The Common Good

'Shooting and Crying': Israeli Soldiers Tell Their Gaza War Stories

090323-israeli-soldierIn last week's SojoMail, the quote of the week was from an Israeli squad leader describing the incredulous reactions of his men when he took measures to protect civilian lives during the invasion of Gaza. Later I found a more complete transcript in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz of the very candid forum from which this comment was taken. It is worth reading the entire article, to get a sense of some of the conflicting opinions among Israelis who fought in Gaza, and of the kinds of orders they were given. But I wanted to provide more context here from the SojoMail quote now that I have it:

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At first the specified action was to go into a house. We were supposed to go in with an armored personnel carrier called an Achzarit [literally, Cruel] to burst through the lower door, to start shooting inside and then ... I call this murder ... in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified - we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?

From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn't fled. I didn't really understand: On the one hand they don't really have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand they're telling us they hadn't fled so it's their fault .... This also scared me a bit. I tried to exert some influence, insofar as is possible from within my subordinate position, to change this. In the end the specification involved going into a house, operating megaphones and telling [the tenants]: "Come on, everyone get out, you have five minutes, leave the house, anyone who doesn't get out gets killed."

I went to our soldiers and said, "The order has changed. We go into the house, they have five minutes to escape, we check each person who goes out individually to see that he has no weapons, and then we start going into the house floor by floor to clean it out .... This means going into the house, opening fire at everything that moves , throwing a grenade, all those things. And then there was a very annoying moment. One of my soldiers came to me and asked, "Why?" I said, "What isn't clear? We don't want to kill innocent civilians." He goes, "Yeah? Anyone who's in there is a terrorist, that's a known fact." I said, "Do you think the people there will really run away? No one will run away." He says, "That's clear," and then his buddies join in: "We need to murder any person who's in there. Yeah, any person who's in Gaza is a terrorist," and all the other things that they stuff our heads with, in the media.

And then I try to explain to the guy that not everyone who is in there is a terrorist, and that after he kills, say, three children and four mothers, we'll go upstairs and kill another 20 or so people. And in the end it turns out that [there are] eight floors times five apartments on a floor - something like a minimum of 40 or 50 families that you murder. I tried to explain why we had to let them leave, and only then go into the houses. It didn't really help. This is really frustrating, to see that they understand that inside Gaza you are allowed to do anything you want, to break down doors of houses for no reason other than it's cool.

You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won't say anything. To write "death to the Arabs" on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing in understanding how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It's what I'll remember the most.

One of our officers, a company commander, saw someone coming on some road, a woman, an old woman. She was walking along pretty far away, but close enough so you could take out someone you saw there. If she were suspicious, not suspicious - I don't know. In the end, he sent people up to the roof, to take her out with their weapons. From the description of this story, I simply felt it was murder in cold blood.

Of course, not all of his comrades agree with his interpretation of events:

Zvi: "Aviv's descriptions are accurate, but it's possible to understand where this is coming from. And that woman, you don't know whether she's .... She wasn't supposed to be there, because there were announcements and there were bombings. Logic says she shouldn't be there. The way you describe it, as murder in cold blood, that isn't right. It's known that they have lookouts and that sort of thing."

I don't feel that this testimony requires much commentary. Like I said, read the whole thing and draw what conclusions you will. And this isn't just about Israel. This is about war -- especially wars fought by democracies who pride themselves on the superior morality of their methods and the "justice" of their cause. These testimonies find ready parallels with the attitudes and policies regarding civilian casualties by the U.S. military. I cite this testimony in the same way I have cited testimony by U.S. soliders in Iraq or Afghanistan. Since Israel is the top recipient of U.S. military aid, my tax dollars helped buy weapons for both armies, so I feel an acute degree of culpability for the deaths caused by those weapons. But other deeply disturbing comments were those on religious overtones of the war, also with parallels to the U.S. role in Iraq and how evangelical Christians approached it:

Ram: "What I do remember in particular at the beginning is the feeling of almost a religious mission. My sergeant is a student at a hesder yeshiva [a program that combines religious study and military service]. Before we went in, he assembled the whole platoon and led the prayer for those going into battle. ...

The rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles, and ... their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war. From my position as a commander and "explainer," I attempted to talk about the politics - the streams in Palestinian society, about how not everyone who is in Gaza is Hamas, and not every inhabitant wants to vanquish us. I wanted to explain to the soldiers that this war is not a war for the sanctification of the holy name, but rather one to stop the Qassams [rockets].

I realize I'm quoting a lot of the article, but I can't help but conclude with this last piece of historical and political framing by the forum moderator, himself a military veteran:

After the Six-Day War, when people came back from the fighting, they sat in circles and described what they had been through. For many years the people who did this were said to be "shooting and crying." In 1983, when we came back from the Lebanon War, the same things were said about us. We need to think about the events we have been through. We need to grapple with them also, in terms of establishing a standard or different norms.

It is quite possible that Hamas and the Syrian army would behave differently from me. The point is that we aren't Hamas and we aren't the Syrian army or the Egyptian army, and if clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren't representative of the whole spectrum in the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of the population - what are we expecting? To whom are we complaining?

Thankfully, introspection on the nature of violence and the horror of war is not limited to either side of this conflict, and is leading some to consider peaceful alternatives. We recently posted an article by Valerie Elverton Dixon about former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters who have formed a group of about 600 "Combatants for Peace" who are just wrapping up a U.S. speaking tour. May God bless their efforts, for theirs is the only cause that will ever bring real peace and security to their land.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the web editor for Sojourners.

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