When the Goldstone report was first mentioned in this blog, one of the readers asked me what is it exactly that makes me think that the IDF could have committed war crimes in Gaza. I was asked the same question in an e-mail exchange I had with Prof. Richard Landes, who is a passionate advocate of the Israeli point of view, and naturally, extremely critical of Goldstone.
In both cases I replied that my answer was based on what I learned from the media: That includes cases that the IDF itself confirmed, like as the white phosphorus bombing, and others where the Palestinians’ account of events seemed reliable; there were also numerous reports that the IDF “eased up” its fire-opening procedures during operation Cast Lead; and there were other, more subtle indications, such as a high rate of friendly fire casualties and a low rate or enemy fire casualties – which might, but not necessarily, indicate a policy of “shoot first, then ask questions”. None of this is solid evidence, of course. But the same goes for the people criticizing Judge Goldstone’s report – they also based their opinions on second hand information (at best).
More than anything, it seems to me that the discussion regarding the Goldstone report drifted very quickly from the legal sphere of war ethics and laws to pure propaganda: those who wanted to criticize Israel jumped on the opportunity to attack it, and Israel’s defenders automatically responded. It looks as though the Allen Dershowitzs of this world never even considered the possibility that Israel – let alone the IDF – could have committed a crime. At best, they thought, there might have been some “mistakes”, but never ever something intentional. This was their assumption before reading the report, and this is the conclusion they reached after reading it – if they ever bothered reading it at all.
(There is something absurd about whole debate regarding “war crimes”, because moving civilian population into an occupied territory, as Israel does for more than forty years, is a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, but the Goldstone report deals with a different crime: widespread killing of uninvolved civilians, either by intension, or as collateral damage, when ways to avoid or substantially reduce this damage were available.)
This is what separates the two sides and at the same time shapes their approach to the Goldstone report: Israel’s defenders don’t believe such things could have happened, while those who attack Israel think that it could, and probably did. As for me, as I said, I don’t know for sure what happened in Gaza, but I’m certain in one thing: the IDF has no problem in attacking civilian targets on purpose, and it did so on numerous occasions. The reason I know this is simple: I did it myself.
Every generation of combat soldiers in the IDF has its own active experience on the front: a war, a limited operation, an Intifada. I was lucky: I served in the nineties, when things were fairly quiet. I had two full tours in Lebanon and more time in the West Bank and Gaza than I care to remember, but I only took part in one large operation: “Grapes of Wrath” in 1996 – another one of these violent escalations between the IDF and the Hezbollah that takes place every few years.
It started – if I remember correctly – when an IDF lookout in the Israeli occupied “Security Zone” in south Lebanon located what seemed like two or three Hezbollah men on their way south, and directed artillery fire at them. I remember the guy who was the commander of this lookout; he was a lieutenant in my regiment. Later on we used to joke that he, single handedly, cost Shimon Peres the 1996 elections, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
After the incident, the Hezbollah claimed the IDF killed innocent civilians – which was a violation of the unofficial “understanding” between the two sides – and responded with an attack on our civilians by launching rockets on the northern Israeli town of Kiriat Shmona. I don’t remember if it turned out we killed civilians or not, and I don’t know if there were casualties from the Hezbollah’s retaliation (there probably were), but all of this is not very important, since it seemed that Israel was waiting for the opportunity to strike the Shiite organization for some time. I remember that a week or so before, after another incident, we got the go ahead for the operation only to be pulled back within a few hours. After the next incident, it was clear that this time there will be no turning back.
The military logic – as well as the morality – of operation “Grapes of Wrath” was questionable to begin with. I quote it here from the Israeli Air Force site:
The operational maneuvers of Grapes of Wrath were similar to those of operation “Din Ve-Cheshbon” (דין וחשבון) in 1993: An extensive bombing of the Shiite villages in South Lebanon in order to create a massive flow of civilians north towards Beirut thus applying pressure on Syria and Lebanon that will make them restrain the Hezbollah.
(Typical army Hubris, if I may: in order to avoid IDF casualties in actual fighting, they were planning on putting the pressure on the civilians in the region, so that they would put the pressure on Beirut, so that it will ask Syria to restrain the Hezbollah – something Israel tried and failed to do for a decade. What are the odds of this happening? Why should the Syrians care about the Shiite of south Lebanon? And why should they, of all people, come to our rescue?)
Anyway, Israel didn’t really bomb the Shiite villages themselves, which would have led to thousands of innocent casualties and nobody left to head north to Beirut and challenge the local government there. Our air force and artillery bombed between the villages, and then dropped leaflets in the area warning that anybody left there is putting his life at risk because the IDF is going to engage in fighting with the Hezbollah forces. The people of South Lebanon know what war is, and they never questioned the ability of the IDF to blow them to pieces, so soon enough, convoys of refugees with just about anything they could gather filled the roads heading north.
Beside the artillery and air force bombings, there were some IDF forces operating on the ground in South Lebanon. That’s where my part starts. I was a young infantry lieutenant, and I was sent into the Security Zone with a small unit consisting of a Tank and an armored personal carrier with a few soldiers in it. For fear of mines and bombs we moved on foot during days, and took our positions on the northern ridge of the Security Zone, looking north on the Shiite villages, at nights. Sometimes we parked at outposts of the South Lebanon Army (the Christian Israeli sponsored militia, which was dismantled and mostly evacuated to Israeli after the IDF withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000), but most of the time we were on our own.
I remember crossing the gate of the Israeli northern border with my soldiers and the tank, and thinking that “this is it”. The real thing. We could hear the bombings, and we saw the Hezbollah mortars hitting one of our outposts, about a mile or two from where we were. With mortars, you see the first one hitting far away from the target, the next one closer, and than closer, until they hit the spot they want. Then we could hear the shouts over the radio when one of the soldiers from our regiment was killed. It felt like the first real active experience in our service. All this time I wasn’t scared – after all, nobody was shoting at us – just a bit anxious. My main concern was how I would react if something did happen. I was the only officer there.
As it turned out, nothing happened (in fact, I was never under direct fire throughout my entire service). We just took our positions every night, camped and did maintenance jobs on the armored vehicles during the days, watched the planes passing above us and the occasional bombings – and waited. It was even a bit boring.
Then a morning came when we finally got a new order. We were told to take our combat positions in front of a one of the Shiite villages to the north, and be ready to open fire. I was ordered to take out the aerial photo of the village, and after a while my C.O told me to “take down” a certain house – lets say number 54 (all the houses on the photo had numbers). At last, I thought, some action. One of the lookout probably spotted terrorist activity on the village (we were told that the Hezbollah fighters are hiding in the villages. it might have been true, I don’t know), and we are finally going to do our job!
The village wasn’t that close, and the tank missed the first shot. I took out my binoculars and corrected it (it is extremely difficult for a tank to correct its own shots, mainly because of the dust it raises when it fires). Then we got the number of a new house, and again, the tank fired and I corrected it on the radio, and so on. I worked just as we learned in Bahad 1 (the IDF officer academy), using the exact procedures and code words. I kept getting praises from my C.O on the radio. To this point, this might have been the most exiting stuff I did in my service.
Then we got another number, but this time I couldn’t see the house. The Shiite village was on a hill, and the house was on its far side, hidden from us. When I reported it on the radio, my C.O just said: “well, take out a different one. How about the one in front of it?”
Only then it started to occur to me that there were no Hezbollah people in those houses. There were no terrorists’ hidden posts (all this time, of course, nobody was shooting at us from the village). These were just ordinary homes. We were simply punishing the population; it was part of the big “applying pressure” strategy. Someone has decided to replace the leaflets we were dropping with actual bombs, so our message would be clearer. But for all I knew, there could have still been people in these houses! Sure, we warned them, but what if some guy couldn’t run away north because he was sick, or too old, or he didn’t have a car, or needed to attend a sick family member, or maybe he was just too scared to run? What guarantee did I have that by “picking a different house”, I wasn’t sealing the fate of an entire family, just like Dr. Al-Ayash’s family whose house was hit by a tank in Gaza?
Most of those thoughts came to me in retrospect. At the time, we kept shooting. We stopped only when the tank was very low on shells, and we needed to keep the rest of the ammunition in case we run into troubles later.
As it turned out, we were fortunate enough not to kill anyone that day. These were, after all, empty houses (not a small thing – but it could have been much worse). But a few days later, an artillery battery, not far away from our base, attacked what was supposed to be a launching site of Hezbollah rockets. One of the shells hit a refugee camp, and a hundred people were killed, a hundred more injured. The civilians weren’t supposed to be there, but that’s the thing with civilians – it’s hard to tell where they are going to be. When you think that “applying pressure” on them is fair game, and later on you believe it’s a good idea to punish them a bit “because they support the terrorists”, you will end up killing dozens and hundreds.
It is almost inevitable. Soldiers, even the most sensitive of them, trust their C.Os and love the action; and some will always shoot first and then ask questions, and more often than not, there is simply no time to think. To this we need to add the pressure to finish every operation without casualties to our side, and the fact that sometimes you shoot from such a distance – and the distances are getting bigger and bigger in each war – so you don’t even know what is it that you are hitting.
After the Qana incident Israel was forced to stop operation Grapes of Warth. the new unofficial understandings between the two sides weren’t much different from the privious, and four years later, the IDF evacuated the Security Zone. The common wisdom is that Shimon Peres lost hundred of thousands of Arab votes because of Qana, resulting in his narrow loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 elections. I voted for Peres, but never felt very sorry that he lost.
So, what did I learn from my own experience and what that has to do with Gaza?
I learned that you should never trust your commanders or your leaders too much. They will have their excuses ready when something bad happens, but those who pushed the trigger will have to live with it for the rest of their life. And sometimes they might only understand what happened years later, when nobody else remembers this war or what it was about.
To the point, the idea of punishing civilians so that they will apply pressure on their government/learn not to support terrorism/denounce Hamas and Hezbollah/join the Likud – is not only futile, it is simply criminal. And in Israel, people are bringing up this though all the time – in Lebanon and in Gaza. Cabinet Minister Eli Ishay, who just this week explained that the IDF conducted itself in the most moral way during operation Cast Lead, said at the time that “we should bombard thousands of houses in Gaza, destroy Gaza. As simple as that.” Others had similar declarations. The thought that the people of Gaza should suffer because of their support for Hamas is still very common in Israel – and it inevitably leads to criminal acts.
But finally, and this is the reason I wrote this post, I don’t buy this mantra about “the most moral army in the world”, and any serious person shouldn’t either. History has taught us that the IDF is as capable of committing crimes just as any other army. In modern wars, it’s even easier than most people would like to believe.
So I don’t know what happened in Gaza (I don’t subscribe to whatever the Palestinians say either), but I just feel it’s time our self appointed PR people and attorneys around the world stop using overly-optimistic assumptions about Israel or the IDF, like the idea that we are undoubtedly moral and just all the time; that occupying and looking down on millions for decades didn’t change us; or that “we can’t possibly have done what they claim we did”. We can, we did. Now, let’s look for the facts.