Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009


Breaking the Silence

  • שוברים שתיקה
  • 113 pages
  • July 15, 2009

“…In training you learn that white phosphorus is not used, and you’re taught that it’s not humane. You watch films and see what it does to people who are hit, and you say, “There, we’re doing it too.” That’s not what I expected to see. Until that moment I had thought that I belonged to the most humane army in the world, I knew that even in the West Bank, when we go into a neighborhood, we do it quietly so that people won’t see us,but also in order not to disturb them, no less. An IDF soldier does not shoot for the sake of shooting nor does he apply excessive force beyond the call of the mission he is to perform. We saw the planes flying out and you see from which building the rocket is launched against Israel and you see the four houses surrounding that building collapsing as soon as the air force bombs. I don’t know if it was white phosphorus or not, and I don’t really care that much, but whole neighborhoods were simply razed because four houses in the area served to launch Qassam rockets…”

Several months have passed since the end of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and many Israelis are still not aware of what really happened there. For lack of basic facts, we are forced to accept unconditionally the positions of the official bodies, which assure us that in spite of any doubts, the IDF’s conduct was faultless and public accountability is uncalled for. This publication includes the testimonies of around thirty combatants who took part in the operation in early 2009. The testimonies that appear here were gathered over the past few months from soldiers who served in all sectors of the operation. The majority of the soldiers who spoke with us are still serving in their regular military units and turned to us in deep distress at the moral deterioration of the IDF. Although this publication does not claim to provide a broad, comprehensive review of all the soldiers and the units who carried out the operation, these narratives are enough to bring into question the credibility of the official IDF versions.

There are many significant gaps between the testimonies we gathered. These testimonies describe use of the ‘Neighbor Procedure’ and of white phosphorus ammunition in densely inhabited neighborhoods, massive destruction of buildings unrelated to any direct threat to Israeli forces, and permissive rules of engagement that led to the killing of innocents. We also hear from the soldiers about the general atmosphere that accompanied the fighting, and of harsh statements made by junior and senior officers that attest to the ongoing moral deterioration of the society and the army. During the operation, the military rabbinate made its own contribution to these expressions when it introduced controversial religious and political interpretation under the auspices of the IDF and with its blessing. Although certain features characterized this operation as a whole, significant differences can be found among the various geographic areas and units. Such variation is also addressed in this publication.

In the past few months, the IDF spokesperson has gone to great lengths to prove that if there were any moral problems with the war at all, they were merely on the level of the ‘delinquent soldier,’ rather than a widespread, systemic issue. The stories of this publication prove that we are not dealing with the failures of individual soldiers, and attest instead to failures in the application of values primarily on a systemic level. The IDF’s depiction of such phenomena as ‘rotten apple’ soldiers is a tactic used to place the responsibility solely on individual soldiers on the ground and to evade taking responsibility for the system’s serious value and command failures. The testimonies of the soldiers in this collection expose that the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians of the Gaza strip were a direct result of IDF policy, and especially of the rules of engagement, and a cultivation of the notion among soldiers that the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions.

This collection of testimonies offers a brief glance at Operation Cast Lead, and what occurred during the operation at the hands of the IDF on behalf of Israeli society. We believe that the existence of a moral society clearly requires a profound, honest discussion, of which the voice of soldiers on the ground is an inseparable part.

That this voice was missing from public discourse around the fighting in Gaza obliged us to hasten publication of these testimonies them. Because of time pressure and the complex process of verifying the testimonies, we are not able to publish here all the materials in our possession. The testimonies in this book are categorized by subject and appear in the exact language of the soldier speaking. Military terminology is explained in parentheses.  Those who break their silence in this publication describe in their testimonies how actions defined as anomalous yesterday become the norms of tomorrow, and how the emissaries of Israeli society continue, along with entire the military system, to slide together down the moral slippery slope. This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our many volunteers and supporters who enabled the publication of this booklet on such short notice. Without their extensive assistance and support, this publication would not have reached your hands.

Testimony 2 – House Demolitions

What in fact happened was that we were on the road between Karni and Netzarim, the old route. We were there for six, seven days, more or less. A week, almost.

We went in.

What was the purpose?

We were not told. I don’t know what the objective of the war was. Different things were said, aimed more at what needs to be done concretely – they were said in retrospect, that’s how I feel.

Were you not told what the objective was, at your briefing?

No way, what do you mean? The same way the broader Israeli public was not informed. Our specific goal was to fragment the Gaza Strip. This was the responsibility of our brigade. Fragmentation was carried out just like in the good old days of Gush Katif prior to the disengagement. Fragmentation is total, absolute – complete separation of the northern Gaza Strip, the north-central section, from the south-central part of the Strip. A separation of Gaza City from the refugee camps and the prevention of weapons, ammunition and reinforcements from reaching Gaza City, which – at the time – I think the army planned to occupy. In fact this did not take place. It was the responsibility of our battalion. We were under command of Armored Corps Brigade ***… We went in, replaced the Rotem Battalion (Giv’ati Infantry Brigade). We were briefed on the method, the reserves actually replacing the regulars so that the latter would continue occupying or taking charge of the city, that’s already a terminology issue. So our greatest fear was that we were defensive rather than on the offensive. The regulars were more engaged in an offensive because they’re the ones who came and charged, they were the first to break through the front line, they kept advancing further and further towards the designated targets and we actually replaced them and were supposed to control the area and deepen our hold of it, as the army calls it. In actual fact this is done by means of defense posts: residential buildings situated at strategic locations are taken over, whether at high points, or overlooking roads or whatever. Every such house is held by a force, according to the size of the building and the needs at hand. It may be a platoon, a squadron, a company, a battalion – not the whole battalion, of course, just battalion headquarters and some more men, or just the headquarters staff…We’re sitting in a building that was a brick or marble workshop belonging to a pretty respectable-looking man. Obviously Hamas, from the pictures and inscriptions we found there. We actually created a pretty big setup there that was gradually reduced as time went by, control was intended to intensify inward, paradoxically meaning towards Israel. We come in from the north-west and wanted to deepen our control towards Israel, in the north-east. Towards Hoovers Road, as it is called, the border with Israel. This was the method: we did not actually see an enemy, nor civilians – we saw absolutely no one. But we were not being used in the field.

You had it, too, was it a general permission to open fire?

Within the boundaries of our designated area.

It’s a city, you know. Flyers were distributed, but people are bound to be on the move, obviously there would be civilian traffic. It’s not a military area. People live there. No one addressed this in briefings? Commanders, anyone? No distinction was to be made between people and civilians, such as would escape in your directions? There are plenty of possible scenarios.

That’s right. No special mention was made of innocents.

You said that from the moment he detected the vehicle with insurgents (the interviewer is referring to identification and initial fire of another tank that the witness described earlier in his testimony), the first shell was fired and you didn’t hold your fire after that. What does that mean?

For most of this operation we were using the sighting devices we had inside the tank within our designated area as it was defined for us, and firing machine guns, cannons, whatever we had.

Firing at what?

Everything: houses – if the deputy battalion commander thought a house looked suspect, we’d blow it away. If the infantrymen didn’t like the looks of that house – we’d shoot. Everything. We fired… This wasn’t non-stop. Our ammo supply was not endless.

You were told that eventually the forces would be combined, infantry would come from here and then everyone would be helping out to level everything ahead?

It was less this way. I occupy a certain area and ‘cleanse’ it, take up positions and go out at night into the neighborhood you occupied to take over houses and various targeted sites you demolished.

You began to speak about ammo quantity?

Our tank fired. Shall I tell you how much?

Yes, to give us an idea.

35 crates of machine gun rounds, something like that. 40 shells, 30 shells, two crates of heavy machine gun rounds, 20 mortar rounds. I know of other crews who even fired white phosphorus.

You have that in your supply?
Yes. Our battalion mortars were also using phosphorus. I know of an officer’s tank that fired phosphorus, too.

You’re speaking in general, try to be specific. A 60 mm. mortar is not precise at all.

That’s right. The ones that were used were aimed at places we wanted to cleanse, gardens and such. Where we were certain no one was at the time. I know there are storage structures there and that kind of stuff, at a range of 200-300 meters. This range is more or less precise.

What was the story of using white phosphorus mortar shells?

The company commander gives the mortar platoon commander a target and orders him to fire.

What was there, do you know?

A target. They define targets. I can’t really say what there was. Sometimes you’d hear on radio “Permitted, phosphorus in the air.” That’s it. I don’t recall if this was ever confirmed by the company commander, but I know of an officer that also fired without requesting permission.

Why fire phosphorus?

Because it’s fun. Cool.

Professionally do you have phosphorus for use against such threats?

I don’t know what it’s used for. I was just talking about this yesterday. I don’t understand what it’s even doing in our supplies if we’re not supposed to use such ammo. It’s ridiculous.

During your week inside the tank position were there still D-9s demolishing houses around and entering neighborhoods across from you?

All the time. Definitely. During the week we were there, almost daily, armored infantry would go into a house, this was not D-9s. It was armored infantry since they suspected the houses to be booby-trapped – they blasted the houses. They would open a hole in order to enter the house not through the regular entry door. There were constant blasts, and the D-9s would expand the tank positions and routes. Corps of Engineers was engaged there nonstop, with houses containing no one. It was funny because at some point someone said – I don’t quite remember who, I think our deputy commander or the company commander himself – that our company is supposed to be more active, assigned to do more. So, really, houses were entered where no one was present, and anyway those houses were monitored and I, personally, never saw anyone in there, perhaps the commanders did find a reason to enter them. I didn’t see the reason to enter houses in an empty area where we were monitoring the houses nonstop. Still houses were entered and damage was done to property, for we only saw property, not one person. No obvious reason whatsoever. Perhaps they thought there were weapons inside. I didn’t see any reason for this activity, but it was ongoing, all the time.

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