The anonymous soldier testimonies from the 2014 Gaza onslaught released today by the Israeli veterans group Breaking the Silence (and reported in the Washington Post, the Independent, and Guardian) suggest more madness than method in Israel’s overwhelming and indiscriminate attacks in Gaza. “Fire at every person you see,” is the Independent’s headline.
Underlying the testimonies, though, are two new doctrines of war that the Israeli military has adopted at the highest level in order to combat violent Palestinian resistance: 1, zero risk to Israeli troops, 2, destruction of entire neighborhoods as a form of deterrence and collective punishment.
1. The first rule of engagement is, When an Israeli soldier is in doubt about any activity on the other side, pull the trigger; Israeli soldiers want the risk to be on the Palestinians. This rule upends a principle stated by Israeli authorities years ago (notably the philosopher Moshe Halbertal), of ostensibly doing everything possible to avoid harm to civilians in line with international law. Rather, it reflects thinking formulated by philosopher Asa Kasher and former general and intelligence chief Amos Yadlin back in 2003, arguing that because Israeli soldiers are also citizens of the state of Israel, when Israel sends them into battle, the Israeli army owes them protection more than it owes civilians of the enemy.
In these testimonies, Palestinian civilians aren’t really even civilians. As a lieutenant said:
There is this rigid dichotomy. There are those involved [Palestinians involved in the fighting] and those uninvolved, and that’s it. But the very fact that they’re described as ‘uninvolved’, rather than as civilians, and the desensitization to the surging number of dead on the Palestinian side – and it doesn’t matter whether they’re involved or not – the unfathomable number of dead on one of the sides, the unimaginable level of destruction, the way militant cells and people were regarded as targets and not as living beings – that’s something that troubles me. The discourse is racist
So Israeli soldiers become civilians in terms of the protection afforded them by the army. Israeli civilians are the top priority, then comes an Israeli soldier, then after him comes a Palestinian civilian, and at the bottom is the Palestinian militant. This goes against international law.
2. The second doctrine is the Dahiya doctrine, developed during the second Lebanon war in the Beirut neighborhood of Dahiya, of bombing portions of the enemy’s cities to ashes. This idea reflects an understanding of asymmetrical war: We can’t really ever win the war, we can’t wipe out the militants, but we can buy time between rounds of conflict by making so much damage that it will cause them to think 20,000 times before they pick a fight. So responding proportionately is a strategic error, we have to bomb them so much as to create deterrence.
These two doctrines together explain the Gaza operation. And they are rules that by definition will kill a great number of civilians. Though Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence says that the civilian deaths were not intentional, as such.
“We’re not talking about a situation where generals in command centers are plotting as the civilian death numbers are rising, but sadly we’re very far away from the official line where they say we did everything to reduce civilian casualties. Because anyone who gives these orders and anyone who sets these regulations cannot say that anymore, it’s just a blunt lie.”
Consider the leaflets that the soldiers dropped on neighborhoods, and that the Israeli military has said constituted sufficient warning to residents. The leaflets gave a deadline for residents to leave, and had a map showing where they could go. For instance, residents of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza were told to go to Jabaliya refugee camp.
After that, the entire neighborhood of Beit Lahiya became an old-school battlefield ala the second world war, where anything goes.
Innocent people don’t exist. The area has to be “sterilized,” according to one testimony. “There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.”
Another: “No one should be there at all. If there is [any Palestinian] there – they shouldn’t be.”
“After the leaflets, Beit Lahiya is not a neighborhood any more,” says Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence. “We’re at war… Drop the leaflet, anyone who is there is not ‘not involved,’ you shoot.
In one of the most horrifying cases in the testimonies, Israeli soldiers saw two women walking in an orchard in southern Gaza, 800 meters away from troops. An officer decided they were scouts for militants.
The lookouts couldn’t see well so the commander sent a drone up to look from above, and the drone implicated them. It saw them with phones, talking, walking. They directed fire there, on those girls, and they were killed. After they were implicated, I had a feeling it was bullshit.
Scouts. “The [Palestinian girls] can surely see the tanks, and they can surely see the smoke rising from all the engineering work.” After that the commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies]. They check the bodies, and it was two women, over age 30. The bodies of two women, and they were unarmed. He came back and we moved on, and they were listed as terrorists.
An Air Force veteran described the loosening of restrictions:
[A]fter the APC in Shuja’iyya, (an incident in which seven IDF soldiers were killed when a rocket hit their armored personnel carrier) and when the brigade commander was killed… things weren’t done the same as they were before…There were many, many targets that [weren’t attacked] because they didn’t qualify under the firing policy, and then after Shujai’yya for example, suddenly some of those targets did get approved. The sort of problematic targets that were at a certain distance from some school – suddenly stuff like that did get approved
He goes on, “What we understand is that the IDF has changed its way of fighting, basically abandoned the ethical code without having any conversation, without having any discussion. It’s a mad doctrine, and the IDF didn’t adopt it formally. Even some people in the general staff think it’s mad, but this is the way we fight.”
Today the IDF released a statement saying that Breaking the Silence was irresponsible because it did not attempt to discuss its findings with army command. Breaking the Silence then released a letter from late March to the IDF in which it sought to share the testimonies and get a response.
“What I’m describing, I know it sounds mad,” Shaul says. “And it is mad, and that’s why we’re so mad.”