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Middle east

Veteran soldiers allege abuses during Gaza offensive

Text by Ségolène ALLEMANDOU

Latest update : 2009-07-22

According to anonymous testimonials collected by an Israeli NGO, orders given to the Israeli military during their assault on the Gaza Strip included, “If you’re not sure, kill.”

Six months after the Israeli military’s “Operation Cast Lead” in the Gaza Strip, members of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have begun to talk publicly of some of the alleged abuses that took place during the war. Israeli group Breaking the Silence conducted an investigation into the allegations and published a report based on soldiers’ testimonies.


“Sometimes we forced a civilian to advance in front of the soldier,” a reserve sergeant told Breaking the Silence. “Better hit an innocent than hesitate to target an enemy,” said another soldier recounting the instructions given, which included, “If you’re not sure, kill.”


Israeli authorities reject these accusations and speak of a “media coup”.


Breaking the Silence was created in 2004 by army veterans who were shocked by the abusive behaviour of some Israeli officers. Their goal: to scrutinise the actions of IDF soldiers in the Palestinian territories.


The 112-page report released by the NGO is based on mostly anonymous video testimonials from 25 Israeli soldiers who took part in Cast Lead, between December 22, 2008 and January 18, 2009.


Partly funded by Israeli human rights associations, the European Union and the British, Dutch and Spanish governments, Breaking the Silence already published reports on the Hebron occupation in 2005 and 2007. FRANCE 24’s Jerusalem correspondent Marc de Chalvron says that the group, “plays a role of spoilsport vis-à-vis the government, but above all [aims] for a media impact”.


These 25 testimonials recall an atmosphere of massive destruction. "We fired all the time, day or night," says one sergeant. "Did we see enemy combatants? No… we did not see anyone, absolutely anyone. We identified no suspects or Hamas fighters."


The soldiers also denounced the impunity with which IDF acted. "No special mention was made of innocents. And when it was, it was to say that there were no innocents there, they were our enemies. That’s what our commander repeated endlessly", says Amir, the only soldier who showed his face in the videos.


Israeli authorities criticise anonymous sources.


Some of the testimonies mention war crimes, alleging that civilians were used as human shields. "To every house we closed in on, we send the neighbour in” said one soldier, describing how a man was sent into a house several times.


Another soldier spoke of incidents where, "the force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian's shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield."


Israel has been accused by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN of having caused civilian casualties and widespread destruction in the Gaza Strip. But the state has rejected the accusations.

Interviewed by FRANCE 24, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Ygal Palmor spoke of the NGO orchestrating a "media coup" and pointed to its lack of professionalism.


"All the testimonies are anonymous, we do not know where the incidents took place or on which date,” he said. “We can’t investigate or verify them,” he added. "If indeed something serious happened, which can’t be excluded outright, give us the opportunity to investigate, but don’t hide behind anonymity."


Soldiers from the IDF are formally barred from talking to the media.


Amnesty International rejects Israel’s argument that the 25 testimonies collected are not representative of the thousand soldiers deployed during the operation.


According to the human rights watchdog, Breaking the Silence’s work is reliable and well-documented. “These aren’t anonymous testimonies,” says Donatella Rovera, who led the Amnesty International delegation which published the report earlier this month “Israel/Gaza: Operation ‘Cast Lead’ - 22 Days of Death and Destruction”.


“We know the soldiers who testified. We know their faces and their names because we heard their stories as well.”


Rovera also stresses that, barely six months after the operation, government and army officials have never asked to hear any victim or witness accounts. “We’ve asked to meet with the authorities but never heard back from them,” she says.

Journalists were barred from entering the Gaza Strip for the duration of the “Cast Lead” operation. According to a Palestinian NGO, the Gaza death toll stands at 1,417 Palestinians, which includes 926 civilians. According to the Israeli army, 1,166 died, including 295 civilians. Israel lost ten soldiers and three civilians.

Date created : 2009-07-15