Friday, September 25, 2009

Anti-Semitism: Sweden boxed in neutrality

Sweden’s historic neutrality during the Second World War and the Cold War was rightfully hailed by those defending the position of the Swedish government in its recent row with Israel, regarding the blood libel published by the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet where it had accused Israel of organ theft from dead Palestinians.
What they fail to realize is that in this case what is in the past stays in the past and the present is quite different. If during the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, neutrality was an act of courage with moral credit attached, by the end of the Cold War it was a status symbol, a high up on the mountain position for Swedish politics from which to look down at the world. Removed from its crisises and challenges, a taking a stand neutrality became a do nothing neutrality. It was a neutrality that in order to avoid tension worked with tyrannies rather then facing them, but it used the aura of old times, when it was one of a handful of pioneers that opposed South Africa’s apartheid regime, to cloth these new associations with morality. So boxed in was Swedish politics in this newly defined neutrality that when the crisis did call, and thousands of Swedish nationals were stranded in the tsunami stricken shores of south east Asia, many wounded, many dead, all lost, its government didn’t move an inch, while the whole world around them rushed to the rescue.
That may seem unrelated to the topic at hand but that administrative inaction was also a moral inaction, since people’s lives were involved. And just as the tsunami killed a lot of innocent people so does Anti Semitism. One tremor can cause tidal waves of hate and destruction that will engulf the world several times before subsiding. Governments may had changed in Sweden between that disaster and now, but for the current government whose delegates set through a demented lecture of the world’s most famous anti Semite, reciting old conspiracy theories, the waters are just as calm as they were four years ago for its predecessors. Thus giving the evidence that Swedish politics is in a chronic crisis of moral leadership. As Israelis, and other non-Swedes there is little we can do a bout it. The main victims of this boxed in neutrality are the Swedish people and the Swedish state, whose neutrality is no longer a commodity this battered world needs.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, about Jewish superstitions that are not much different then the Christian ones

Like Christians and Muslims we Jews number the years, only with Hebrew letters, and sometimes those letters combine into a word or something that sounds like a word in Hebrew. The most famous example was 1984, which was the Hebrew year of “You shell be destroyed”, and the air was full of mystical kabalistic doomsday predictions. The fact that that year was also associated with George Orwell most famous novel heightened the tension. Had the Internet existed back then the doomsday talk would have been overwhelming.
The irony of this is that in some respect we are sillier then the Christians. What make us sillier is not that we have a year/date with an ominous meaning, as they do, but that there also other years with meanings, meanings that are not so ominous. 1987 for example, was the year when “You shell shmuze”, 1988 the year when “You shell rejoice”, 1989 the year when “You shell drop something” or be dropped, it’s a matter how one reads it; and 1990 the year when “You shell sleep”.
The reason for these is simple, statistics. During the 1980’s those statistics produced a cluster of such accidental names, sometimes it is just one or two in decade, like 1962 and 1968, the year when you shell lie down and the year when you shell forget, accordingly. The first two decades of this century are mostly meaningless and not so easy to pronounce, with the exception of this year (“Ha Baa Aleinu Le Tova”), which means, “The nine”, and most of the time will correspond with the year 2010. Its numeric value is 5770 but it numerological meaning is “The nine”.
Another cluster will be in the 2020’s, with years like 2022, when “You shell be a pub”, or 2027 when “You shell be pure gold”, and pure tin in the following year. But the ultimate will 2029, when “You shell be judged” or “Shell you do the judging yourself?” again, depends how one reads it.
And on that year of judgment, on May, Friday the 13, the Apophis meteor is going to be very, very close to Earth. According to the scientists it is not gonna hit, so I guess its kind of close they way all that glassware fell on my head when I helped set the table for the Rosh Hashanah dinner, also the time when I was working on this piece, and the reason why I took some parts of – just to be on the safe side.
Happy Jewish New Year everybody.
May it give us our share of goofs but spare us its share of tragedies.

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.

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.


Breaking the silence over what? A review of Breaking the Silence testimonies on Operation Cast Lead, Part I

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.

Exonerating testimonies
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”.

Page 4:
“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.

Page 8:
patrolling an empty house, no combatant, no civilians (no vandalism by Golani or the reservists - DD)

Page 13:
“We went in there, house after house, going around each other every time.
99% of the houses were empty.

Page 17:
”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.

Page 13:
“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.

Page 25:
“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.”

Page 64:
”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.

Page 35-36:
“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:
Page 2:
“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.

Page 47
“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.