Holding Our Leaders Accountable – Not Soldiers Alone

Almost a year has gone by since Operation “Protective Edge” ended, and ever since, government spokespersons have repeatedly recited the mantra that the IDF did everything possible to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties. A few weeks ago this messaging was crafted into exceptionally meticulous wording in the special report published by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. It included a sweeping denial of the claim that the IDF’s conduct during the operation constituted a breach of international law, and promised that soldiers who deviated from the protocol during combat, will be held accountable, and the matters investigated. However, in fact, the official government position is nothing but a smokescreen meant to forestall any genuine public debate of its combat policy in Gaza last summer.

According to testimonies from soldiers who served during the operation, the working assumption, as informed by commanders, was that the residential areas they entered were evacuated due to advance warning provided by the IDF. This working assumption sanctioned a wildly unrestrained open fire policy, and consciously ignored the presence of civilians in neighborhoods, which were transformed into combat zones.

Around 19,000 explosive shells were fired throughout the operation in Gaza. Artillery is an indiscriminate weapon, intended for use in broad area offensives through the random distribution of shells over a range that can reach up to hundreds of meters from the original target. During the operation, these shells were fired on residential civilian areas. One simply cannot use this kind of weaponry in densely populated civilian areas, such as Gaza, and claim that they have done everything possible to avoid harming civilians.

Israeli leadership’s apathy toward civilian life, and this trigger-happy policy, were evident from the highly lenient rules of engagement provided to the soldiers in all areas of combat. Official military orders authorize fire only after identifying a weapon, intent, and the enemy’s realistic capability to hit a target. Though testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence reveal that during combat, soldiers were told to open fire on any identifiable person in a combat zone. In practice, there were civilians who remained in their homes within such neighborhoods.

Another element of the combat was the bombardment of dozens of residential homes, by the Israeli Air Force (IAF). Testimonies reveal that such strikes were generally informed by the notion that providing advance warning (for example, through “roof knocking”) constituted indirect authorization for targeting any person who remained in the area thereafter. According to B’Tselem’s data, around 600 Palestinians were killed in such strikes, 45 percent of them women. Soldiers indicate that in some cases the bombing of the building took place without providing the residents with enough time to leave the building after being warned. Moreover, they had no obligation to check how many people were inside buildings before bombing them, or whether residents evacuated homes prior to attacking – in spite of the fact that such actions are within the IDF’s capabilities.

Not only was the value of human lives diminished during the operation, but also that of property. During the operation, 18,000 structures in Gaza were destroyed. While there were structures taken down to cope with concrete threats, the majority were destroyed as part of a strategy of deterrence through disproportionate destruction. This rationale alone constituted sufficient reason to destroy residential homes.

In every operation there are, of course, soldiers who break protocol – and there is no doubt that there were individuals who did so during the last operation. But this is not a special feature of Operation “Protective Edge” or of the problem revealed during this operation. The problem and challenge facing the Israeli public since last summer are the rules of combat and the policies that inform them. The testimonies of over 60 soldiers in both mandatory and reserve duty that participated in the operation, illustrate a fundamental ethical failure in the policy that instructed the entire operation. It is not the soldiers who carried out this policy whose behavior needs to be investigated, but rather that of those who determined the rules.

Israeli political leadership must stop hiding behind the soldiers, as political decisionmakers are the ones who must bear responsibility for the massive amount of fatalities and disproportionate destruction in Gaza. It is time they were brave enough to put themselves and their policies under the magnifying glass of investigation and criticism. Now. Before the next war. Only an independent investigative committee in Israel that is authorized to question government and military leaders will be able to discern last summer’s combat policy, and provide a basis for informed public debate on the values and ethical standards behind it. Only such a committee can provide an adequate response to the difficult questions raised by the soldiers’ testimonies.

About the Author
Nadav Bigelman served as an infantry combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade and now works as a researcher for Breaking the Silence. Despite growing up in Jerusalem on Bethlehem Road, a road that can be followed to Bethlehem itself, he was only exposed to Palestinian culture and the reality of occupation when he ended up serving in the West Bank.
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