To read about what Americans can do about human rights abuses in Palestine, check out “Can We Hold Israel Accountable,” by Stephen Zunes.
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
“There is no
country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from
outside its borders,” President Barack Obama said at a press conference last
week. He drew on this general observation in order to justify Operation Pillar
of Defense, Israel’s
most recent military campaign in the Gaza Strip. In describing the situation
this way, he assumes, like many others, that Gaza
is a political entity external and independent of Israel. This is not so. It is true
officially disengaged from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, withdrawing its
ground troops and evacuating the Israeli settlements there. But despite the
absence of a permanent ground presence, Israel
has maintained a crushing control over Gaza
from that moment until today.
of Israeli army veterans expose the truth of that “disengagement.” Before
Operation Pillar of Defense, after all, Israel launched Operations Summer
Rains and Autumn Clouds in 2006, and Hot Winter and Cast Lead in 2008 — all
involving ground invasions. In one testimony, a veteran speaks of “a battalion
operation” in Gaza
that lasted for five months, where the soldiers were ordered to shoot “to draw
out terrorists” so they “could kill a few.”
Israeli naval blockades stop Gazans from fishing, a main source of food in
the Strip. Air blockades prevent freedom of movement. Israel does not allow building materials into
the area, forbids exports to the West Bank and Israel,
and (other than emergency humanitarian cases) prohibits movement between the
Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It controls the
Palestinian economy by periodically withholding import taxes. Its restrictions
have impeded the expansion and upgrading of the Strip’s woeful sewage
infrastructure, which could render life in Gaza untenable within a decade. The blocking
of seawater desalination has turned the water supply into a health hazard. Israel has repeatedly demolished small power
plants in Gaza,
ensuring that the Strip would have to continue to rely on the Israeli
electricity supply. Daily power shortages have been the norm for several years
presence is felt everywhere, militarily and otherwise.
By relying on
factual misconceptions, political leaders, deliberately or not, conceal
information that is critical to our understanding of events. Among the people best
qualified to correct those misconceptions are the individuals who have been
charged with executing a state’s policies — in this case, Israeli soldiers
themselves, an authoritative source of information about their government’s
actions. I am a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and I know that
our first-hand experiences refute the assumption, accepted by many, including
President Obama, that Gaza is an independent
political entity that exists wholly outside Israel. If Gaza
is outside Israel,
how come we were stationed there? If Gaza is
how come we control it? Oded Na’aman
testimonies by Israeli veterans that follow are taken from 145 collected by the
nongovernmental organization Breaking the Silence and published in Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies From the
Occupied Territories, 2000-2010. Those in the book represent every
division in the IDF and all locations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.]
Location: Nablus district
During your service in the territories, what shook you up the most?
The searches we
did in Hares. They said there are sixty houses that have to be searched. I
thought there must have been some information from intelligence. I tried to
justify it to myself.
out as a patrol?
It was a
battalion operation. They spread out over the whole village, took over the
school, smashed the locks, the classrooms. One was used as the investigation
room for the Shin Bet, one room for detainees, one for the soldiers to rest. We
went in house by house, banging on the door at two in the morning. The family’s
dying of fear, the girls are peeing in their pants with fear. We go into the
house and turn everything upside down.
family in a certain room, put a guard there, tell the guard to aim his gun at
them, and then search the rest of the house. We got another order that everyone
born after 1980… everyone between sixteen and twenty-nine, doesn’t matter
who, bring them in cuffed and blindfolded. They yelled at old people, one of
them had an epileptic seizure but they carried on yelling at him. Every house
we went into, we brought everyone between sixteen and twenty-nine to the
school. They sat tied up in the schoolyard.
tell you the purpose of all this?
To locate weapons. But we didn’t find any weapons. They confiscated kitchen
knives. There was also stealing. One guy took twenty shekels. Guys went into
the houses and looked for things to steal. This was a very poor village. The
guys were saying, “What a bummer, there’s nothing to steal.”
said in a conversation among the soldiers?
enjoyed seeing the misery, the guys were happy talking about it. There was a
moment someone yelled at the soldiers. They knew he was mentally ill, but one
of the soldiers decided that he’d beat him up anyway, so they smashed him. They
hit him in the head with the butt of the gun, he was bleeding, then they
brought him to the school along with everyone else. There were a pile of arrest
orders signed by the battalion commander, ready, with one area left blank.
They’d fill in that the person was detained on suspicion of disturbing the
peace. They just filled in the name and the reason for arrest. There were
people with plastic handcuffs that had been put on really tight. I got to speak
with the people there. One of them had been brought into Israel to work
for a settler and after two months the guy didn’t pay him and handed him over
to the police.
people came from that one village?
else you remember from that night?
A small thing,
but it bothered me — one house that they just destroyed. They have a dog for
weapons searches, but they didn’t bring him; they just wrecked the house. The
mother watched from the side and cried. Her kids sat with her and stroked her.
What do you
mean, they just destroyed the house?
the floors, turned over sofas, threw plants and pictures, turned over beds,
smashed the closets, the tiles. There were other things — the look on the
people’s faces when you go into their house. And after all that, they were left
tied up and blindfolded in the school for hours. The order came to free them at
four in the afternoon. So that was more than twelve hours. There were
investigators from the security services there who interrogated them one by
been a terrorist attack in the area?
No. We didn’t
even find any weapons. The brigade commander claimed that the Shin Bet did find
some intelligence, that there were a lot of guys there who throw stones.
Location: Gaza Strip
punishment. I hate that: “They did this to us, so we’ll do that to them.” Do
you know what a naval blockade means for the people in Gaza? There’s no food for a few days. For
example, suppose there’s an attack in Netanya, so they impose a naval blockade
for four days on the entire Strip. No seagoing vessel can leave. A Dabur patrol
boat is stationed at the entrance to the port, if they try to go out, within
seconds the soldiers shoot at the bow and even deploy attack helicopters to
scare them. We did a lot of operations with attack helicopters — they don’t
shoot much because they prefer to let us deal with that, but they’re there to
scare people, they circle over their heads. All of a sudden there’s a Cobra
right over your head, stirring up the wind and throwing everything around.
frequent were the blockades?
Very. It could
be three times one month, and then three months of nothing. It depends.
blockade goes on for a day, two days, three days, four, or more than that?
remember anything longer than four days. If it was longer than that, they’d die
there, and I think the IDF knows that. Seventy percent of Gaza lives on fishing — they have no other
choice. For them it means not eating. There are whole families who don’t eat
for a few days because of the blockade. They eat bread and water.
Shoot to Kill
operations in Gaza,
anyone walking around in the street, you shoot at the torso. In one operation
in the Philadelphi corridor, anyone walking around at night, you shoot at the
were the operations?
Daily. In the
Philadelphi corridor, every day.
searching for tunnels, how do people manage to get around — I mean, they live
in the area.
It’s like this:
You bring one force up to the third or fourth floor of a building. Another
group does the search below. They know that while they’re doing the search
there’ll be people trying to attack them. So they put the force up high, so
they can shoot at anyone down in the street.
shooting was there?
there, I’m up on the third floor. I shoot at anyone I see?
But it’s in
Gaza, it’s a
street, it’s the most crowded place in the world.
No, no, I’m
talking about the Philadelphi corridor.
So that’s a
there’s a road, it’s like the suburbs, not the center. During operations in the
neighborhoods it’s the same thing. Shooting, during night operations —
any kind of announcement telling people to stay indoors?
actually shot people?
anyone walking around in the street. It always ended with, “We killed six
terrorists today.” Whoever you shot in the street is “a terrorist.”
they say at the briefings?
The goal is to
the rules of engagement?
walking around at night, shoot to kill.
about that in the briefings: whoever’s walking around during the day, look for
something suspicious. But something suspicious could be a cane.
Location: Gaza Strip
There was a
period at the beginning of the Intifada where they assassinated people using
This was at
the beginning of the Second Intifada?
Yes. But it was
a huge mess because there were mistakes and other people were killed, so they
told us we were now going to be doing a ground elimination operation.
Is that the
terminology they used? “Ground elimination operation”?
remember. But we knew it was going to be the first one of the Intifada. That
was very important for the commanders and we started to train for it. The plan
was to catch a terrorist on his way to Rafah, trap him in the middle of the
road, and eliminate him.
elimination. Targeted. But that operation was canceled, and then a few days
later they told us that we’re going on an arrest operation. I remember the
disappointment. We were going to arrest the guy instead of doing something
groundbreaking, changing the terms. So the operation was planned…
waiting inside the APC [armored personnel carrier], there are Shin Bet agents
with us, and we can hear the updates from intelligence. It was amazing, like,
“He’s sitting in his house drinking coffee, he’s going downstairs, saying hi to
the neighbor” — stuff like that. “He’s going back up, coming down again,
saying this and that, opening the trunk now, picking up a friend” — really
detailed stuff. He didn’t drive, someone else drove, and they told us his
weapon was in the trunk. So we knew he didn’t have the weapon with him in the
car, which would make the arrest easier. At least it relieved my stress,
because I knew that if he ran to get the weapon, they’d shoot at him.
the Shin Bet agent sit?
With me. In the
APC. We were in contact with command and they told us he’d arrive in another
five minutes, four minutes, one minute. And then there was a change in the
orders, apparently from the brigade commander: elimination operation. A minute
ahead of time. They hadn’t prepared us for that. A minute to go and it’s an elimination
Why do you
say “apparently from the brigade commander”?
I think it was
the brigade commander. Looking back, the whole thing seems like a political
ploy by the commander, trying to get bonus points for doing the first
elimination operation, and the brigade commander trying, too. . . everyone
wanted it, everyone was hot for it. The car arrives, and it’s not according to
plan: their car stops here, and there’s another car in front of it, here. From
what I remember, we had to shoot, he was three meters away. We had to shoot.
After they stopped the cars, I fired through the scope and the gunfire made an
insane amount of noise, just crazy. And then the car, the moment we started
shooting, started speeding in this direction.
The car in
terrorist’s car — apparently when they shot the driver his leg was stuck on
the gas, and they started flying. The gunfire increased, and the commander next
to me is yelling “Stop, stop, hold your fire,” but they don’t stop shooting.
Our guys get out and start running, away from the jeep and the armored truck,
shoot a few rounds, and then go back. Insane bullets flying around for a few
minutes. “Stop, stop, hold your fire,” and then they stop. They fired dozens if
not hundreds of bullets into the car in front.
saying this because you checked afterward?
carried out the bodies. There were three people in that car. Nothing happened
to the person in the back. He got out, looked around like this, put his hands
in the air. But the two bodies in the front were hacked to pieces…
counted how many bullets I had left — I’d shot ten bullets. The whole thing
was terrifying — more and more and more noise. It all took about a second and
a half. And then they took out the bodies, carried the bodies. We went to a
debriefing. I’ll never forget when they brought the bodies out at the base. We
were standing two meters away in a semicircle, the bodies were covered in
flies, and we had the debriefing. It was, “Great job, a success. Someone shot
the wrong car, and we’ll talk about the rest back on the base.” I was in total
shock from all the bullets, from the crazy noise. We saw it on the video, it
was all documented on video for the debriefing. I saw all the things that I
told you, the people running, the minute of gunfire, I don’t know if it’s
twenty seconds or a minute, but it was hundreds of bullets and it was clear
that the people had been killed, but the gunfire went on and the soldiers were
running from the armored truck. What I saw was a bunch of bloodthirsty guys
firing an insane amount of bullets, and at the wrong car, too. The video was
just awful, and then the unit commander got up. I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot
What do you
That he’ll be a
regional commanding officer or the chief of staff one day. He said, “The
operation wasn’t carried out perfectly, but the mission was accomplished, and
we got calls from the chief of staff, the defense minister, the prime minister”
— everyone was happy, it’s good for the unit, and the operation was like, you
know, just: “Great job.” The debriefing was just a cover-up.
Meaning no one
stopped to say, “Three innocent people died.” Maybe with the driver there was
no other way, but who were the others?
they, in fact?
At that time I
had a friend training with the Shin Bet, he told me about the jokes going
around that the terrorist was a nobody. He’d probably taken part in some
shooting and the other two had nothing to do with anything. What shocked me was
that the day after the operation, the newspapers said that “a secret unit
killed four terrorists,” and there was a whole story on each one, where he came
from, who he’d been involved with, the operations he’d done. But I know that on
the Shin Bet base they’re joking about how we killed a nobody and the other two
weren’t even connected, and at the debriefing itself they didn’t even mention
Who did the
commander. The first thing I expected to hear was that something bad happened,
that we did the operation to eliminate one person and ended up eliminating
four. I expected that he’d say, “I want to know who shot at the first car. I
want to know why A-B-C ran to join in the big bullet-fest.” But that didn’t
happen, and I understood that they just didn’t care. These people do what they
do. They don’t care.
guys talk about it?
Yes. There were
two I could talk to. One of them was really shocked but it didn’t stop him. It
didn’t stop me, either. It was only after I came out of the army that I
understood. No, even when I was in the army I understood that something really
bad had happened. But the Shin Bet agents were as happy as kids at a summer
high-fiving and hugging. Really pleased with themselves. They didn’t join in
the debriefing, it was of no interest to them. But what was the politics of the
operation? How come my commanders, not one of them, admitted that the operation
had failed? And failed so badly with the shooting all over the place that the
guys sitting in the truck got hit with shrapnel from the bullets. It’s a
miracle we didn’t kill each other.
limbs were smeared on the wall
One company told me they did an operation where a woman was blown up and
smeared all over the wall. They kept knocking on her door and there was no
answer, so they decided to open it with explosives. They placed them at the
door and right at that moment the woman came to open it. Then her kids came
down and saw her. I heard about it after the operation at dinner. Someone said
it was funny that the kids saw their mother smeared on the wall and everyone
cracked up. Another time I got screamed at by my platoon when I went to give
the detainees some water from our field kit canteen. They said, “What, are you
crazy?” I couldn’t see what their problem was, so they said, “Come on, germs.”
In Nahal Oz, there was an incident with kids who’d been sent by their parents
to try to get into Israel to find food, because their families were hungry.
They were fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boys, I think. I remember one of them
sitting blindfolded and then someone came and hit him, here.
And poured oil
on him, the stuff we use to clean weapons.
shot at fishermen
There’s an area
bordering Gaza that’s under the navy’s control. Even after Israel disengaged
from the Strip, nothing changed in the sea sector. I remember that near Area K,
which divided Israel and Gaza, there were kids as young as four or six, who’d
get up early in the morning to fish, in the areas that were off-limits. They’d
go there because the other areas were crowded with fishermen. The kids always
tried to cross, and every morning we’d shoot in their direction to scare them
off. It got to the point of shooting at the kids’ feet where they were standing
on the beach or at the ones on surfboards. We had Druze police officers on
board who’d scream at them in Arabic. We’d see the poor kids crying.
What do you
mean, “shoot in their direction”?
It starts with
shooting in the air, then it shifts to shooting close by, and in extreme cases
it becomes shooting toward their legs.
Five or six
hundred meters, with a Rafael heavy machine gun, it’s all automatic.
perspective. On the screen, there’s a measure for height and a one for width,
and you mark where you want the bullet to go with the cursor. It cancels out
the effect of the waves and hits where it’s supposed to, it’s precise.
You aim a
meter away from the surfboard?
More like five
or six meters. I heard about cases where they actually hit the surfboards, but
I didn’t see it. There were other things that bothered me, this thing with
Palestinian fishing nets. The nets cost around four thousand shekels, which is
like a million dollars for them. When they wouldn’t do what we said too many
times, we’d sink their nets. They leave their nets in the water for something
like six hours. The Dabur patrol boat comes along and cuts their nets.
didn’t do what we said. Let’s say a boat drifts over to an area that’s
off-limits, so a Dabur comes, circles, shoots in the air, and goes back. Then
an hour later, the boat comes back and so does the Dabur. The third time
around, the Dabur starts shooting at the nets, at the boat, and then shoots to
off-limits area close to Israel?
area close to Israel
and another along the Israeli-Egyptian border… Israel’s
sea border is twelve miles out, and Gaza’s
is only three. They’ve only got those three miles, and that’s because of one
reason, which is that Israel
wants its gas, and there’s an offshore drilling rig something like three and a
half miles out facing the Gaza Strip, which should be Palestinian, except that
it’s ours… the Navy Special Forces unit provides security for the rig. A bird
comes near the area, they shoot it. There’s an insane amount of security for
that thing. One time there were Egyptian fishing nets over the three-mile
limit, and we dealt with them. A total disaster.
They were in
international waters, we don’t have jurisdiction there, but we’d shoot at them.
we’re at peace with Egypt.
Na’aman is co-editor of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the
Occupied Territories, 2000-2010 (Metropolitan Books, 2012). He is also
a founder of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization dedicated to
collecting the testimonies of Israel
Defense Force soldiers, and a member of the Israeli Opposition Network. He
served in the IDF as a first sergeant and crew commander in the artillery corps
between 2000 and 2003 and is now working on his PhD in philosophy at Harvard University. The testimonies in this
piece from Our Harsh Logic have been adapted and shortened.
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