Several days ago, the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which takes testimonies from IDF soldiers, published a booklet of over sixty testimonies of soldiers involved in Operation “Protective Edge”, the Gaza Op of last summer. The report has been overshadowed by other news from Israel, and aside from a long (and good) report in the Washington Post and some other major newspapers, and a fine opinion piece by Elisheva Goldberg in the Forward, it has faded fairly quickly in the US news cycle. This indifference is in sharp contrast to the reaction that greeted its revelations of IDF war crimes in Occupation Cast Lead.
Part of this indifference is due to the fact that many of the testimonies describe policies and actions that were publicized widely last summer. We had enough evidence last summer that Israel’s operation in Gaza intended not so much to stop Hamas rocket fire as to “mow the lawn”, i.e., to deplete Hamas arsenals, to punish Gaza collectively for its support of Hamas, to seek revenge for the humiliation of the IDF by Hamas fighters, and to show the Israeli public that the government was doing something after the kidnap/slaying of the three Israelis on the West Bank. As the operation dragged on the harshness of the response increased. Israel had pretty much free rein to do what it wanted. Feeling humiliated by the kidnappings and the rockets, which it was unable to stop, it unleashed its fury.
Another part of the indifference is due to the fact that the world has become inured to these periodic eruptions. Israel is neither condemned nor condoned; it is simply ignored. And Israel has also learned how to ignore these testimonies, barely taking the trouble to reply, unlike the testimonies that followed Cast Lead, which occasioned a huge push back from IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu and the IDF. The IDF spokesperson can be counted on to repeat their talking points, whether it believes them or not. This time it repeated the mantra that the organization should have contacted it with the testimonies, and it turns out that Breaking the Silence did just that. Nevertheless, the testimonies are extremely important for three reasons:
First, they are first-hand testimonies that will be of great use to future historians and unbiased observers. Some people who are unfamiliar with Breaking the Silence assume that those who give testimony oppose the military’s operations. Of course, there are those. But just read the testimonies, and you will see that they include soldiers who justify what was done, or at least those who think that Israel could not have acted differently. These are extraordinarily detailed and moving testimonies. After the BtS’s publication of thousands of testimonies, not one has been shown to be fabricated or distorted.
Second, the testimonies show that the IDF’s violations of the Laws of War were not uniform, that they changed in the course of the operation, depending upon a variety of circumstances. The idea that violations of the laws of war are inevitable in urban context is simply false. Israel behaved badly, but at times it behaved much more worse than at others. And with each operation in Gaza it sinks lower and lower into a moral morass – and sinking with it are the apologists for evil among the supporters of Israel.
Third, and most important, the number of testimonies testify to a pattern of willful and deliberate reinterpretation of the Laws of War that weakens its two main principles: the principle of discrimination (i.e., distinguishing between civilians and soldiers), and the principle of proportionality (i.e, making the force exercised proportionate to the legitimate military goal). What is interesting about this reinterpretation is that it differs from the call to change the laws of war for the “war on terror”. The adoption by the IDF of the Asa Kasher/Amos Yadlin theory that says minimum risk to our soldiers, increased risk for the enemy’s civilians, has nothing to do with asymmetric warfare; it basically says that wars are fought between peoples and not between armies, and hence, almost anything goes.
And, as pointed out by others, it works both ways. That is, if Israeli soldiers should be considered as civilians because they are reservists, then Israelis civilians should be considered as soldiers for the same reasons. That could justify Hamas kidnapping and killing Israeli civilians if they feel it necessary to free their soldiers – since the rule is “our soldiers trump your civilians”.
In the coming week I plan to make available some of these testimonies, which are much more powerful and eloquent than anything I could write.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on May 7, 2015, on The Magnes Zionist, a website featuring commentary by Jewish studies and philosophy professor, Jerry Haber (a nom de plume). It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Haber.