The question of what happened in Gaza during the Israeli military operation there in December and January, Operation Cast Lead, is not going away, and it is a matter of concern not just to Palestinians and UN investigators, but to Israeli soldiers as well. Twenty-six soldiers have now come forward to talk about their combat experiences during the war in a collection of testimony just published by Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers that collects testimonies of soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories.
The soldiers who spoke about Operation Cast Lead came from diverse backgrounds and political perspectives. Some signed up for combat units right after high school. Others were drafted for the operation and left their families to fight. Some came from a religious background, while others were second -- or third -- generation secular kibbutzniks.
Still, they have two things in common. All of them feel there were things that happened in Cast Lead that were highly problematic morally. And according to the Israeli military's official line, all of these soldiers -- who gave their testimonies in separate interviews, mostly anonymously, sometimes at risk of prosecution if their identity is exposed -- are liars.
The spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces presents a radically different version of the Gaza operation than do these combatants who participated in it. The spokesperson claims that Israel did not use the "neighbor procedure" in Cast Lead -- the practice of forcing Palestinian civilians to open doors and search buildings so as not to endanger Israeli troops, which the Israeli Supreme Court banned in 2004. But a soldier from the Egoz unit said that the military did use human shields in exactly this way in Gaza, with the operational support of the unit commander.
The spokesperson claimed that the Israeli military only used white phosphorus munitions as an obscurant, to provide a cover for troop movements, in rural areas, but a soldier saw troops in the Zaitun area fire white phosphorus into "suspicious" buildings to detonate explosives inside of them. White phosphorous can cause severe burns and toxic injuries if it touches a human body.
The spokesperson claimed that buildings were destroyed only for security reasons, but soldiers described massive destruction of civilian property, which they said their commanders justified on the grounds that Gaza would be easier to control "the day after" Israeli forces withdrew.
Most important, the spokesperson claimed that all soldiers received precise rules of engagement when they entered the operation, with an emphasis on avoiding injury to civilians. Many soldiers testified that in their units there was total disregard for civilian safety and a permissiveness they had never encountered in previous operations. "If you are not sure - shoot. If there is doubt then there is no doubt," one combatant said he was told.
Of course, the stories of twenty-six combatants do not represent everything that happened during Israel's military operations in Gaza. And differences appear within the testimonies themselves, including the details about the rules of engagement depending on the unit involved. But these stories make clear that a thorough investigation is needed to bring the full story to the Israeli public, and that it would not be appropriate for the Israeli military to run this investigation.
The military is not interested in opening its doors to Israeli researchers. What could be easier than saying, "Everything went according to protocol"? But soldiers on the ground have been asking questions. Reservists who served in the 1990s and were called back to fight during Cast Lead have been wondering, where is the Israeli military they used to know? When did our army's belief in the "purity of arms" and our "code of ethics" morph into the slogan that "in the jungle everything is allowed"?
Soldiers experienced a huge disconnect between what they saw and did on the ground, and the claims, made by senior officers, that Israel has the most moral army in the world. As long as commanders continue to deny or dissemble about what happened, Israel's troops are left with two options: not to speak about what they saw, doing what is possible to shield those who gave the orders, or to break their silence and be accused of lying and betrayal.
Why is it that soldiers are required to face this reality alone? Is it possible that senior officers have forgotten their responsibility toward their soldiers?
If the Israeli military thought it logical not to give rules of engagement to the soldiers on entering the battlefield, they should admit it. If there is some operational logic in firing white phosphorus on a house, the military should explain it. If "in war all is permitted," the Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson should explain this new approach. Something happened in this operation, not only in Gaza, but inside the military. It is the military's responsibility to its soldiers, and to the Israeli citizens whose security it is meant to safeguard and whose ethical rules it is meant to follow, to let us in on this change.