“[The commander] gives an order: ’Guys, all the tanks in a row, firing positions, all together facing the neighborhood of al-Bureij.’ […]
I personally asked my commander: ‘Where are we firing at?’ He told me: ‘Pick wherever you feel like it.’ […] The commander called it on the two-way radio, ‘Good morning al-Bureij.’ ‘We are carrying out, a “Good morning al-Bureij,” guys’ – that was what he said. Basically to wake up the neighborhood, to show those guys that ‘the IDF is here,’ and to carry out deterrence. […]
And then the commander says on the radio: ‘3, 2, 1, fire.’ And everyone fired shells wherever they wanted to, just because. Nobody had opened fire at us – not before, not after, not during.”
That’s how an Israeli soldier from the armored corps described a moment during Operation Protective Edge last summer in Gaza. The armored company started the morning with a coordinated shelling on the al-Bureij refugee camp, though the village didn’t pose any threat to the forces.
Since the operation, I drove with my colleagues from Breaking the Silence across the country to speak with soldiers and commanders who were involved. In total we have heard around 70 testimonies from combatants and officers who served in various ground forces, the navy and the air force. Many described situations similar to the one described by the soldier from the armored corps – in which they fired without a clear, defined target. In order to understand the individual stories, you need to be familiar with the military doctrine that enabled these extreme situations to become normal for the soldiers. Indiscriminate fire became routine for ground forces.
The testimonies by soldiers who took part in Operation Protective Edge tell the story of an army preparing to go to war. But densely inhabited neighborhoods like those in the Gaza Strip are not suitable for classic combat in which two armies battle each other with tanks, artillery cannons and fighter jets.
The solution they came up with was simple: we warn the innocent Palestinians in areas we plan to enter beforehand – and then we will proceed under the assumption that everyone who remains in the area is a terrorist. Mere leaflets dropped from the air were needed to create ‘battlegrounds’, where all remaining residents were considered legitimate targets. An old woman left behind, a lone man who didn’t have anywhere to go, or a family that didn’t dare to leave their home – they all instantaneously became targets.
Rules of engagement are necessary for maintaining soldiers’ security while permitting appropriate use of force. As a veteran IDF combat soldier, I know these rules well. They define a person as a legitimate target only if he has the means, intentions and capacity to inflict harm. Instructions given on the ground during Operation Protective Edge rendered this fundamental principle behind these rules of engagement irrelevant.
For example, this is how a mobile infantry soldier described the rules of engagement during the operation: “Everyone inside is a threat. The area needs to be sterile of people. If we don’t see someone waving a white flag and shouting, ‘I surrender,’ then they’re a threat and we have authorization to open fire.” A soldier from the Nahal Brigade simply stated: ”There are no open-fire regulations. If you see anyone in that area – they’re a terrorist.”
The soldier in the armored corps who took part in the shooting on al-Bureij, spoke about his feeling afterwards. “It really bothered me. It’s something I’m very ashamed of having done.” But he and thousands of soldiers were not acting as individuals. They represented the State of Israel and did what they did in our name, in the name of Israeli society.
Official spokespeople claimed during the operation that the IDF did everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties. However, the soldiers’ testimonies, collected by Breaking the Silence, reveal that these whitewashed words were nothing but lies, meant to hide an ugly and violent reality. A reality in which harming civilians is a calculated result of an intentional policy that minimizes restrictions on the use of force by our soldiers.
We cannot allow for the soldiers who realized they were sent to Gaza to fire indiscriminately at civilian neighborhoods, to bear the shame of the IDF’s behavior, alone. We must now ask ourselves if we are willing to stand by, while the value of human life on the other side is increasingly erased from the IDF’s combat doctrine. Do we choose to be responsible for another 2,000 or 3,000 people killed in the next operation in Gaza? Neither myself, nor dozens of other combatants who served in Operation Protective Edge, are willing to close our eyes to this reality. We choose to break the silence with a resounding ‘NO.’