The extent of Zionist war crimes in Ghazzah is slowly but surely emerging from the testimony of soldiers involved in the 23-day Israeli offensive launched on December 27, 2008. Much of this evidence was available to those willing to take off their pro-Israeli blinkers and see the smoldering ruins of Ghazzah, that tiny sliver of desert patch besieged from all sides — land, air and sea — by Israeli and Egyptian regimes. The latest report was released on July 15 and Western journalists have finally started to report the extent of brutality and destruction wrought by Israel and the raw racism that motivated it.
The Ghazzah carnage had left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, most of them children, and destroyed virtually the entire infrastructure of the tiny enclave on the Mediterranean. The soldiers confirm that Palestinian civilians were treated as “human shields,” that troops indulged in vandalism, looting and wholesale destruction of Palestinian houses and the illegal use of white phosphorus on civilians. In numerous instances, Palestinian families, like the Samounis, were herded into one house and then it was shelled using artillery on January 5, 2009 killing most of the inhabitants inside. Rescue teams were prevented from helping the wounded or evacuating the dead for three days. When they were finally permitted to do so, they found 78 dead bodies and numerous badly injured, among them four young children too weak to stand. It was such crimes that prompted Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Professor Richard Falk, Jewish American and expert in International Law at Princeton University, to say that Israel was guilty of war crimes.
Rabbis attached to the army egged on soldiers giving religious sanction to mass murder. Once can imagine the furor that would have erupted had an imam issued such an edict to kill civilians. Despite these revelations, there are complaints from Israeli apologists that Israel is being held to a “higher standard”. The “purity” of Israel’s intentions and its “high moral standards” is always trotted out for public consumption. In fact, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who has been named by a number of organizations as being responsible for committing war crimes, made just such a statement after the Israeli soldiers’ testimony was released.
Donald Macintyre reporting from Jerusalem for the British daily, The Independent, wrote on July 15, “The picture that emerges from the testimonies, which have been seen by The Independent, is one of massive fire power to cover advances and rules of engagement that were calculated to ensure, in the words attributed to one battalion commander, that “not a hair will fall of a soldier of mine. I am not willing to allow a soldier of mine to risk himself by hesitating. If you are not sure, shoot.” Another battalion commander told his troops to use “insane firepower with artillery and air force.” The reports narrating direct testimonies from Israeli soldiers challenges the Israeli military’s own considered view that it conducted the operation according to international law and made “an enormous effort to focus its fire only against the terrorists whilst doing the utmost to avoid harming uninvolved civilians.”
The testimonies from about 30 soldiers were collected by Breaking the Silence, an army veterans organization that seeks to “expose the Israeli public to the routine situations of everyday life in the occupied territories,” referring to Ghazzah and the West Bank. In the past, the organization has collected testimonies from ex-soldiers but this is the first time it has done so from serving soldiers and released its findings so soon after the assault.
Some of the testimony is hair-raising. Here is a glimpse of what the soldiers reported. They were told to shoot first in all cases and not worry about civilians; houses were systematically destroyed; vile graffiti was written on walls inside homes. In one case, as confirmed by British journalist Yvonne Ridley who personally visited Ghazzah last March with a food convoy, an Israeli soldier not only used obscene language against the Palestinians but also left his email address if someone had concerns about what he had written. Such brazenness would be hard to imagine elsewhere.
Rules of engagement — more like a shooting gallery since the Palestinians hardly had any weapons — were deliberately set very loose to ensure maximum leeway to soldiers even if it meant firing indiscriminately at innocent civilians. The aim was to shoot if a soldier saw any movement of people. One soldier said, his officers instructed him, “No one is supposed to be there. If you see any signs of movement at all, you shoot. These, essentially, were the rules of engagement. Shoot if you like if you are afraid or you see someone, shoot.” Another soldier said his battalion commander told him “not to hesitate if we suspected someone nor feel bad about destruction because it is all done for the safety of our own soldiers... if we see something suspect and shoot, better hit an innocent than hesitate to target an enemy” (emphasis added).
Houses were systematically demolished. Despite official accounts that homes were only destroyed for strictly “operational” reasons, one reservist, a long-time veteran, said “I never knew such fire power” used by tanks and helicopters for the “constant destruction” of houses. Many were destroyed simply because they were there or were “situated on a hill in the Gaza strip.”
An unarmed Palestinian civilian, perhaps 50 or 60 years of age, carrying a torch was shot dead after the unit commander ordered his soldiers not to fire warning shots but to hold fire until he was only 50m away to ensure a certain kill. The company commander then proudly announced over the radio, “Here’s an opener for tonight.” Some soldiers wanted to challenge the commander over why he had not authorized firing warning shots but “he couldn’t give a damn.” The soldiers realized that taking this up with the higher echelons it wouldn’t be effective” either. Another soldier said his unit commander shot dead an old man hiding with his family under the stairs of a house.
The Palestinians were used as human shields to enter houses ahead of troops. This was especially done in areas where the Israeli army encountered fire. Military rabbis constantly exhorted soldiers to be brave and show no pity because they were doing God’s work. One soldier reported the rabbi saying: “God protects you. Everything you do is sanctified,” and said “we must win because this is a holy war.” Forginghistory and turning it on its head, leaflets distributed at military synagogues stated “the Palestinians are like the Philistines of old, newcomers who do not belong in the land, aliens planted on the soil which should clearly return to us.”
Mortars were used extensively especially in densely populated areas such as schools and hospitals. In one particular attack, 120mm mortars were fired at the UN-run el-Fakhoura school in Jabalya refugee camp run as a shelter that killed 42 civilians. This is a war crime according to International Humanitarian Law and grave breach of article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This was also confirmed at an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council meeting on January 9, 2009 while the Israeli onslaught was still underway.
In one particularly gruesome episode, a four-year-old girl, Shahd, playing in the backyard of her home in Jabalya camp was hit by an Israeli mortar shell. As she fell down in a pool of blood, her distraught parents and brother rushed to get her but were prevented from retrieving her body in a hail of Israeli bullets. For several days, young Shahd’s body was devoured by wild dogs. “The dogs did not leave one single part of the poor baby’s body intact,” said her sobbing mother, Kayed Abu Aukal. Omran Zayda, a young neighbor, said the Israelis knew very well what they were doing. “They chased her family and prevented them from reaching her body, knowing that the dogs would eat it,” he said. They are not just killing our children, they are intentionally doing so in the most heinous and inhuman way.”
The Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard said the report showed that Israel’s assault on Ghazzah violated the “number one principle in international laws of war”: that of distinguishing between the civilian population and combatants. Yehuda Shaul, a founder of Breaking the Silence, said the group had names and details for all the testimonies — all of which had been taped — and that anonymity was to protect the testifiers from any disciplinary or criminal proceedings.
Despite official claims about the “high moral standards” of the Israeli army, the fact is soldiers were given carte blanche prior to the invasion not to worry about issues of morality. They were told these would be dealt with later. As part of their responsibility, the soldiers were supposed to go and just shoot. And this is what they did resulting in the slaughter of 1,400 Palestinians and injuring another 5,000. Thousands of houses and buildings were also destroyed. They stand as hulks reminding everyone of Zionist brutality because Ghazzah remains under siege where food, medicine, cement or steel are not permitted to enter the desert patch.
Israel stands condemned not only by its actions but also by the testimony of its own soldiers.