Israeli NGO ‘Breaking the silence’ spoke to over 60 IDF soldiers about last summer’s Gaza offensive. Their testimonies show many occasions when International warfare law were violated. Nadav Bigelman former IDF soldier and member of ‘Breaking the Silence’ is In the NOW.
Israeli soldiers cast doubt on legality of Gaza military tactics
Testimonies of Israeli combatants about last year’s war show apparent disregard for safety of civilians
Testimonies provided by more than 60 Israeli soldiers who fought in last summer’s war in Gaza have raised serious questions over whether Israel’s tactics breached its obligations under international law to distinguish and protect civilians.
The claims – collected by the human rights group Breaking the Silence – are contained in dozens of interviews with Israeli combatants, as well as with soldiers who served in command centres and attack rooms, a quarter of them officers up to the rank of major.
They include allegations that Israeli ground troops were briefed to regard everything inside Gaza as a “threat” and they should “not spare ammo”, and that tanks fired randomly or for revenge on buildings without knowing whether they were legitimate military targets or contained civilians.
In their testimonies, soldiers depict rules of engagement they characterised as permissive, “lax” or largely non-existent, including how some soldiers were instructed to treat anyone seen looking towards their positions as “scouts” to be fired on.
The group also claims that the Israeli military operated with different safety margins for bombing or using artillery and mortars near civilians and its own troops, with Israeli forces at times allowed to fire significantly closer to civilians than Israeli soldiers.
Phillipe Sands, professor of law at University College London and a specialist in international humanitarian law, described the testimonies as “troubling insights into intention and method”.
“Maybe it will be said that they are partial and selective, but surely they cannot be ignored or brushed aside, coming as they do from individuals with first-hand experience: the rule of law requires proper investigation and inquiry.”
Describing the rules that meant life and death in Gaza during the 50-day war – a conflict in which 2,200 Palestinians were killed – the interviews shed light for the first time not only on what individual soldiers were told but on the doctrine informing the operation.
Despite the insistence of Israeli leaders that it took all necessary precautions to protect civilians, the interviews provide a very different picture. They suggest that an overarching priority was the minimisation of Israeli military casualties even at the risk of Palestinian civilians being harmed.
While the Israel Defence Forces Military Advocate General’s office has launched investigations into a number of individual incidents of alleged wrongdoing, the testimonies raise wider questions over policies under which the war was conducted.
Post-conflict briefings to soldiers suggest that the high death toll and destruction were treated as “achievements” by officers who judged the attrition would keep Gaza “quiet for five years”.
The tone, according to one sergeant, was set before the ground offensive into Gaza that began on 17 July last year in pre-combat briefings that preceded the entry of six reinforced brigades into Gaza.
“[It] took place during training at Tze’elim, before entering Gaza, with the commander of the armoured battalion to which we were assigned,” recalled a sergeant, one of dozens of Israeli soldiers who have described how the war was fought last summer in the coastal strip.
“[The commander] said: ‘We don’t take risks. We do not spare ammo. We unload, we use as much as possible.’”
“The rules of engagement [were] pretty identical,” added another sergeant who served in a mechanised infantry unit in Deir al-Balah. “Anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat
The area has to be ‘sterilised,’ empty of people – and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming: “I give up” or something – then he’s a threat and there’s authorisation to open fire … The saying was: ‘There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.’ In that situation, anyone there is involved.”
“The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in,” recalled another soldier who served during the ground operation in Gaza City. The assumption being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist.”
Soldiers were also encouraged to treat individuals who came too close or watched from windows or other vantage points as “scouts” who could be killed regardless of whether there was hard evidence they were spotting for Hamas or other militant groups. “If it looks like a man, shoot. It was simple: you’re in a motherfucking combat zone,” said a sergeant who served in an infantry unit in the northern Gaza strip.
“A few hours before you went in the whole area was bombed, if there’s anyone there who doesn’t clearly look innocent, you apparently need to shoot that person.” Defining ‘innocent’ he added: “If you see the person is less than 1.40 metres tall or if you see it’s a lady … If it’s a man you shoot.”
In at least one instance described by soldiers, being female did not help two women who were killed because one had a mobile phone. A soldier described the incident: “After the commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies] … it was two women, over the age of 30 … unarmed. They were listed as terrorists. They were fired at. So of course they must have been terrorists.”
The testimonies raise questions whether Israel fully met its obligations to protect civilians in a conflict area from unnecessary harm, requiring it not only to distinguish between civilians and combatants but also ensure that when using force, where there is the risk of civilian harm, that it is “proportionate”.
“One of the main threads in the testimonies,” said Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer and legal adviser to Breaking the Silence, “is the presumption that despite the fact that the battle was being waged in urban area – and one of most densely populated in the world – no civilians would be in the areas they entered.”
That presumption, say soldiers, was sustained by virtue of warnings to Palestinians to leave their homes and neighbourhoods delivered in leaflets dropped by aircraft and in text and phone messages which meant – in the IDF’s interpretation – that anyone who remained was not a civilian.
Even at the time that view was deeply controversial because – says Sfard and other legal experts interviewed – it reinterpreted international law regarding the duty of protection for areas containing civilians.
Sfard added: “We are not talking about a [deliberate] decision to kill civilians. But to say the rules of engagement were lax gives them too much credit. They allowed engagement in almost any circumstances, unless there was a felt to be a risk to an IDF soldier.”
If the rules of engagement were highly permissive, other soldiers say that they also detected a darker mood in their units that further coloured the way that soldiers behaved. “The motto guiding lots of people was: ‘Let’s show them,’ recalls a lieutenant who served in the Givati Brigade in Rafah. “It was evident that was a starting point. Lots of guys who did their reserve duty with me don’t have much pity towards [the Palestinians].”
He added: “There were a lot of people there who really hate Arabs. Really, really hate Arabs. You could see the hate in their eyes.”
A second lieutenant echoed his comments. “You could feel there was a radicalisation in the way the whole thing was conducted. The discourse was extremely rightwing … [And] the very fact that [Palestinians were] described as ‘uninvolved’ rather than as civilians, and the desensitisation to the surging number of dead on the Palestinian side. It doesn’t matter whether they’re involved or not … that’s something that troubles me.”
And the testimonies, too, suggest breaches of the IDF’s own code of ethics – The Spirit of the IDF – which insists: “IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.”
Contrary to that, however, testimonies describe how soldiers randomly shelled buildings either to no obvious military purpose or for revenge.
One sergeant who served in a tank in the centre of the Gaza Strip recalls: “A week or two after we entered the Gaza Strip and we were all firing a lot when there wasn’t any need for it – just for the sake of firing – a member of our company was killed.
“The company commander came over to us and told us that one guy was killed due to such-and-such, and he said: ‘Guys, get ready, get in your tanks, and we’ll fire a barrage in memory of our comrade” … My tank went up to the post – a place from which I can see targets – can see buildings – [and] fired at them, and the platoon commander says: ‘OK guys, we’ll now fire in memory of our comrade’ and we said OK.”
How Israeli forces used artillery and mortars in Gaza, says Breaking the Silence, has raised other concerns beyond either the rules of engagement or the actions of specific units.
According to the group’s research during the war, the Israeli military operated two different sets of rules for how close certain weapons could be fired to Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.
Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, and himself a former soldier, explains: “What our research during this project uncovered was that there were three designated ‘Operational Levels’ during the conflict – numbered one to three. What the operational level was was set higher up the chain of command. Above the level of the Gaza division. What those levels do is designate the likelihood of civilian casualties from weapons like 155mm artillery and bombs from ‘low’ damage to civilians to ‘high’.
“What we established was that for artillery fire in operational levels two and three Israeli forces were allowed to fire much closer to civilians than they were to friendly Israeli forces.”
Ahead of the conflict – in which 34,000 shells were fired into Gaza, 19,000 of them explosive – artillery and air liaison officers had been supplied with a list of sensitive sites to which fire was not to be directed within clear limits of distance. These included hospitals and UN schools being used as refugee centres, even in areas where evacuation had been ordered.
“Even then,” explains Shaul, “we have a testimony we took that a senior brigade commander issued order how to get around that, instructing that the unit fired first outside of the protected area and then calling for correction fire on to the location that they wanted to hit.
“He said: “If you go on the radio and ask to hit this building, we have to say no. But if you give a target 200 metres outside then you can ask for correction. Only thing that is recorded is the first target not the correction fire.”
And in the end, despite the high number of civilian casualties, the debriefings treated the destruction as an accomplishment that would discourage Hamas in the future.
“You could say they went over most of the things viewed as accomplishments,” said a Combat Intelligence Corps sergeant. “ “They spoke about numbers: 2,000 dead and 11,000 wounded, half a million refugees, decades worth of destruction. Harm to lots of senior Hamas members and to their homes, to their families. These were stated as accomplishments so that no one would doubt that what we did during this period was meaningful.
“They spoke of a five-year period of quiet (in which there would be no hostilities between Israel and Hamas) when in fact it was a 72-hour ceasefire, and at the end of those 72 hours they were firing again.”
Without responding to the specific allegations, the Israeli military said: “The IDF is committed to properly investigating all credible claims raised via media, NGOs, and official complaints concerning IDF conduct during operation Protective Edge, in as serious a manner as possible.
“It should be noted that following Operation Protective Edge, thorough investigations were carried out, and soldiers and commanders were given the opportunity to present any complaint. Exceptional incidents were then transferred to the military advocate general for further inquiry.”
In their Own Words
Protection of civilians
First Sergeant, Armoured Corps, location not disclosed
One talk I remember especially well took place during training at Tze’elim – before entering Gaza – with the commander of the armoured battalion to which we were assigned … He said: ‘We do not take risks, we do not spare ammo – we unload, we use as much as possible.’ He said we were slated to enter an area where nearly all of the buildings were already destroyed. The greenhouses were in pieces. He said the place was supposed to be empty.
He said that if we come across a building that no [IDF soldiers] had entered yet, we get in radio contact with him, he orders the tanks to aim, unloads two shells on the house – and only then do we go in, ‘wet’ (with live fire) of course, with grenades and everything.
He said that, if necessary, mortars could be aimed, too. The idea was to minimise casualties on our side, and use as much of our arsenal as was needed to eliminate any chance of there being someone inside.
Two officers interviewed by Breaking the Silence discussed what they felt was an ugly mood permeating the operation – an issue alluded to by others.
Lieutenant, Givati Brigade, Rafah
The motto guiding lots of people was: ‘Let’s show them.’ It was evident that that was a starting point. ‘Let’s show them.’ Lots of guys who did their reserve duty with me don’t have much pity towards … The only thing that drives them is to look after their soldiers, and the mission – they are driven towards an IDF victory, at any price. And they sleep just fine at night.
They are totally at peace with that. These aren’t people who spend their days looking for things to kill. By no means. But they aren’t afraid to kill, either. They don’t see it as something bad. The power-trip element is also at play, it’s all kinds of things. I think that a lot can be learned from Operation Protective Edge about the issue of dealing with civilians, and how that works. There were a lot of people there who really hate Arabs. Really, really hate Arabs. You could see the hate in their eyes.
Lieutenant, Gaza division
You could feel there was a radicalisation in the way the whole thing was conducted. The discourse was extremely rightwing. The military obviously has very clear enemies – the Arabs, Hamas. There is this rigid dichotomy. There are those involved [Palestinians involved in the fighting] and those uninvolved, and that’s it.
But the very fact that they’re described as ‘uninvolved’, rather than as civilians, and the desensitisation to the surging number of dead on the Palestinian side – and it doesn’t matter whether they’re involved or not – the unfathomable number of dead on one of the sides, the unimaginable level of destruction, the way militant cells and people were regarded as targets and not as living beings – that’s something that troubles me.
The discourse is racist. The discourse is nationalistic. The discourse is anti-leftist. It was an atmosphere that really, really scared me. And it was really felt, while we were inside. During the operation it gets radicalised. I was at the base, and some clerk says to me, ‘Yeah, give it to them, kill them all.’ And you say to yourself, ‘Whatever, they’re just kids, it’s just talk’ – but they’re talking that way because someone allowed them to talk that way. If that clerk was the only one saying it I’d write her off – but when everyone starts talking like that …
Rules of engagement
The rules of engagement are guidelines for both engaging the enemy and protection of the civilian population usually briefed ahead of operations. Testimonies collected from soldiers who served in Operation Protective Edge often speak of rules of engagement that were vague or that treated civilians in Gaza who had not left the area after leaflets and warnings calls and texts were issued as combatants.
Infantry, rank not disclosed, Gaza City
Any fire by the assistance forces goes through a system of authorisation … The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in. The assumption being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist. And it pretty much stayed that way throughout the operation. As long as you don’t violate the perimeter of another force’s zone – in other words, risk friendly fire – you are allowed to open fire.
First Sergeant, Mechanised Infantry, Deir al-Balah
The rules of engagement are pretty identical: anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat, the area has to be ‘sterilised,’ empty of people – and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming: ‘I give up’ or something – then he’s a threat and there’s authorisation to open fire. In the event that we arrest and restrain him, then one strips him to make sure there’s no explosive device on him.
Shooting to kill. This is combat in an urban area, we’re in a war zone. The saying was: ‘There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.’ In that situation, anyone there is involved.
First Sergeant, Armoured Corps, location not disclosed
Did they discuss rules of engagement with you? What’s permitted and what’s forbidden?
During training … [they told us] that we only enter houses ‘wet’, with grenades, and the more of them the better – and [grenade] launchers if you can use them. You’re going to ‘open’ a house? Don’t take any chances, use your grenade launcher, utilise every effective tool you’ve got. Aim, fire and only then go in. You don’t know if there is or isn’t someone in there. Go in ‘wet’ with grenades, with live fire. These were the orders for entering houses.
How does one launch a grenade at a house?
You move back to a distance that’s effective for a grenade launcher. I don’t know – it explodes from about *** metres, more or less. You walk a distance back, and lob it through the window, into the house. These were the scenarios for which we trained. We weren’t presented with scenarios of ‘terrorist, not terrorist’. [We were told] ‘This is the house, first thing – aim.’
Did they discuss uninvolved civilians with you?
No one spoke about that at all. From their point of view, no one should be there at all. If there is [any Palestinian] there – they shouldn’t be. I think there was something very frightening, and also a bit paralysing in the atmosphere. And I think that the feeling among [the soldiers] too, was that we to really need to give it to them.
First Sergeant, Infantry, northern Gaza Strip
There weren’t really any rules of engagement, it was more protocols. The idea was, if you spot something – shoot. They told us: ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot.’ Whether it posed a threat or not wasn’t a question, and that makes sense to me. If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal. First of all, because it’s Gaza, and second, because that’s warfare. That, too, was made clear to us – they told us: ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot’, and they made it clear that there were no uninvolved civilians.
First Sergeant, Armoured Corps, Deir al-Balah
When we first entered [the Gaza Strip] there was this ethos about Hamas – we were certain that the moment we went in our tanks would all be up in flames. But after 48 hours during which no one shoots at you and they’re like ghosts, unseen, their presence unfelt – except once in a while the sound of one shot fired over the course of an entire day – you come to realise the situation is under control. And that’s when my difficulty there started, because the formal rules of engagement – I don’t know if for all soldiers – were, ‘Anything still there is as good as dead. Anything you see moving in the neighbourhoods you’re in is not supposed to be there. The [Palestinian] civilians know they are not supposed to be there. Therefore whoever you see there, you kill.’
Who gave that order?
The commander. ‘Anything you see in the neighbourhoods you’re in, anything within a reasonable distance, say between zero and 200 metres – is dead on the spot. No authorisation needed.’ We asked him: ‘I see someone walking in the street, do I shoot him?’ He said yes. ‘Why do I shoot him?’ ‘Because he isn’t supposed to be there. Nobody, no sane civilian who isn’t a terrorist, has any business being within 200 metres of a tank. And if he places himself in such a situation, he is apparently up to something.’ Every place you took over, anything you ‘sterilised,’ anything within a range of zero to 200 metres, 300 metres – that’s supposed to be a ‘sterilised’ area, from our perspective.
First Sergeant, Armoured Corps, Shuja’iyya Gaza City
The rules of engagement were very, very lax. I wouldn’t say that they shot anything that moved – but they didn’t request authorisation [to fire], either. There was no such thing as requesting authorisation. Just fire. At the tank commander level, there was no problem at all with machine gun fire and shellfire, too … It’s enough for a gunner to be uncertain of what something he sees in some window is – ‘open fire’.
First Sergeant, Infantry, Khan Younis
They explained what you do if you see a civilian. [They explained that] that’s the way it is in combat. It was shoot to kill immediately if you see stuff. But there was nothing organised – no one said, ‘If someone is dressed this way don’t shoot, if someone is dressed that way, shoot.’ [It was more along the lines of] ‘If you see someone – shoot.’ In the end you use your own judgment. Really they did say, ‘If you see someone – shoot him.’
First Sergeant, Infantry, northern Gaza Strip
What were the rules of engagement?
If it looks like a man, shoot. It was simple: uou’re in a motherfucking combat zone. A few hours before you went in the whole area was bombed, if there’s anyone there who doesn’t clearly look innocent, you apparently need to shoot that person.
If you see the person is less than 1.4 metres tall, or if you see it’s a lady. You can tell from far away. If it’s a man you shoot.
Do you take into consideration his distance from the forces, whether he’s armed or not?
Yeah, of course. I’m talking about close range. If it’s from far away you have time to figure out what you’re doing. From far you don’t shoot immediately because you have time to report. But what’s a report, it’s just saying: ‘Commander, two enemies identified 400 metres away, south-east of blah-blah-blah, opening fire.’ He responds: ‘Affirmative.’
The process of “incrimination” referred to in the soldiers’ testimonies covers a number of different issues. Both buildings and individuals could be incriminated. That could mean intelligence on a Hamas operative; a building deemed suspect by intelligence; or by individuals who soldiers on the ground or operators in a control room decided were behaving in a suspect fashion. For some targeting decisions – including air and artillery strikes – the senior intelligence officer in the command centre might be called on to deem the target “incriminated”. However on the ground combat soldiers simply made their own judgments based on a flapping curtain or the gender and age of the target.
First Sergeant, Armoured Corps, Deir al-Balah
I spotted these old window blinds, the old-fashioned white ones. I noticed one open and then flap shut, and open and shut again. I couldn’t see anyone doing anything, I just see it open and shut in a way that has got nothing to do with the wind. So I tell my officer: ‘I see it moving, that blind.’ He goes: ‘What are you going on about,’ and looks and says: ‘You’re imagining things.’ A second later I tell him: ‘Now, look again.’ He says to me: ‘Yeah, it’s moving, go ahead, shell it.’ And I say: ‘OK, one shell over there,’ and we fired two shells at it.
Were you in any danger?
So why did you shoot?
Because the instruction was: ‘Anyone you identify in the area – you shoot.’
First Sergeant Class, Armoured Corps, Gaza City
If you identify a person watching you from a rooftop, do you fire a shell there?
It really depends on when – at the beginning [of the operation], you didn’t wait for authorisation, or you waited for authorisation to make sure they were not our forces. You didn’t wait to incriminate.
You identify a person, and if the tank commander considers him a suspect, you open fire. You don’t ask for authorisation, no one asks for explanations. It doesn’t feel strange because that’s what we did in nearly every battle we were in, from the start up until then.
And what about people looking at you from the window of a house?
People who look at you from the window of a house that is in your designated area – they, to put it mildly, won’t look any more.
First Sergeant, Mobile Infantry, Deir al-Balah
What I can say about the armoured corps, is that anyone they saw acting as a lookout, they fired into that house until it burned up and collapsed. That’s what was on the two-way radio. Say someone was spotted in a building 200 metres from them, they would start firing at the nearby houses.
Heavy machine gun fire was used to locate the house and then a shell would be fired?
Yes. That’s the idea. When you identify a person looking out from a house, from a balcony or a window. Whether he was or wasn’t using any lookout aids, I wouldn’t know – but it doesn’t matter, one shoots in that direction, with intent to kill. When a shell is fired at it there is no expectation that anybody inside will stay alive.
Are we talking about a moment when tanks are coming under fire?
No. This is for when [the Palestinian who was spotted] doesn’t constitute a direct threat, not for when there’s an anti-tank missile being fired at us.
First Sergeant, Engineer, Gaza City
What were the instructions regarding [Palestinians] who return?
The instructions were to open fire. They said: ‘No one is supposed to be in the area in which you will be.’
What was the commanders’ response?
A typical officer’s response was: ‘It’s a complicated situation, I realise a situation might arise in which innocent people get killed, but you cannot take that risk or put your comrades at risk, you must shoot without hesitation.’ The instructions are to shoot right away. Whoever you spot – be they armed or unarmed, no matter what. The instructions are very clear. Any person you run into, that you see with your eyes – shoot to kill. It’s an explicit instruction.
No incrimination process is necessary?
Is there any mention of [shooting] limits? Is 100 metres the limit, 200 metres?
Not at all. The only limits are the zone perimeters between IDF forces.
First Sergeant, Armoured Corps, Deir al-Balah
We were given a number of targets – I don’t know if they corresponded to the number of tanks. It’s so crowded in there, there aren’t any spaces between the buildings. It’s not like any normal city, where you’ll see a building next to another building and there’s a space between them. It looks like one fused layer.
And at that point were you being fired at?
No fire was directed toward us, but these were deemed ‘suspicious spots’ – which means a very lax policy of opening fire [was being employed]. That can mean anything that looks threatening to us. An especially tall building, or something that could be holding an antitank system – anything that feels threatening or fishy. Anything that doesn’t blend into the scenery, that feels artificial. Things like that, or things that we really had intelligence about.
There were lots of observation posts working alongside us, from lots of different forces, and we fired at that kind of thing. You’re allowed to shoot at pretty much whatever you want to, unless you see something that would be unreasonable to shoot at, like a school. There were times we were told: ‘You see that building? That’s a school, don’t shoot there. And that over there is the Gaza amusement park – one can see the Ferris wheel from a distance – we don’t shoot at it.’
Who authorises opening fire?
Usually that would be the tank commander. Since regulations [for opening fire] were very permissive during the operation, tank commanders could authorise … Every tank commander knew, and even the simple soldiers knew, that if something turns out to be not OK, they can say they saw something suspicious. They’ve got backup. They won’t ever be tried.
Rank not disclosed, Infantry, southern Gaza Strip
There was a force that identified two figures walking in an orchard, around 800 or 900 metres from the force’s zone perimeter. They were two young women walking in the orchard. The commander asked to confirm: ‘What do you see,’ and whether they were incriminated or not. It was during daytime, around 11am, or noon. The lookouts couldn’t see well so the commander sent a drone up to look from above, and the drone implicated them. It saw them with phones, talking, walking. They directed fire there, on those girls, and they were killed. After they were implicated, I had a feeling it was bullshit. …
After that the commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies]. They check the bodies, and it was two women, over age 30. The bodies of two women, and they were unarmed. He came back and we moved on, and they were listed as terrorists. They were fired at – so of course, they must have been terrorists …
Rank not disclosed, unit not disclosed, northern Gaza Strip
In general, making incriminations was harder during the beginning [of the operation], so as is natural during a difficult combat situation, in an area where fighting is taking place, it was sufficient that we knew there was intelligence on a certain house – [and even if it was] less intelligence than usual, it was enough to fire at the house or to tell [the ground forces] to shoot at it.
Major, Infantry, northern Gaza Strip
There is one part [of the operation] that includes an ‘accompanying screen’ – the firing of artillery shells before the forces arrive. You notify the [Palestinian] residents, throw leaflets – whoever fled, fled – and then you fire. I’m talking about a pretty massive use of fire. The artillery, its purpose is to allow our forces to enter without being hurt …
According to intelligence reports and military communications, you’re talking about a situation in which all the houses are classified as some type of hostile location. Are all the houses really hostile locations? I don’t know … I do know that the practical result was flattened areas where houses had once stood.
… You know what joke was being told in the army at the time? The joke says that Palestinians only sing the chorus because they have no verses [houses] left (in Hebrew, the word for verse is the same as the word for house).
First Sergeant, Infantry, northern Gaza
You keep shooting at the same houses, at the same windows. When you shoot at a house it doesn’t totally collapse. They stay standing. I was surprised by how long it takes until they fall. You can take down three walls and somehow they remain standing despite the fact that they’re all blown to bits, it’s all ruined. It’s like Call of Duty (a first-person shooter video game).
First Sergeant , Mobile Infantry, Deir al-Balah
We figured out pretty quick that every house we leave, a D9 shows up and razes it. The neighbourhood we were in, what characterised it operationally was that it commanded a view of the entire area of the [Israel-Gaza barrier] and also of some of the [Israeli] border towns. In the southern and some of the eastern parts of Juhar al-Dik, we understood pretty quickly that the houses would not be left standing.
At no point until the end of the operation, until the unit commander debriefed us, did anyone explain to us the value of razing houses. During the talk the unit commander explained that it wasn’t an act of revenge. That the houses situated on a high axis on this side of the ridge dominated the entire area between [the separation fence with] Israel and the neighbourhood, and that is why they couldn’t be left standing.
They also overlook the Israeli towns and allow for them to be shelled with mortars. At a certain point we understood it was a pattern: you leave a house and the house is gone – after two or three houses you figure out that there’s a pattern. The D9 comes and flattens it.
And when updated maps were issued after we left [the Gaza Strip], we saw the only two houses that remained standing when we left, marked on them.
In several instances soldiers describe fire ordered or directed in response to news of casualties or deaths on the Israeli side.
First Sergeant, Armoured Corps, Deir al-Balah
A week or two after we entered the Gaza Strip and we were all firing a lot when there wasn’t any need for it – just for the sake of firing – a member of our company was killed. I remember it happened on Friday afternoon and we – my force, which is a tank platoon, we were separated from the rest of the company, not connected to them physically or in terms of missions – we were with an engineering force doing something else, and the rumours started flowing our way.
They started saying that some guys were injured, some guys may be killed, seriously injured, and the game of where and who-knows-what-happened got going. The company commander came over to us and told us that one guy was killed due to such-and-such, and he said: ‘Guys, get ready, get in your tanks, and we’ll fire a barrage in memory of our comrade.’ In the meantime the platoon stood in a sort of stationary circle, people were crying, people also broke some windows in the area with their weapons, and we got in the tanks and started them up. And the platoon commander asked the company commander: ‘We are preparing for engagement, OK?’ ‘Engagement’, that is, a tank firing at something. The company commander says: ‘Authorised, at your own time.’ We went up, my tank went up to the post – a place from which I can see targets, can see buildings, can ensure that I can fire at them, and the platoon commander says: ‘OK guys, we’ll now fire in memory of our comrade’, and we said OK.
We were firing purposelessly all day long. Hamas was nowhere to be seen – it’s not like they stood up on some roof for you holding a sign that says: ‘We are Hamas militants.’ You have no idea what’s going on, and because you don’t, your human nature is to be scared and ‘over’ defensive, so you ‘overshoot’. And no one discusses that because it goes without saying that everyone wants to … And the rules of engagement were pretty easy-going – I was shocked when I first heard them.
‘Running like terrorists’
Lieutenant, Gaza City
There was a mission [to strike the containers], and despite the fact that we believe that most of that sort of equipment wasn’t kept there – because [Hamas] knows we have our eyes on that area non-stop – aerial advance warning fire was opened toward the area of the shipping container. And there were kids who were playing on the beach apparently, and aerial fire was opened up as warning fire, or as an attempt to destroy something. They opened fire toward the container, and the kids who were playing near it – or were hiding because they heard the gunfire – started running, in a way that very much resembles terrorists, and so they were shot from the air. They took them down.
What do you mean, ‘in a way that resembles terrorists?’
When you fire at, say, some apartment building, or some hideout, if you’re conducting ‘roof knocking’ (a method by which a small missile is fired on the roof of a building as a warning shot before it is struck) or something like that, then you see [people who were in the building] running to escape, to save their lives. The moment you have an aircraft up in the air, and you’re in the middle of an operation, then your finger is light on the trigger … And they were accidentally shot. Whether it was a blunder or not, that didn’t matter, you could tell what had just happened. You don’t expect the presence of kids there, but there were kids there. Everyone involved just thought it was a group of terrorists. They were kids, or teenagers, they looked big enough to seem like logical targets that were running out of a structure that is known to house hostile terror activities, and they were just killed.
Judging the ‘achievement’
First Sergeant, Combat Intelligence Collection Corps, northern Gaza Strip
What was said during the debriefing afterwards?
You could say they went over most of the things viewed as accomplishments. They spoke about numbers: 2,000 dead and 11,000 wounded, half a million refugees, decades’ worth of destruction. Harm to lots of senior Hamas members and to their homes, to their families. These were stated as accomplishments so that no one would doubt that what we did during this period was meaningful. They spoke of a five-year period of quiet (in which there would be no hostilities between Israel and Hamas) when in fact it was a 72-hour ceasefire, and at the end of those 72 hours they were firing again.
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