JERUSALEM (JTA) — Allegations by Israeli soldiers of inhumane conduct in the recent Gaza war are putting Israel on the defensive.
According to soldiers involved in the 22-day operation, Israeli troops used heavy firepower in built-up civilian areas, shot and killed women and children on at least two occasions because of loose rules of engagement and, in many cases, showed little respect for Palestinian people and property.
The allegations, which came during a Feb. 13 discussion at Oranim Academic College in Tivon, caused a public storm when they were published last week in the college bulletin Briza. In the days since, the soldiers’ accounts have dominated headlines in Israel.
The soldiers, who are graduates of the college that prepares young Israelis for elite military service, took a strong stance against some of the things that took place in Gaza.
One soldier described how an elderly woman had been fired upon when she mistakenly entered a no-go zone. Another told of how a mother and two children had been shot after being sent on their way by Israeli soldiers who failed to tell a rooftop sniper that the family had been allowed to pass. When the mother turned left instead of right, as she had been instructed, the three were shot dead.
According to the soldiers’ accounts, some Israeli troops sprayed anti-Arab graffiti on the walls of Palestinian homes, smashed furniture and family photos, and refused to distinguish between fighters and noncombatants.
The soldiers from Oranim said religious Jews were among the more militant troops, and that they were egged on by army rabbis who said it was OK to kill or expel gentiles from their homes.
The revelations have fueled campaigns by nongovernmental organizations, some media outlets and some international bodies to discredit Israel and cast it as responsible for war crimes in Gaza.
"Israel’s dirty secrets in Gaza" trumpeted the headline of the British Independent.
In Geneva, the U.N. special rapporteur for Palestinian issues, Richard Falk, delivered a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday in which he called Israel’s recourse to force in Gaza unjustified and “potentially a crime against peace.”
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel also published a report Monday saying that Israel Defense Forces violated its own code of military ethics.
Israel’s newspapers have been offering their own tidbits. The daily Ha’aretz published a story about the discovery of a handwritten document ordering IDF troops to fire on rescue teams trying to reach the wounded.
The IDF has admitted to making some mistakes but says none of them were deliberate, and the army has denied most of the allegations. The army spokesman’s office cast doubt on the authenticity of the handwritten document purportedly ordering troops to fire on rescuers and said all the allegations in the Oranim accounts will be investigated.
Besides the graffiti and gratuitous damage to Palestinian property, the Oranim accounts detail only two concrete incidents in which civilians were killed. In both it is unclear whether the victims were shot deliberately, accidentally or because soldiers with orders to open fire were not thinking clearly.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said the incidents described in the Oranim accounts were aberrations that in no way reflect the IDF’s fighting ethos.
"The IDF is the most moral army in the world,” he said in response to the allegations. “We must bear in mind that we were operating in a place where Hamas turned a residential neighborhood into a battleground, public facilities into weapons’ storehouses."
In Israel, there is little doubt that the IDF High Command took great pains to avoid causing civilian casualties. The IDF dropped leaflets in Gaza warning residents to evacuate, fired warning shots to get Palestinians to leave areas about to come under attack and made some 250,000 phone calls to Palestinian civilians warning them to stay away from the fighting.
However, the allegations raise questions about the conduct of young soldiers on the ground in the army’ pursuit of two sometimes contradictory goals: sparing Palestinian civilian life while using tremendous firepower to save the lives of Israeli soldiers operating in civilian areas.