus in a sandy area near the border, a mostly open region where soldiers do need a smoke-screen cover, such as white phosphorus gives. The only observable victim he could see is the “glazed sand”; no mention of people, animals, domestic or otherwise, vegetation, or structures, just sand.
Is this soldier suggesting that it is inhumane to hurt sand, or worse, that it is inhumane to give his fellow soldiers smoke-screen cover in an open area?
Or maybe he tried to appease the interviewer's expectations for some kind of horror stories, preferably regarding white phosphorus?
Later this soldier will give a favorable description of his past activities in the West Bank, not something we would accept from a soldier who hates the service so much he will argue against giving his fellow soldiers cover from enemy fire.
There is irony here. This soldier describes his experiences in the West Bank as moral and uses them as the standard by which he measures what he saw in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead. The irony is that Breaking the Silence was formed by a group of ex soldiers who decided to break their silence over immoral Israeli conduct they witnessed to in the West Bank, or so they say.

And if he was not an ill wisher, which was never likely in the first place, it is more likely he was manipulated, a possibility supported by another absurdity from page 54:

“Were there people who opened fire without detecting anything? On their own initiative?”
“I think so. I think that there was such a case in the force parallel to us. There was sniper fire. The bullet scratched a soldier's helmet and they began to fire in all directions. We were 200 meters behind, and began to inquire on radio and we were told there was sniper fire against the force.”

Do we realize what these two are saying? A soldier’s helmet was hit by a sniper’s bullet, and thank god nothing worse than that, and yet they claim the soldiers fired without detecting anything. The soldiers may not have identified the exact source of the enemy fire, but they had certainly detected it, or more precisely, it detected them. The absurd here is that grown men can argue such a lopsided absurd reasoning in the first place.

It maybe tempting for us to regard these absurdities with humor, but we must be careful in our judgment. These soldiers are clearly left wing in their political views. That does not make them traitors or malicious, or stupid. They left homes and families, risking their lives to protect other Israeli families in the south part of Israel. They’ve done their duty to the country and people of Israel, and to their fellow soldiers on the battlefield. In various parts of the booklet, they express pride in what they did and tried to. They do deserve our highest respect and gratitude. My point is that political and ideological convictions do affect our relations and feelings toward other people, organizations and ideas, whoever we might be. If something in our worldview has a certain status we either trust it more or trust it less, depending on the status and on our convictions. Here in Israel, some traditional Jews, masoratim, are more likely to trust Jews who are more religious than they are on issues of religion, tradition and morality, because in their worldview the more religious folks know better, especially if they call themselves Rabbis. A trust like this can be so deep a person can eliminate ones own personal judgment. The same is true in the secular world. A left leaning person can regard Breaking the Silence as those who know better than him what is or isn’t a war crime and what is right or wrong in times of war, even though he was there, and they were not. It may seem an absurd but it is human nature and if we examine our behavior we’re likely to find out that we have done that very thing to a greater or lesser degree.

Did Breaking the Silence try to manipulate the general public, in Israel and the rest of the world?
Maybe they didn’t?
But if not, why did they rushed to the foreign media first?
And why did they try to keep the Jerusalem Post military affairs correspondent off the story?
And why did all the hype turn out empty?
Why have they tried to use the relative lack of resistance as an argument that there was no need for all that force to be used in the first place, without at least acknowledging the opposite possibility? After all a case can be made that the presence of this massive force, accompanied by the warning from the flyers, is what made Hamas’ fighters flee the battle and hide in hospitals. A frustrated soldier talks about this at page 58 in the pdf booklet.
Why besides rumors and absurdities, haven't they got a single confirmed case of wrong doing on our part beyond vandalism?
I’m not saying a definite yes to the firat question in this section about manipulation, but if they believe the correct response is "no," they should explain why.
Based on that report is there any real room for concern over Israeli soldiers behavior during Operation Cast Lead?
And not just based on that report.
We Israelis sent our sons and daughters to the battlefield to protect us from monstrous enemies. God willing, war willing, luck willing, we would like them all back alive and unhurt, both physically and mentally. And most definitely not to became monsters. The infuriating accounts of vandalism by Israeli troops, which came from a number of sources, tell us that the evil potential is there, and for our own sake we must confront it and extinguish it. It may not be war crimes, but by our standards it is bad enough.

We Israelis do have some serious soul-searching to do after ‘Cast Lead’ as any other nation with a moral code has to do after any kind of war, but Breaking the Silence has some atoning to do for all those empty allegations.

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