The public debate about anonymous soldiers’ testimonies to the Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika) organization shows how rarely those testimonies were read in full. The testimonies indicate a state of preparedness for warfare which is different from the ongoing security situation in the territories as part of the Second Lebanese War; they bear witness to the IDF fighting ethic and also include claims (as distinct from hearsay) of a suspected breach of the laws of armed conflict in a number of isolated, localized events which did not originate from orders issued by senior command ranks, and which require in-depth investigation by the IDF.
On July 14th, 2009 Breaking the Silence published testimonies by 30 anonymous soldiers describing events as they experienced them during Operation Cast Lead (December 27th, 2008 – January 18th, 2009).
The publication made waves in Israel and worldwide. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) published a notice referring to the soldiers’ “testimonies” as “evidence”, stating that “the testimonies published by the Breaking the Silence organization can be added to a long list of evidence concerning compromise to civilians during Operation Cast Lead.” The ACRI goes on to accuse Israel of covering up suspicions of war crimes having been committed during the operation. “Despite repeated reports from various sources, Israel to this day holds fast to its refusal to hold a reliable, independent inquiry into the fighting in Gaza during the operation, and even refuses to cooperate with the Goldstone Commission appointed by the United Nations. The response of the IDF spokesman raises fears that in this case too, instead of carrying out a thorough investigation of the worrisome testimonies, the denials will continue”, states the ACRI notice. The ACRI further points out that “when soldiers who themselves took part in combat in Operation Cast Lead report allegedly problematic and illegal procedures, the army should be expected to pay due attention and not engage in unnecessary tongue-lashing”.
The IDF expressed regret at the publication of the report, which contained anonymous and general testimonies “without checking their details or reliability and without allowing the IDF, with minimal fairness, an opportunity to check the contents and address them prior to their publication. This was done with the implication that the IDF and its commanding officers were at fault and slandering them”. The IDF spokesman called on Breaking the Silence to encourage the soldiers providing testimonies to “break their silence” and come into the open with specific complaints, making it possible to address such complaints appropriately and investigate them where necessary, rather than “hiding” behind general, anonymous statements devoid of any identifying details – such as rank, initial letter of the first name, regiment, place and date. “On the basis of these statements it is impossible to conduct any individual checks that might enable investigation, confirmation or contradiction”, said the IDF spokesman, adding that “from the testimonies published, including in the present report, and from debriefings following battles, it is clear that IDF soldiers acted in accordance with the laws of armed conflict pursuant to international law, despite the complexity of the conflict”.
The debate surrounding the testimonies continues in the media and in discussions and arguments in various camps. An analysis of the different parties’ claims, as quoted in the media, shows that in fact few of those involved have read all of the soldiers’ statements in detail. To make things easier for the general public, we will present the statements here, broken down according to subjects (some paraphrased and some precise). A summary of the statements, including the main points of what the soldiers said, will be made available in a separate index to this article, with reference to the full testimonies. It is recommended to read these on the Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika) website.
Soldiers’ claims regarding suspected war crimes and improper conduct:
- Shooting at a suspect who approached an IDF post at night in a suspicious manner without firing a prior warning shot at him. In the morning a dog was dispatched to check whether he was wearing an explosives belt or carrying weapons, but nothing was found.
- A woman approached an IDF post in a suspicious manner with a sack in her hands. She was warned to stop but kept walking even when warning shots were fired in her direction. When she continued to approach despite all the warnings directed at her, she was shot and killed. The force left the location and it is not known whether she was carrying an explosive charge.
- Warning shots were fired at two elderly women and a small child carrying a suitcase when they approached too close to a building that an IDF force was occupying. The Palestinians were not injured.
- A number of Palestinians residents who were present at the combat arena were sent by soldiers on “missions”. In one case, a Palestinian was asked to enter a house with three armed terrorists inside in order to persuade the terrorists to give themselves up. When they refused, they were shot at. The Palestinian was sent in again and eventually persuaded the last terrorist remaining alive to give himself up.
- A number of Palestinian residents were used as a human shield for soldiers and were ordered by the soldiers to break down walls with hammers.
- Soldiers shot solar heaters, broke kitchen cabinets and utensils, drew on walls, tore up note books and text books, failed to maintain proper hygiene, sat on sofas in houses, broke floor tiles in order to prepare sandbags, used mattresses and blankets belonging to Palestinians and spoke in a vulgar and disrespectful manner about combat missions conducted on Palestinians.
Reports from soldiers about commanding officers’ policy regarding the maintenance and actual implementation of combat ethics:
- The order was: if civilians are encountered, they must be sent to an area far removed from the combat arena.
- An express order was issued not to shoot at people carrying white flags.
- Residents were removed from houses before they were cleared. Men were sent for questioning and women and children were sent a place far from the area of combat.
- Families were rounded up in houses to protect them from injury in the course of the combat, and then sent to places far removed from the combat arena.
- Women were inspected without exposing their bodies (apart from their veils) by pressing their clothes close to their bodies in order to identify weapons or explosive belts.
- An elderly diabetic who remained in a house that an IDF force entered received medical treatment and food.
- Commanders were briefed on the importance of not injuring civilians and property in houses entered by IDF forces, and a command was issued prohibiting sleeping in the Palestinians’ beds.
- A commanding officer ordered soldiers not to sit on the sofas in a house where a force was stationed.
- Reservists cleaned the houses they entered and took care of the furniture.
- Commanding officers held “shame parades” to prevent looting.
- An IDF force that was inside a Palestinian home cleaned it and left a pile of canned army food supplies for the Palestinian family when they left.
Reasons for the destruction of houses and exposure of land areas
- Houses were destroyed by the IDF for the following reasons: the house was a vantage point for firing and observation of an IDF post or it obscured lines of visibility; fear of the existence of tunnels used for attacking the army or capturing soldiers; information based on intelligence; the house was used to shoot at Israelis or armed forces; the house was booby-trapped.
- Open areas and orchards were exposed by the IDF for the following reasons: to open up transport routes for the IDF where the areas were believed not to be mined; to set up sand banks to protect forces; to prevent hiding places for teams firing Qassam missiles; to allow forces a firing and observation advantage; suspicion of the presence of terrorists at the location; clearing an area close to the border with Israel (to a depth of 200 meters) of any covering objects for “the day after”, to rule out hiding places for terrorists.
- Destruction of houses or exposure of land areas had to be approved by the Division and was executed on the basis of marking the location designated for destruction on a map.
Motive for the use of white phosphorus artillery shells:
- White phosphorus (WP) felt impregnated shells were used in order to set fire to houses that were suspected of being booby trapped and/or being used as a source of firing Qassam missiles, and in order to ensure the destruction of all weapons and ammunition in them.
Orders to open fire during Operation Cast Lead:
- In their briefings commanding officers emphasized the significance of going to war and the differences between war and the reality of the ongoing security situation that soldiers are familiar with in the West Bank.
- Orders were issued to fire at any person or persons who crossed the “red line” in a suspicious way and were carrying a weapon. The “red line” was defined as an area very close to IDF posts (a few hundred meters before the post), at a realistic range for being hit by light weapons fire or an explosives belt.
- An order was issued to fire warning shots at any vehicle approaching an IDF post in a suspicious manner.
- If an IDF force was under fire, it responded by firing at suspicious targets.
- Orders for opening fire in daytime were stricter than at night, since daylight offered a better chance of identification.
- No orders were issued to fire at civilians.
- An order was issued not to fire at people carrying white flags.
- An order was given for warning shots or test firing at unoccupied houses.
- IDF forces did not fire during humanitarian cease-fires.
- An order was issued to fire into dead areas before troops entered them during operational movement, to be sure there was no enemy presence (e.g. a bend in the road obscuring the line of visibility).
- Computerized 120 mm. precision mortar shells were fired at militants with Qassam rockets in urban and open areas, also because of the inability to carry out air force attacks every time a Qassam was launched. After the mortar shells were fired, reports were received from lookouts on injuries to Qassam militants.
- Armed terrorists (in the field, in houses or on rooftops) were identified by means of daytime and night (thermal) surveillance, the information was delivered to senior ranks to check whether civilians were present at the location (sometimes unmanned aircraft were sent in, and sometimes an infantry force), and an attack was authorized further to the evaluation.
The operation’s objectives and briefings prior to combat:
- To prevent Qassam rockets being fired into Israel.
- To deal a severe blow to Hamas and terror organizations by causing extensive damage to their fighters.
- To create conditions to negotiate the return of [captive soldier] Gilad Shalit.
- To divide up the Gaza Strip to prevent Hamas weapons and forces from passing into Gaza City in preparation for conquering it.
- Inflicting heavy fire in the absence of a surprise element in IDF actions in the Strip.
- Meticulous focus on the preservation of combat soldiers’ lives, including issuing strict orders to avoid capture.
- Mental and emotional preparation of forces for a war situation.
- Briefings on warnings of intended terror attacks and exploitation by terror organizations of the civilian infrastructure for camouflage purposes.
Combat methods of Hamas and terror organizations:
- Firing from houses, concealing explosives and weapons in houses, booby trapping houses.
- Burying explosive charges.
- Shooting at IDF forces, inter alia from schools and hospitals.
- Launching mortar shells towards populated Palestinian areas where IDF forces were posted, and at houses seized by the IDF.
- Intentions of carrying out suicide attacks by women.
Soldiers’ reports of unfounded hearsay and morale:
- Destruction of houses “without incrimination”.
- Razing entire neighborhoods without justifiable cause.
- Use of WP felt impregnated shells without operational necessity.
- Helicopter attack on a mosque for no obvious operational reason.