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Israeli soldiers talk about the occupied territories
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Over the last few months we have been collecting testimonies from over 60 soldiers in mandatory and reserve service that took part in Operation “Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip. About a quarter of the testifiers are officers that go all the way up to the rank of major. The testimonies underwent a meticulous investigative process to ensure their veracity. The testifiers, who served in various units – from ground, to naval, to air forces, in both headquarters and command centers – expose the nature of IDF operations in various combat zones. The testimonies in this collection close the yawning gaps between what the IDF and government spokespersons told the public about the combat scenarios, and the reality described by the soldiers that took part in the operation.

While the testimonies include pointed descriptions of inappropriate behavior by soldiers in the field, the more disturbing picture that arises from these testimonies reflects systematic policies that were dictated to IDF forces of all ranks and in all zones. The guiding military principle of “minimum risk to our forces, even at the cost of harming innocent civilians, ”alongside efforts to deter and intimidate the Palestinians, led to massive and unprecedented harm to the population and the civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. Policymakers could have predicted these results prior to the operation and were surely aware of them throughout.

This policy was evident first and foremost during the briefings provided to the forces before entering Gaza. Many soldiers spoke of a working assumption that Palestinian residents had abandoned the neighborhoods they entered due to the IDF’s warnings, thus making anyone located in the area a legitimate target – in some cases even by direct order. This approach was evident before the ground incursion, when the neighborhoods IDF forces entered suffered heavy shelling, as part of the “softening” stage. This included, among other things, massive use of statistical weapons, like cannons and mortars, which are incapable of precise fire. They are intended for broad area offensives, through the random distribution of shells over a range that can reach up to hundreds of meters from the original target. In practice, during the preliminary shelling, the army pounded populated areas throughout the Strip with artillery shells in order to scare off enemy combatants who were in the area, and at times also to urge the civilian population to flee.

IDF policy determined the open-fire policy for the forces. Many of the soldiers testified that the rules of engagement they were provided with before the ground incursion into Gaza were unclear and lenient. The soldiers were briefed by their commanders to fire at every person they identified in a combat zone, since the working assumption was that every person in the field was an enemy. While official military orders allow for fire only after identifying a weapon, intent, and the enemy’s realistic capability, many soldiers testified that they were told to shoot at any threat, imminent or suspected. The use of weapons and means of warfare that required approval in the past by senior officers – like firing a tank shell – were permitted at the discretion of junior commanders.

Alongside these instructions, soldiers testified to unabated fire on “suspicious points.”Commanders did not clearly define the meaning of the term “suspicious point,” so soldiers were free to interpret it in the field as they saw fit. In practice, almost every object or structure within the forces’ eyeshot had the potential to be considered suspicious and thus targeted. Sometimes movements identified in the window of a house hundreds of meters away from the forces led to a strike on that house, based on the suspicion that it was an enemy lookout. That is also how people seen walking hundreds of meters away were implicated at times on the basis of protocol and then targeted.

The “minimum risk” policy also impacted the way the infantry units entered residential homes that served the forces as temporary posts, or solely for surveillance purposes. Before the forces entered the houses, they fired tank shells, and at times sufficed with machine gun fire. House incursions were usually done after breaking a hole in a wall using explosives, bulldozers, or missiles. The searches were generally conducted amid the firing and throwing of grenades. Although, based on their briefings, the soldiers assumed that residents had abandoned neighborhoods, in several cases the soldiers ran into people or families who remained and were hiding out in houses. People were only discovered when those buildings were taken over.

The forces left behind massive destruction upon exiting the Palestinian towns and neighborhoods. In addition to the damage to buildings, many of the houses were completely destroyed during the operation, or directly after the forces left. Engineering forces operated nonstop throughout the ground operation, leaving thousands of houses destroyed.

Some buildings were destroyed by directed attacks to neutralize concrete threats, while others were demolished to thwart theoretical threats, even if there were no associated risks facing the forces in the field. In practice, for many combat forces, the damage to Palestinian property was not a consideration when determining the scope and force of fire. In addition to the damage to property and harm to civilians, the lenient open-fire policy was accompanied by aggression and at times even racism.

Testimonies describe illicit statements by senior commanders, who called for brutal and unethical conduct. From the testimonies it is clear that the aggressive combat methods and massive use of fire, at times without any operational relevance, filtered down and influenced soldiers in the field. The testimonies expose, among other things, cases of unwarranted fire at vehicles by units that made bets among themselves, leading to vandalism and looting.

Throughout ‘Protective Edge,’ the IDF operated according to one of three predetermined activation levels for opening fire. The officers charged with opening fire received orders during the operation about activation levels at any given moment. These changes in activation levels, among other things, determined the kinds of weapons to be used, as well as the safety ranges from civilians. The definitions provided were at times ambiguous, leaving junior officers with much discretion regarding the amount of fire to use, and the acceptable degree of collateral damage that may be caused.

The limitations, which increasingly diminished as the operation progressed, and the changes in activation levels, were disregarded when there was suspicion that a soldier was kidnapped. A case in point is the Hannibal Directive in Rafah, or the rescue attempt of a Golani soldier in Shuja’iyya. During these episodes, there was fire on a much more massive scale directed into neighborhoods and populated areas, while disregarding the necessary safety ranges from the civilian population.

Massive fire was sometimes even activated during attacks launched at a distance, on targets designated in advance throughout the Strip. These attacks were planned and carried out by soldiers and officers positioned in command centers and attack cells outside the Strip, equipped with weapons that allow for precise targeting – whether with aircrafts or through other means.

The munitions used in such attacks, such as half-ton to one-ton missiles, were usually fired by advanced aircrafts. When attacking structures in this framework, the method of providing advance warning to residents in a house (in cases when the goal is not to harm them, but rather to harm the structure) allows for harming anyone who does not leave the area.

The advance warnings included wide-scale use of the “roof knocking” approach. This practice calls for firing a small missile at the structure that does not cause significant damage to the building. A few seconds to a few minutes later, a missile is fired on the house in order to destroy it. The soldiers’ testimonies point to cases in which this practice rendered the advance warning ineffective, failing to prevent harm to innocent people. In addition, the testimonies reveal that similar principles to those that guided the ground forces were activated during these kinds of offensives. In moments when the targets were defined, there was no need to take the damage that would be caused to nearby property or structures into consideration.

In addition, the range of discretion officers were permitted in the various command centers was broader. According to officers that operated in command centers, there was a broad range of discretion allowed for reaching decisions regarding the identification of targets (authorization for identifying a target on the basis of intelligence). Permission was provided, in some cases, without being based sufficiently on intelligence, thus haphazardly endangering civilian lives.

In practice, the identification of many targets was done on the basis of unclear criteria, and attacks were authorized even in cases when there was partial information regarding the likelihood of harming innocent people. Officers and soldiers that took part in activating forces, in general, and commanding attacks from afar, in particular, specified that it was easy to notice the impact from the combative, racist atmosphere during the operation.

The public debate in Israel, external to the military, influenced decisions made within the military regarding the determination of targets and the authorization of attacks. This impact was evident from the racist and violent statements voiced by decision-makers and the “trigger happy” attitude of officers responsible for authorizing attacks.

The testimonies point to a shift in the open-fire policy throughout the operation, with regard to the different targets that were authorized and the scope of injuries to innocent people that were permitted. This policy changed for various reasons, including the dwindling of the target lists, the desire to prevent Hamas from, attaining a “display of victory” ahead of the ceasefires, and the desire to attack as many targets as possible before the ceasefires went into effect.

The top echelons of the IDF command determined these changes in the open-fire policy. At least in some cases, the deliberations and circumstances that led to changes in this policy were not directly related to the combat itself or to defending the troops in the field – but rather served political and diplomatic interests.

The IDF’s military doctrine during the operation, as reflected by the testimonies, raises questions regarding the ethical norms that guide IDF conduct in general, and throughout the operations in Gaza, in particular. From all the testimonies that reached Breaking the Silence, a very disconcerting picture arises about the way IDF forces were instructed to operate during combat in Gaza.

The operation, which was conducted under a policy determined by the most senior commanding ranks who instructed the soldiers’ conduct, casts grave doubt on the IDF’s ethics. As IDF soldiers and officers, in mandatory and reserve service, we feel it is our civil obligation to publicly expose these testimonies.

The findings that arise from the testimonies call for an honest and thorough investigation into how IDF forces were activated during Operation Protective Edge. Such an investigation will only be effective and meaningful if carried out by an external and independent entity, by actors that can examine conduct at the highest ranks in the security and political establishments. Anything less, as we have seen in past experience, will lead to placing the responsibility for the acts on more junior and lower ranks, thereby precluding the ability to bring about fundamental change that can prevent a recurrence of the harsh reality we witnessed in the summer of 2014. 

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