Israeli vets group: Gaza war policies favored safety of soldiers over civilians

A Palestinian boy sits on rubble and next to destroyed buses and houses, following late night Israeli strikes in Gaza City, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014.
A Palestinian boy sits on rubble and next to destroyed buses and houses, following late night Israeli strikes in Gaza City, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. AP

Israeli troops who served in last summer’s war in Gaza were ordered to shoot people on sight, shelled homes and reduced neighborhoods to rubble as part of a deliberate policy of force protection that cost the lives of Palestinian civilians, according to soldiers’ testimonies published Monday by an Israeli veterans group.

The Gaza testimonies, taken from 60 soldiers who took part in the fighting, provide an insight into the tactics the Israeli military employed during the 50-day war against the militant Islamist group Hamas that left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead and destroyed large swaths of the Gaza Strip.

The veterans organization, Breaking the Silence, seeks to draw public attention to human rights violations in the Palestinian territories by collecting and publishing Israeli soldiers’ accounts of abuses they witnessed.

“The principle that guided the military policy – minimum risk to the forces, even at the price of harming innocent civilians . . . led to massive and unprecedented harm to the population and the civilian infrastructure in Gaza,” Breaking the Silence said in a preface to the accounts.

Yuli Novak, the group’s director, said that the military rules of engagement during the war were “the most permissive” it had documented, reflecting “a broad ethical failure” that “comes from the top of the chain of command.”

In a written response, the army said it was committed to investigating “credible claims” of misconduct by troops but was unable to check and respond to the accounts published by Breaking the Silence because the group had failed to provide the military with its findings.

Army officials have asserted that Hamas militants used civilians as human shields during the Gaza war, firing rockets at Israeli cities and attacking Israeli forces from within residential areas.

According to several of the accounts published Monday, ground troops advancing into Gaza neighborhoods were told that following bombardments, shelling and army warnings to civilians to flee, anyone left in the targeted areas should be considered a combatant.

“The rules of engagement were pretty much the same: anyone inside is a threat, the area is supposed to be sterile . . . if we don’t see someone raising a white flag, shouting that he surrenders, then he is a threat and it’s OK to open fire,” said a soldier who served in the town of Deir al Balah. Like the other combatants who spoke to Breaking the Silence, his name was not published.

“We were told, ‘You’re not supposed to encounter civilians, no one is supposed to be where you’re going, which means that if you see someone, he’s a terrorist,’” another soldier recalled. “The directives are to shoot first, at whoever you identify, armed or unarmed. . . . Any person you encounter and see with your eyes – shoot to kill. That’s an explicit directive.”

The soldier, who served in Gaza City, added that his commanding officer acknowledged that innocents could be killed, but he told his men that “you can’t take chances and you have to shoot without thinking.”

Palestinians looking out of windows or from porches could be targeted as suspected spotters watching troop movements and positions, soldiers said. “If you see someone at the window of a house, in a high place, watching – that’s a scout,” one soldier said. “For us he’s a target. . . . He’s an enemy.”

Soldiers said that in one case, an elderly man who approached a house used as an army position was shot and wounded because he was suspected of carrying explosives, then finished off at close range. According to another account, two women spotted talking on cellphones as they walked in an orchard were struck from the air and killed after they were suspected of reporting on Israeli positions.

A member of a tank crew recalled that they were ordered to fire a salvo of shells at a distant cluster of houses in memory of a comrade who was killed.

A tank gunner said that he and his comrades competed at taking potshots at cars traveling on a major road, though none were hit.

“After three weeks in Gaza in which you’re shooting at anything that moves . . . good and bad get a little mixed up,” he recalled in his testimony, adding, “It also becomes like a computer game.”

Other soldiers reported extensive destruction of homes.

“The minute you criminalize a building – meaning that you see even the slightest movement, a terrorist going in there – is reason enough to take it down,” said an officer who served in the northern Gaza Strip. “It’s OK to hit it with artillery.”

Another soldier who served in the same area said that houses were routinely shelled before troops entered them, and when the buildings were used as army positions, neighboring homes were often razed to deny potential cover to gunmen.

Several soldiers reported that when they moved out of homes they had occupied, the houses were demolished by military bulldozers.

An armored infantry sergeant who was in the area of Deir al Balah recalled that as his unit pulled out of a neighborhood, the houses were razed, and a commanding officer said this was because the homes stood on strategic high ground facing Israel.

“At some point we understood that this was a trend,” the soldier said. “You leave a house, and it’s gone.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.