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Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

Destroyed house in Gaza
Soldiers are quoted saying they opened fire at any "suspect places"

A human rights group founded by Israeli veterans has collected what it says are damning testimonies from soldiers who took part in the offensive in January against Hamas fighters in Gaza. BBC correspondent Paul Wood looks at the anonymous claims presented by Breaking the Silence.

Standing by the ruins of his home in Gaza, Majdi Abed Rabbo explained how Israeli troops had used him as a human shield.

"The Israeli soldiers handcuffed me and pointed the gun at my neck," he said. "They controlled every step."

In this manner, Mr Abed Rabbo said, he was forced to go in ahead of Israeli soldiers as they cleared houses containing Palestinian gunmen.

This same incident was described by one of the Israeli soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.

Majdi Abed Rabbo
Israel's military is now looking into Majdi Abed Rabbo's claims

"A Palestinian neighbour is brought in," he says. "It was procedure. The soldier places his gun barrel on the civilian's shoulder."

If true, that was a clear breach of the international laws of war - which say soldiers have a duty of care to non-combatants - and of Israeli law.

The Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the so-called "neighbour policy", of using Palestinians to shield advancing troops, in 2005.

Until now, the Israeli army always had a ready answer to allegations that war crimes were committed during its offensive in Gaza.

Such claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda.

Now, though, the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

Testimonies collected

The common thread in the almost 30 testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties, whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

Writing the report's introduction, the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard says: "All the witnesses agreed that they received a particular order repeatedly, in a way that did not leave much room for doubt, to do everything, everything, so that they - the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers - would not be harmed.

"The soldiers tell in their testimonies how this unwritten message, which came from brigade, battalion, and company commanders in morale-building conversations before entering Gaza, translated into zero patience for the life of enemy civilians."

Israeli troops return from Gaza 19.1.09
Israel denies its soldiers broke the laws of war

The lawyer adds: "Violations of the laws of war are liable to be war crimes."

Here are just a few quotes which give a flavour of the soldiers' testimony. The accumulation of detail is convincing and, in the eyes of Israel's critics, damning.

"Things are happening in his battalion of which he (the commander) has no idea. There are people who deserve to go to jail...

"When your company commander and battalion commander tell you, 'Go on, fire!' the soldiers will not hold back. They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands...

"Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don't see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents."

GAZA REPORT
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Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich dismissed the testimonies as anonymous hearsay, designed to embarrass the army rather than lead to serious investigations.

She questioned why Breaking the Silence had not handed over its findings earlier, before the media were informed.

"We are investigating many of the requests from NGOs and other groups," she said. "But when you have a report that is based on hearsay, with no facts whatsoever, we can't do anything with it."

In the past, says the Israeli military, some allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza have turned out to be second or third-hand accounts, the result of soldiers recycling rumours in the battalion rather than describing what they themselves witnessed.

Credible record

But Breaking the Silence has a long - and to many, credible - record of getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the Army.

The group is funded by the British, Dutch and Spanish governments, as well as the EU.

It says the testimony is anonymous because of orders to Israeli soldiers not to speak out publicly.

Some of the collected testimony is highly specific.

In the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo, the Israeli military police have now opened an investigation, lending at least some credibility to the soldier who said the "neighbour policy" was in widespread use.

The military maintains it went to extraordinary lengths to ensure civilians were not harmed in Gaza.

The soldiers' testimony does describe in detail how leaflets were distributed in areas they were about to enter - warning people to leave.

But it is what happened after that, says Breaking the Silence, which calls into question the morality of the Israeli army's actions.



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