Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Amos Harel: Can Israel dismiss its own troops’ stories from Gaza?

18 March 2009

By Amos Harel, Haaretz – 18 Mar 2009

The statements of the Israel Defense Forces soldiers from the Yitzhak Rabin preparatory course provide the first, uncensored look at what occurred in some of the combat units in Operation Cast Lead.

It seems that what soldiers have to say is actually the way things happened in the field, most of the time. And as usual, reality is completely different from the gentler version provided by the military commanders to the public and media during the operation and after.

The soldiers are not lying, for the simple reason that they have no reason to. If you read the transcript that will appear in Haaretz Friday, you will not find any judgment or boasting. This is what the soldiers, from their point of view, saw in Gaza. There is a continuity of testimony from different sectors that reflects a disturbing and depressing picture.

The IDF will do everyone, and most of all itself, a big favor if it takes these soldiers and allegations seriously and investigates itself in depth. When statements came only from Palestinian witnesses or “the hostile press,” it was possible to dismiss them as propaganda that served the enemy. But what can be done when the soldiers themselves tell the story?

It’s possible that somewhere in the stories there were a few mistakes or exaggerations, because a squad or platoon leader does not always see the entire picture. But this is evidence, first hand, of what most Israelis would prefer to repress. This is how the army carried out its war against armed terrorists, with a civilian population of a million and a half people stuck in the middle.

In response to a question from Haaretz Wednesday, Danny Zamir, the head of the preparatory course, said he had decided to publish the discussion in the newsletter only after speaking with and writing to senior IDF officers a number of times. Zamir was told by General Staff officers that the operational inquiries into the fighting in Gaza, including the ethical inquiry, were still far from completion. The officers also said they had not encountered evidence of incidents of the type the soldiers described.

If the IDF really never heard about these incidents, the reasonable assumption is that it did not want to know. The soldiers describe the reality in combat units, from the level of company commander down. In the debriefings, the participants usually include company commanders up. It seems that except for isolated incidents, the rule is “you don’t ask, we won’t tell.”

The ones who finally let the dark secrets out were the soldiers in the combat units themselves. Somewhere along the way their moral warning lights went off.

In the coming days, in an effort to rebuff the claims, we will certainly hear about those who “pulled one over” on Zamir. In 1990, as a company commander in the reserves, Zamir was tried and sentenced to prison for refusing to guard a ceremony where right-wingers brought Torah scrolls to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. But even though Zamir does not hide his political opinions, a reading of the transcript shows he acts out of a deep concern for the spirit of the IDF.

The IDF’s ethical problems did not start in 2009. Such discussions also followed the Six-Day War. But a reserve officer who looked at the transcript Wednesday said: “This is not the IDF we knew.”

The descriptions show that Israel’s view of the enemy is becoming more extreme. The deterioration has been continuous – from the first Lebanon war to the second, from the first intifada to the second, from Operation Defensive Shield to Operation Cast Lead.

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