Dissident Israeli Soldiers Turn a Harsh Light on the Gaza War

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Palestinian civilians and medics run to safety during an Israeli strike at a U.N. school in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip

The guns have been largely silent for more than six months now, but the battle to define what exactly took place during Israel's 22-day military operation in Gaza in January rages as fiercely as ever. Earlier this month, Amnesty International published the findings of its inquiry into the conflict, accusing both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes. Just this week, Britain announced that it had banned the sale to Israel of spare parts for its Saar 4.5 class corvette, because of the way the missile vessel had been used by Israel during the Gaza operation. An official U.N. inquiry visited Gaza in June and plans to issue its own report in September (Israel accuses the international body of bias and has declined to cooperate with the probe). The latest salvo came on July 15, when Breaking the Silence — a human-rights organization of Israeli military veterans — published anonymous testimony allegedly recorded from some 30 Israeli soldiers involved in Operation Cast Lead.

Following earlier claims by Israeli soldiers that are similar to some of those published on Wednesday, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in April conducted its own internal inquiry into allegations of abuse during the operation. While it said that mistakes led to civilian casualties in one or two isolated cases, the IDF concluded that there had been no instances of civilians deliberately killed by the defense force. Amnesty International and Palestinian sources say 1,400 Palestinians were killed during Operation Cast Lead, and that more than 900 of these were civilians, including 300 children and 115 women. The IDF in March put the Palestinian death toll at 1,166, of whom it said 295 were "uninvolved" civilians. Thirteen Israelis — three civilians and 10 soldiers, four of them felled by "friendly fire" — were killed during the same period.

Having insisted throughout the war that it was taking extraordinary care to avoid civilian casualties, Israel has rejected allegations to the contrary, suggesting they lack a basis in fact and are instead driven by agendas hostile to the Jewish State. But suggestions of bias and hostility toward Israel are a more difficult response when similar claims are made by Israeli soldiers involved in the operation. In March, a group of soldiers who had fought in Gaza told a forum at an Israeli military college of a number of instances in which Palestinian civilians had been killed as a result of overly permissive rules of engagement for the operation that made such mistakes far more likely. Those claims prompted the IDF's internal inquiry, which contradicted the soldiers' allegations.

Breaking the Silence claims in its report to have been contacted by soldiers, most of whom "are still serving in their regular military units and turned to us in deep distress at the moral deterioration of the IDF." The group admits that there are gaps in the accounts it published but says the testimonies nonetheless question the credibility of the IDF official account. The group suggests that the killing of civilians was not simply a product of individual mistakes or "delinquent" soldiers but that they resulted from a "systemic problem."

The testimonies published on Wednesday allege the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields; the improper use of white phosphorous; massive deliberate destruction of property; and numerous instances of civilians killed in mistakes allegedly resulting from overly permissive rules of engagement. There are no allegations of My Lai–type deliberate massacres; rather, the unnamed soldiers paint a picture of commanders so determined to avoid their own troops being harmed that they demanded that their men take an overly aggressive posture on the ground in Gaza, not hesitating to fire on any potential threat in an urban environment where, as one quoted his commander as saying, "anyone is your enemy."

Some also testified that officers from the Israeli military's rabbinate unit had addressed troops and distributed materials that defined the conflict as a religious war and spoke of the Palestinians as usurpers in the biblical land of Israel. That along with previous reports on brochures distributed by the military rabbinate warning that "exercising mercy towards a cruel enemy means being cruel towards innocent and honest soldiers," allegedly helped create an atmosphere in which there was insufficient concern for Palestinian civilians, say some of the soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.

The testimonies reveal the discomfort and trauma of soldiers' reliving their involvement in a complicated combat setting. And their matter-of-fact recounting of the minutiae of the combat experience, along with moments of palpable pride in having struck a Hamas rocket crew or conducting themselves appropriately in relation to Palestinian civilians, certainly lends an air of authenticity to the report.

But the report's weaknesses leave the IDF plenty of room to shoot it down. A number of the allegations are based on not what a soldier claims to have seen himself but rather things he was told by others. And then there's the fact that the accusers have chosen to remain anonymous, usually avoiding reference to specific units or locations so as to prevent them from being identified — which also prevents independent verification. "A considerable portion of the testimony is based on rumors and secondhand accounts," an IDF representative told the Israeli media in response to the report. "Most of the incidents relate to anonymous testimony lacking in identifying details, and accordingly it is not possible to check the allegations on an individual basis in a way that would enable an investigation, confirmation or refutation." The IDF, she said, would investigate any specific allegations brought to its attention.

Half a year after the offensive, Gaza remains a gaping wound, little changed from how the Israelis left it when they withdrew in January. Its recovery is hampered by an ongoing Israeli blockade that prevents most reconstruction materials from entering the territory amid ongoing political deadlock between Israel and Hamas over captive soldier Gilad Shalit and between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over political authority in the area. And the publication of the soldiers' testimonies — whatever Israelis make of them — is more evidence that closure on the 22-day war may still elude Israelis too.