TEL AVIV — The war last summer between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead and reduced vast areas to rubble. On Monday, a group of Israeli veterans released sobering testimony from fellow soldiers that suggests permissive rules of engagement coupled with indiscriminate artillery fire contributed to the mass destruction and high numbers of civilian casualties in the coastal enclave.
The organization of active and reserve duty soldiers, called Breaking the Silence, gathered testimonies from more than 60 enlisted men and officers who served in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.
The soldiers described reducing Gaza neighborhoods to sand, firing artillery at random houses to avenge fallen comrades, shooting at innocent civilians because they were bored and watching armed drones attack a pair of women talking on cellphones because they were assumed to be Hamas scouts.
The director of the group, Yuli Novak, called the rules of engagement in the offensive “the most permissive” it has seen and amounted to an “ethical failure . . . from the top of the chain of command.” Novak called for an independent investigation.
The 240-page report, “This is How We Fought in Gaza 2014”, was released Monday and accompanied by videotaped testimony that aired on Israeli news programs.
The soldiers said they were told by commanders to view all Palestinians in the combat zones as a potential threat, whether they brandished weapons or not. Individuals spotted in windows and rooftops — especially if they were speaking on cellphones — were often considered scouts and could be shot.
A first sergeant serving in the Mechanized Infantry in Gaza told the group, “If we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming, ‘I give up’ or something — then he’s a threat and there’s authorization to open fire.”
The testimonies in the report are anonymous and impossible to independently verify. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declined to address details in the report and said that Breaking the Silence “does not provide IDF with any proof of their claims.”
“This pattern of collecting evidence over an extended period of time and refusing to share it with the IDF in a manner which would allow a proper response, and if required, investigation, indicates that contrary to their claims this organization does not act with the intention of correcting any wrongdoings they allegedly uncovered,” the Israeli military stated.
Members of Breaking the Silence are viewed by many Israelis as “anti-military.” The group says its mission is to tell the Israeli public what the IDF hides and what serving in the occupied West Bank and in wars in Gaza and Lebanon is really like. After graduating from high school, all Israeli men and women — except those who get deferments because of religious study or for medical reasons — must serve in the military.
The Israelis charge that Palestinian militants brought most of the damage and casualties last summer on themselves and other Gazans by firing thousands of unguided rockets at Israeli cities, employing human shields and hiding weapons in schools, hospitals, mosques and other public buildings.
The report alleges that the IDF reduced whole neighborhoods of densely populated Gaza to ruins without any clear operational justification but instead to “demonstrate presence in the area.” More than 18,000 homes were severely damaged or destroyed in the conflict, and civilian infrastructure was frequently targeted.
A first sergeant in an infantry unit in northern Gaza recalled that armored combat bulldozers “didn’t rest for a second. Nonstop, as if they were playing in a sandbox. Driving back and forth, back and forth, razing another house, another street. And at some point there was no trace left of that street.”
The testimonies are spoken in the voices of soldiers — filled with military jargon and occasional expletives — about how they did their jobs, what they saw and sometimes what they felt.
The Israeli combatants reveal acts of both kindness and savagery — sheltering a family from harm, for example, but also executing a wounded Palestinian.
In an interview with The Washington Post, a young tank gunner whose testimony is included in the report described how he and others fired cannon and machine gun bursts at random travelers on a main Gaza highway simply because they were bored and wanted to prove how good their aim was.
“I am ashamed of this,” said the 21-year-old, who served in a Hamas hot spot near the town of Al Bureij in central Gaza.
The gunner said he fired his Browning machine gun at a man pedaling a bicycle but missed because of the distance.
“War crime is a big word,” he said in an interview at a Tel Aviv apartment Sunday. “I didn’t rape and kill anybody, but yeah, I shot at random civilian targets sometimes, just for fun, so yeah.”
The same soldier said a friend in his unit was killed by shrapnel to the neck from a Palestinian mortar round and described how a burst of small-arms fire once breezed by his head.
In other testimonies, soldiers recalled that doors, houses and even sheep were booby-trapped with explosives and that once an old man was sent toward troops as a suicide bomber.
Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence conceded that Gaza was a dangerous, chaotic landscape for Israeli troops. But he said the military had contributed to needless death and destruction with “a guiding military principle of minimum risk to our forces, even at the cost of harming innocent civilians.”
When the ground offensive began and Israeli armored battalions entered Gaza, the IDF would first drop leaflets warning civilians to flee; then it would launch artillery and aerial strikes to destroy buildings that intelligence suggested could harbor militants and weapons, and “soften targets” to deter Hamas from counterattack. A first sergeant deployed in northern Gaza testified, “They told us: ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot. Whether it posed a threat or not wasn’t a question, and that makes sense to me.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.