Wednesday, 15 July 2009

On the war crimes of the Israeli Defence Force

Today activists published a report containing "Fifty-four testimonies of Israeli combat soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead," the December invasion of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Breaking the Silence is "an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers that collects testimonies of soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories during the Second Intifadah," whose declared aim is to "voices the experiences of those soldiers, in order to force Israeli society to address the reality which it created."

This follows on from the 2nd July report by Amnesty International entitled "Operation Cast Lead: 22 Days of Death and Destruction." The report asserted that the hundreds of civilian deaths in the during the invasion "cannot simply be dismissed as 'collateral damage' incidental to otherwise lawful attacks - or as mistakes," and describes the "wanton and deliberate" destruction of homes, schools and businesses that "could not be justified on the grounds of military necessity."

The new report backs up these assertions with utterly damning testimony. This is what one soldier had to say on the practice of using human shields;
Sometimes the force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian's shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield. Commanders said these were the instructions and we had to do it… Anyway, at the concluding debriefing, he (the unit commander) said he didn't know about these things, and the guys, commanders who had been there the first week, said they saw civilians being assigned to break walls and enter with rifle barrels on their shoulders. He said he didn't know this and would look into it. I think nothing substantial had been done about it, I'm also in touch with one of the officers there at present and I don't know if an investigation was made and nothing was found or that nothing was cleared up. Several weeks later, the story came out in the paper about these exact incidents, where they were given hammers to break walls, in our area, this I can say with certainty.
Breaking the Silence themselves, in summing up the report, assert "that the soldiers were not given directives stating the goal of the operation and, as one soldier testifies, "there was not much said about the issue of innocent civilians."" "The soldiers tell in their testimonies how this unwritten message, which came from brigade, battalion, and company commanders in morale-building conversations before entering Gaza, translated into zero patience for the life of enemy civilians," according to Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard, introducing the report. Certainly, the atmosphere of frenzy that such a culture generates is confirmed by the soldiers themselves;
Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don't see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.
The immediate response from the Israeli government was, as expected, confrontational and insensitive to the basic fact, as Sfard points out, that "violations of the laws of war are liable to be war crimes."Haaretz quotes Defence Minister Ehud Barak as follows;
Public criticism of the IDF is inappropriate. Any criticism, information or reservations about the army's conduct should be addressed to me as the Defense Minister of the State of Israel and to the Israeli government which instructed the IDF to reinstate peace and security in southern Israel.
A spokesman for the IDF responded in a similar vein, saying that "the IDF regrets the fact that a human rights organization would again present to the country and the world a report containing anonymous, generalized testimony without checking the details or their reliability, and without giving the IDF, as a matter of minimal fairness, the opportunity to check the matters and respond to them before publication." The refusal to address the specific charges and greater concern for public relations than human rights speaks for itself.

The Jerusalem Post adds the news that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu fired "the opening shot of a battle Jerusalem has decided to wage with NGOs it deems biased against Israel" by critcising "a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) fundraising delegation to Saudi Arabia as evidence the organization has lost its "moral compass."" However, as Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division, pointed out, "there was a need to distinguish between a government and its people, and to conflate the two was "misguided at best."" The Post reports her rebuttal that "her organization did not take money from any governments around the world, but did solicit funds from individuals and foundations worldwide." However, this explanation did not placate the government, with one senior official quoted as saying;

We will make a greater effort in the future to go through their reports with a fine-tooth comb, expose the inconsistencies and their problematic use of questionable data. We discovered during the Gaza operation and the Second Lebanon War that these organizations come in with a very strong agenda, and because they claim to have some kind of halo around them, they receive a status that they don't deserve.
Such deliberate obfuscation of the central issue, human rights violations by the IDF and the Israeli government, again speaks for itself. Indeed, it is hard to escape the accusation of "bias" and "slander" without unquestioningly accepting the word of the Israeli government, a move utterly unjustified by historical precedent. In the wake of this report, the "concessionary" nature of Netanyahu's speech last month, where he supposedly "endorsed a Palestinian state beside Israel for the first time," is shown up as empty rhetoric. We are still awaiting news on how this affects Barack Obama's "more even-handed approach" to the region.

The introduction to the Amnesty report cites Fathiya Mousa, whose parents and siblings were killed in an Israeli air strike while sitting in their yard;
Until now we don’t understand why. We want peace; and we want an investigation; we want to know why me and my sisters have been orphaned. Why did they kill our parents, our family?
The question is a valid one, and it should not go unanswered.