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Israel soldiers on Gaza: Excerpts

White phosphorus shell burst in Gaza 8 January 2009
Allegations include that white phosophorus was used "for fun"

A group of Israeli soldiers who took part in the Cast Lead operation in Gaza in January have published anonymous testimonies describing a range of abuses during the conflict. The activist group which gathered them, Breaking the Silence, says they stemmed from Israeli policy and rules and engagement, not just mistakes or individual soldiers failing to follow orders.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) says it is not able to respond to the allegations in the report, as the testimonies are anonymous, without detailed locations, units, times and dates. It says it investigates alleged abuses wherever specific detail is given, and that "dozens" of investigations are currently under way, some involving military police.

It says it has concluded from five internal investigations already that troops did not break international law during the conflict.

International humanitarian law specifies that military action must distinguish between combatants and civilians; that force used must be proportionate to the threat; and that civilian property should not be targeted unless it is a military necessity.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Several testimonies describe rules of engagement which were either unclear, or encouraged soldiers to prioritise protecting their own lives over determining whether a person in the vicinity was a civilian.

DIFFERENT DEATH TOLLS
Palestinians killed during Israeli military offensive in Gaza, 27 Dec to 18 Jan - Palestinian claims followed by Israelis claims:
Total dead: 1,434 / 1,166
Fighters: 235 / 710-870
Non-combatants: 906 / 295-460
Women: 121 / 49
Children under 16: 288 / 89

Sources: Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and Israeli Defence Intelligence Research Dept

Testimony 51: "We were told soldiers were to be secured by fire-power. The soldiers were made to understand that their lives were the most important, and that there was no way our soldiers would get killed for the sake of leaving civilians the benefit of the doubt… People were not instructed to shoot at everyone they see but they were told that from a certain distance when they approach a house, no matter who it is - even an old woman - take them down."

Israeli view: The Israeli military has said repeatedly that it goes to great lengths, even risking the success of operations - for example by giving warnings prior to strikes or aborting air strikes at the last moment - to distinguish between civilians and combatants. A spokeswoman said she knew of no military in the world that would reveal its rules of engagement, but said 75% of those killed in the Gaza operation were Hamas.

Palestinian view: The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights says nearly two-thirds of the dead were non-combatants.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT - ROOFS, CELLULAR TELEPHONES, NIGHT TIME

Palestinians react after hearing their mother has been killed in Israeli shelling in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, 10 January 2009
The heavy losses in Gaza included January included many civilians

Some accounts suggest soldiers were led to view anyone talking on a mobile phone, present on a roof, or moving at night, as a target.

Testimony 49: "Among other things, he strictly forbade us to climb up to roofs. He explained in fact that the air force has the 'go ahead' to fire at anyone seen on a roof."

Testimony 41: "You can't identify too much at night and anything that moves you engage in order not to take risks. It was not defined this way officially, but it was obvious. Any movement on the ground at night was doomed."

Testimonies 13 and 14: These describe an incident where an old man carrying a torch at night, walking towards an Israeli-held building, approached from about 150 metres - and was allowed to approach to 25 metres with no deterrent fire, before he was shot dead.

Testimony 14: "Everyone is shooting and shooting and the guy's screaming. The commander comes downstairs, glowing. 'Here's an opener for tonight'. He was asked why he wouldn't confirm deterrent fire. He said, "It's night time and this is a terrorist."

Israel's position: See above.

HUMAN SHIELDS

Some testimonies described the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, for example by making neighbours enter suspect houses ahead of troops. The use of human shields is prohibited under article 51.7 of the Geneva Conventions.

Testimony 1 [a soldier describing what he had heard from a commander]: "To every house we close in on, we send the neighbour in, 'the Johnnie'… Sometimes the force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian's shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield. Commanders said these were the instructions and we had to do it…"

Israeli position: The military says it does not use human shields from the Palestinian population and will investigate any specific evidence of such incidents.

BUILDING DEMOLITIONS

Many of the testimonies say large swathes of buildings were demolished because of concerns that they may be booby trapped, contain weapons or conceal tunnels. Some soldiers raise concerns about the scale of the destruction:

Testimony 2: "Part of the concept of razing was what the Israeli army calls 'the day after' consideration. Obviously this campaign would end at some point… The question was in what condition we'd leave the area, whether more exposed, a state that would afford us better firing and observation conditions, and far greater control. This was the principle behind all that razing - namely razing for our benefit.

Testimony 52: "Most of the destruction that went on there was not necessary."

Israeli position: The military has said it only damaged buildings if they were being used by Hamas, or because there was a specific military need to do so.

AGGRESSIVE ATTITUDE

A number of the testimonies alleged that some soldiers were eager to kill, or even took pleasure in doing so.

Testimony 43 : "One guy said he just couldn't finish this operation without killing someone… [describes the shooting of a man "apparently some sort of lookout"] … I can definitely say he was not armed. I can definitely say the soldier regarded this as some children's game and was delighted and laughing after this. I think that a normal person, even having killed an armed terrorist, would not be amused."

Testimony 50: "The atmosphere was not one of fear but rather people too eager to shoot other people."

Israeli position: The Israeli military says it has strict practices of conduct and soldiers are disciplined for abuses.

VANDALISM OF PALESTINIAN PROPERTY

Graffiti in house in Samouni Street, Gaza City (Photo taken on 22 February 2009 by Heather Sharp, BBC)
Some Palestinians returned home to find offensive graffiti

Several testimonies report the destruction of Palestinian property - often within homes that the Israeli soldiers had taken over. Many photographs of offensive graffiti on Palestinian walls were published in the wake of the conflict. Some soldiers said water tanks were targeted, despite the fact that many Palestinians were without running water.

Testimony 39: "The guys would simply break stuff. Some were out to destroy and trash the whole time. They drew a disgusting drawing on the wall. They threw out sofas. They took down a picture from the wall just to shatter it."

Testimony 52:
Q: Was there boredom at any point during these two weeks?
A: Much boredom.
Q: So what does one do to relieve this boredom?
A: I told you, fire at water tanks, I don't know, out of boredom. When there's nothing else to shoot at, you fire at water tanks."

Israeli position: The military says its troops are not permitted to vandalise Palestinian property and some such cases are among the current investigations. There have also been accounts of Israeli troops exercising care in Palestinian homes - even being told to fold up blankets they had used as they left.

WHITE PHOSPHORUS

White phosphorus causes very severe burns. Amnesty International says it is inherently indiscriminate and its use in urban areas was a war crime.

Testimony 8:
Q: Why fire phosphorus?
A: Because it's fun. Cool… I don't know what it's used for… I don't understand what it's even doing in our supplies if we're not supposed to use such ammo. It's ridiculous.

Testimony 11: "There was an area of about 200-300 square meters of glazed sand.... We understood this resulted from white phosphorus, and it was upsetting… in training you learn that white phosphorus is not used, and you're taught that it's not humane. You watch films and see what it does to people who are hit, and you say, 'There, we're doing it too.' That's not what I expected to see. Until that moment I had thought I belonged to the most humane army in the world."

Israeli position: The Israeli military initially denied white phosphorous was used. It later admitted it had been, but said it had not breached international law, saying the use of shells using the chemical as a smokescreen rather than an incendiary weapon was lawful.

RELIGIOUS RHETORIC

A number of soldiers said they were uncomfortable with the use of religious rhetoric by rabbis given access to troops during the operation.

Testimony 15 [describing a talk by a military rabbi]: "Lots of pathos, the kind of religious discourse I'm a bit familiar with: war of choice, holy war - differing rules. He spoke less in religious terminology… and was much more into militant faith. He aimed at inspiring the men with courage, cruelty, aggressiveness, expressions such as 'no pity, God protects you, everything you do is sanctified'. The gist of these statements was perhaps to bring things into agreement with religion, with God and whoever this man was supposed to represent, that everything or nearly everything is permissible. "

Israeli position: An Israeli army spokeswoman said the military rabbinate unit exists to give religious Jewish soldiers advice on issues such as kosher food and Jewish holidays. She said there were a "few isolated incidents" during the Cast Leader operation, during which rabbis from the unit distributed flyers [these contained similar messages to those described]. "They do not represent the IDF spirit," the spokeswoman said, adding that the rabbis in question were "disciplined".



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