HOW ISRAEL FOUGHT IN GAZA

First published at New Left Project.

The only international fact-finding delegation granted access to Gaza following Israel’s 2014 assault on the territory, Operation Protective Edge, found evidence of grave legal violations by Israeli forces. These included ‘heavy and unpredictable bombardments of civilian neighbourhoods in a manner that failed to discriminate between legitimate targets and protected populations and caused widespread destruction of homes and property’, and which ‘must have entailed approval from top-level decision-makers in the Israeli military and/or government’.

The delegation, from Physicians for Human Rights – Israel (PHR), found a pattern of people ‘injured or killed while in, or very close to, their homes’.

A new report from the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (BTS) lends considerable weight to, and helps account for, these findings.

The report comprises excerpts from interviews with more than 60 Israeli soldiers, roughly a quarter of them officers, who participated in the massacre. The soldiers, granted anonymity, describe what they saw, what they were ordered to do, and what they did.

I want to pick out three themes that run through the soldiers’ testimonies, each of which supports and helps to explain PHR’s conclusions.

1. ‘Crazy’ firepower

As in previously published combatant testimonies relating to Israel’s 2008-9 attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead), many soldiers were struck by the ‘massive’, ‘crazy’ firepower Israel used in Gaza.

There is one part of the operation that includes an ‘accompanying screen’ –the firing of artillery shells before the forces arrive. You notify the [Palestinian] residents, throw leaflets – whoever fled, fled – and then you fire. I’m talking about a pretty massive use of fire… [The] airforce attacked endlessly…

-Infantry, Major (Northern Gaza Strip)

[During training a ‘high ranking commander’ explained,] ‘We do not take risks, we do not spare ammo –we unload, we use as much as possible’… The idea was to minimise casualties on our side, and use as much of our arsenal as was needed to eliminate any chance of there being someone inside [a house or building].

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant

There was lots of fire, lots… you just kind of fire randomly, at the windows… We fired a lot… That’s policy, that’s what we’re taught, it’s also what’s taught in basic training. If you’re fired at, you open fire. It doesn’t matter where, in what direction…

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

[As we entered Gaza the tank-mounted machine guns] were being fired constantly. They were spraying every house with machine gun fire the whole time. And once in a while blasting a shell into each house… [There was] constant shelling… There was a lot of shooting, but only from us…

– Engineering, First Sergeant (Gaza City)

When we entered these [Palestinian] houses, it was a very, very violent entrance – with lots of firepower… The  armoured corps fired a lot, relatively…

– Mechanised Infantry, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

They tried to maintain constant fire towards al-Bureij, mostly to keep their heads down. There was no specific target…

What were you shooting at?

At houses.

Randomly chosen houses?

Yes.

How much fire were you using?

There was constant talk about how much we fired, how much we hit, who missed. There were people who fired 20 shells per day. It’s simple: Whoever feels like shooting more – shoots more. Most guys shot more. Dozens of shells [per day], throughout the operation. Multiply that by 11 tanks in the company.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

We fired ridiculous amounts of fire, lots of it, and relatively speaking our fire was nothing.

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

[A]nyone located in an IDF [i.e. Israel Defence Forces, the Israeli army] area, in areas the IDF took over – is not [considered] a civilian. That is the working assumption. We entered Gaza with this in mind, and with an insane amount of firepower… There was one reservist tank company that positioned itself up on a hill and started firing. They fired lots – that company’s formal numbers stood at something like 150 shells per day. They fired, fired, fired.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

I remember it, all the tanks were standing in a row, and I personally asked my commander: ‘Where are we firing at?’ He told me: ‘Pick wherever you feel like it’. And later, during talks with the other guys – each one basically chose his own target, and the commander called it in on the two-way radio, ‘Good morning al-Bureij’. ‘We are carrying out a “Good morning al-Bureij”, guys’, that was the quote. Basically to wake up the neighbourhood… And then the commander says on the radio: ‘3, 2, 1, fire’. And everybody fired shells wherever they wanted to… Nobody had opened fire at us – not before, not after, not during.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

Before a tank makes any movement it fires, every time. Those guys were trigger happy, totally crazy.

– Infantry, Lieutenant (Rafah)

With regard to artillery, the IDF let go of the restraints it once had… I have no doubt – and I say this loud and clear – I have no doubt that artillery was fired on houses. Tanks, too, were firing a lot in there.

– Infantry, Lieutenant

A week or two after we entered the Gaza Strip… we were all firing a lot when there wasn’t any need for it – just for the sake of firing… [‘[S]helling purposelessly’ is] something we were doing all the time. We were firing purposelessly all day long.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant

There was a massive amount of fire directed at buildings that weren’t necessarily suspicious, but that could be considered suspicious simply because they commanded a view over the [tunnel] shaft.

– Engineering, Major

The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in.

– Infantry (Gaza City)

When I saw what was going on in there it was quite a shock because really an enormous amount of artillery was fired there…there was a feeling of craziness in how much fire was used [after seven Israeli soldiers were killed by a rocket]… Lots of innocent people were hurt in that incident, lots.

– Sergeant First Class (Gaza City)

The air force carries out an insane amount of strikes in the Gaza Strip during an operation like Protective Edge.

– Southern Command (Gaza Strip)

2. ‘Methodical’ destruction of homes

In the course of Operation Protective Edge, ‘13 per cent of the housing stock in Gaza was damaged or destroyed, including some 20,000 homes totally destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, leaving over 100,000 people displaced’.

The BTS testimonies make clear that this ‘methodical’ devastation was official policy, intended to terrorise Gaza’s residents and eliminate risk to Israeli soldiers (that is, to shift all risk from Israeli combatants to Palestinian civilians).

The air force knows how to take down one house that’s inside a neighbourhood, but that doesn’t mean all the houses around it don’t get damaged. It’s not like the houses in the [Gaza] Strip are all new and protected with bomb shelters. In the end, these houses get damaged again and again and again, until they collapse… [The] practical result was flattened areas where houses had once stood.

Did you see any ‘before and after’ aerial photos?

Sure. Neighbourhoods erased. You know what joke was being told in the army at the time? The joke says that Palestinians only sing the chorus because they have no verses [houses] left. (in Hebrew, the word for verse is the same as the word for house).

– Infantry, Major (Northern Gaza Strip)

[In] general, every house you were meant to enter was supposed to have been fired at beforehand, if not with a tank shell then with a tank-mounted 0.5 [machine gun].

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

[A‘commander… from the northern division’ of the Gaza Strip] described massive amounts of destruction there… [He] showed us the urban combat facility and said, ‘Everything you see here – picture it as though someone came through and destroyed everything. There are almost no buildings left standing’. The inclination is to avoid taking risks – rather, to destroy everything we come across.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant

Every house we entered, we were forbidden to enter through its door. Either you blow it up with an [anti-tank rocket], you make a hole, or a D9 (armoured bulldozer) comes over and takes a wall down.

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

During training… [they told us] that we only enter houses ‘wet’, with grenades, and the more of them the better – and [grenade] launchers if you can use them. You’re going to ‘open’ a house? Don’t take any chances, use your grenade launcher… Aim, fire and only then go in.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant

[We] knew that when we leave the neighbourhood, it was clear to us that the neighbourhood was going to be flattened, because of its geographic location… We figured out pretty quick that every house we leave, a D9 shows up and razes it… When we got out of there, there were only a few houses left standing.

– Mechanised Infantry, Sergeant First-Class (Deir al-Balah)

By the time we got out of there, it was all like a sandbox. Every house we left… a D9 (armoured bulldozer) came over and flattened it… The D9 was an important working tool. It was working nearly non-stop.

– Mechanised Infantry, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

[Entering Gaza,] I got the impression that every house we passed on our way got hit by a shell –and houses farther away too. It was methodical.

– Engineering, First Sergeant (Gaza City)

While we were stationed there, the armoured forces would fire at the surrounding houses all the time. I don’t know what exactly their order was, but it seemed like every house was considered a threat, and so every house needed to be hit by at least one shell, so that there’s no one in there. The armoured [corps] fired a lot, relatively. All the houses around, when you looked at the landscape, they looked sort of like Swiss cheese, with lots of holes in them. Houses were erased during the time we were there – the ground was flattened, it all looked different…

After you left, were there still any houses left standing?

Not many.

– Mechanised Infantry, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

Juhar al-Dik is on some high ground that overlooks [the barrier between Gaza and Israel], and it’s very green. When we left after the operation, it was just a barren stretch of desert. Incredible. Of all the houses that were there, I think I saw maybe four or five still intact, or relatively intact. It was crazy.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

[The] D9 operators 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… Day and night, 24/7, they went back and forth… flattening house after house.

[…]

[D]uring the few times we passed from place to place I remember that the level of destruction looked insane to me. It looked like a movie set, it didn’t look real.

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

Before the first ceasefire they told us we were going in [to the Gaza Strip] to take down a house… [We asked,] ‘Which house are we taking down?’ And they said, ‘We want to make a big boom before the ceasefire’…

[Later we returned to an area in which we had previously been stationed and] we didn’t recognise the neighbourhood at all becausehalf the houses were gone. It all looked like a science fiction movie, with cows wandering in the streets… and serious levels of destruction everywhere, levels we hadn’t seen in [Operation] ‘Cast Lead’. No houses.

– Engineering, First Sergeant (Gaza City)

From the moment we went in, we were firing MATADOR and LAW (portable anti-tank) rockets on every house we entered before ‘opening’ them up, everything ‘wet’, grenades, the whole thing. War.

Every room you go into you open ‘wet’?

Everything. When I got to a house, it was already half destroyed.

– Infantry, Lieutenant (Rafah)

The very day we left Gaza, all the houses we had stayed in were blown up by combat engineers working together with a small force…

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

During the entrance [to Gaza]… they just went in and ‘sterilised’ everything, the whole area in which we were going to stay. By the time I went in most of the buildings in the area had already been run over by D9s… From what I understood, tanks went in and were followed by D9s. Firing and wrecking, firing and wrecking, that’s how they advanced.

– Mechanised Infantry, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

One of the high ranking commanders, he really liked the D9s. He was a real proponent of flattening things… Let’s just say that after every time he was somewhere, all the infrastructure around the buildings was totally destroyed, almost every house had gotten a shell through it. He was very much in favour of that.

– Infantry, Lieutenant

[My] tank led the way, we were in a sort of convoy, and there was this little house. And then suddenly we see this entire neighbourhood opening up before us, lots of houses, it’s all crowded and the moment we got to that little house, the order came to attack. Each [tank] aimed at whichever direction it chose, and then we fired a whole lot at the little house with machine guns and also one shell to make sure there was no threat inside… [The] commander was really improvising, and suddenly he tells me: ‘You see that house? Fire there’. Boom, I shoot… ‘You see the house on the left? Fire at it’. Boom, we fired, and we were just, like, purposelessly firing. There was no intelligence on this or that house – it was just my platoon commander and myself deciding to fire at it because you have to fire, you have to ‘provoke’… And that’s how it went on…

[W]hen we started withdrawing with the tanks, I looked toward the neighbourhood, and I could simply see an entire neighbourhood up in flames, like in the movies.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

Every place you get to you shoot a few bursts and shells to ‘sterilise’ the house before you even enter. Any house that infantry guys enter – a tank precedes them… [In one instance,] my commander, because he was hyped up to fire his personal weapon, took the entire team out just to shoot at the house, which was obviously already empty. So many shells were fired at it, and it was clearly empty. ‘Well, fire’, he told us. It was meaningless. It was just for kicks – the sort of fun you have at a shooting range.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant

Upon entering houses, is there an organised protocol used?

[G]enerally the idea is to use a lot of fire –this isn’t Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) – you want to find people in pieces inside. That’s how it’s managed, in a nutshell. Besides, usually a D9 (armoured bulldozer) comes over, takes down a wall and you enter through the wall.

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

When you set up in a house, the house doesn’t stay the way it was. You open an exit in the back with a hammer, you fortify the house, you usually throw grenades at alot of places… you raze the house that’s closest in order to reduce risks, and you level the area both in back and in front.

– Nahal, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

[Ultimately] we blew up pretty much the entire neighbourhood… the policy was a bit trigger-happy. There was this bumper sticker during the operation that said, ‘The lives of our soldiers come before the lives of enemy civilians’. This was sort of the policy…

– Mechanised Infantry, First Sergeant

One of the most senior officials in the IDF, he just marked off houses on an aerial photo of Shuja’iyya, to be taken down… in a way that was in some sense sort of random.

– [Did not reveal unit and rank]

3. ‘There is no such thing as civilians’

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) estimates that during the course of the massacre Israeli forces killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including nearly 1,500 civilians and more than 550 children.

If the Israeli military disputes this, one reason, to judge from the BTS testimonies, might be their capacious definition of ‘combatant’ as ‘[any] person that you run into, that you see with your eyes’.

The rules of engagement are pretty identical: Anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat, the area has to be ‘sterilised’, empty of people – and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming ‘I give up’ or something – then he’s a threat and there’s authorisation to open fire… [This means s]hooting to kill… The saying was: ‘There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved’.

– Mechanised Infantry, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

[The] more time that passed [since the operation started], the more immediate authorisations [for opening fire] became. The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in. The assumption being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist. And it pretty much stayed that way throughout the operation.

– Infantry (Gaza City)

There weren’t really any rules of engagement, it was more protocols. The idea was, if you spot something – shoot. They told us: ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot’… If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal. First of all, because it’s Gaza, and second, because that’s warfare. That, too, was made clear to us – they told us, ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot’, and they made it clear that there were no uninvolved civilians.

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

[The] formal rules of engagement – I don’t know if for all soldiers – were, ‘Anything still there is as good as dead. Anything you see moving in the neighbourhoods you’re in is not supposed to be there. The [Palestinian] civilians know they are not supposed to be there. Therefore whoever you see there, you kill’.

Who gave that order?

The commander. ‘Anything you see in the neighbourhoods you’re in, anything within a reasonable distance, say between zero and 200 metres – is dead on the spot. No authorisation needed’…

Did the commander discuss what happens if you run into civilians or uninvolved people?

There are none. The working assumption states – and I want to stress that this is a quote of sorts: that anyone located in IDF areas, in areas the IDF took over – is not [considered] a civilian.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

[The] instruction was: ‘Anyone you identify in the area – you shoot’.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

 When you identify a person looking out from a house… one shoots in that direction, with intent to kill.

– Mechanised Infantry, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

What were the instructions regarding [Palestinians] who return [to their neighbourhoods after a ceasefire]?

The instructions were to open fire… [They] said, ‘You aren’t supposed to encounter the civilian population, no one is supposed to be in the area in which you’ll be. Which means that anyone you do run into is [to be regarded as] a terrorist’… The instructions are to shoot right away. Whoever you spot – be they armed or unarmed, no matter what. The instructions are very clear. Any person that you run into, that you see with your eyes – shoot to kill. It’s an explicit instruction.

– Engineering, First Sergeant (Gaza City)

During all previous operations in which I took part, the humanitarian issue, or the issue of harming civilians, was never a factor… [because] any person you see within visual range is considered a suspect.

– Armoured Corps,  Sergeant First Class (Gaza City)

What rules of engagement were you provided with before you entered [the Gaza Strip]?

I don’t really remember what was discussed in terms of formal instructions before we entered, and after we entered nobody really cared about the formal instructions anyway. That’s what we knew. Every tank commander knew, and even the simple soldiers knew, that if something turns out to be not OK, they can say they saw something suspicious. They’ve got backup. They won’t ever be tried.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

There were no rules of engagement. If you see anyone in that area, that person is a terrorist.

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

[The] rules of engagement were pretty easy-going – I was shocked when I first heard them.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant

[They] explained what to do if you see a civilian. [They explained that] that’s the way it is in combat. It was shoot to kill immediately if you see stuff… Really they did say, ‘If you see someone – shoot him’.

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Khan Younis)

What were the rules of engagement?

If it looks like a man, shoot… if there’s anyone there who doesn’t clearly look innocent, you apparently need to shoot that person.

– Infantry, First Sergeant (Northern Gaza Strip)

It was clear to everyone that there is no such thing as civilians.

– Armoured Corps, First Sergeant (Deir al-Balah)

The IDF distributed flyers informing the residents of the areas we were entering, and that anyone remaining in the area was in effect sentencing themselves to death. This was very reassuring for any soldier about the enter [the Gaza Strip]… because if, for example, you want to know whether you can throw a grenade into a house [to protect] your life, you would rather know that you can do that.

[…]

[Was ‘Anyone you see, you shoot’ essentially the directive?]

Basically, yes.

Shooting to kill?

Yes.

– Captain

When going out into the field, the rules of engagement were, in effect, to shoot to kill upon any identification [of a person].

– Engineering, First Sergeant (Gaza City)

The IDF leaflets warning Palestinian civilians to leave evidently eased Israeli soldiers into firing indiscriminately – indeed, this may have been their primary function – but as PHR reported, they were ‘highly inconsistent’ and therefore ineffective in clearing IDF-controlled areas of Palestinian civilians, many of whom, in any case, were not in a position to evacuate, or came under fire from Israeli forces when they did.

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