Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

As Civilian Casualties Mount, Some Ask if Soldiers Getting Trigger-happy

March 18, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Israeli bulldozer set out to attack a building that Israel believed was being used by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah.

It ended up with the death of Rachel Corrie, a pro-Palestinian activist from Washington state.

Corrie, 25, a member of the International Solidarity Movement, apparently wanted to serve as a human shield to prevent the demolition, but the bulldozer was stronger. She died in a Gaza hospital.

Corrie was the fourth foreigner killed by Israel Defense Force soldiers during the 30 months of the intifada. The others were German doctor Harald Fischer, Italian cameraman Rafaeli Ciriello and British U.N. worker Iain Hook.

“This is a regrettable accident,” IDF spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal said. “We are dealing with a group of protesters who were acting very irresponsibly, putting everyone in danger — the Palestinians, themselves and our forces.”

It may well have been an accident. But too many similar accidents have characterized IDF operations in the territories recently, with too many civilian casualties, raising the question of whether 30 months of grinding daily warfare against a ruthless and elusive enemy have eroded Israeli soldiers’ sense of restraint.

The Ha’aretz newspaper on Sunday issued a strongly worded editorial charging that the army, which since its inception had sought to preserve humanistic values, instead had turned into “an annihilation apparatus.”

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said last week in the Knesset that no other army in the world is so considerate of civilian life in the course of fighting. Indeed, to a certain degree, preventing such tragedies in the midst of urban warfare may be almost a “mission impossible.”

For the past year or so, the IDF has been engaged in intensive anti-terrorism operations, much of which take place inside densely populated residential areas that give shelter to Palestinian terrorists. It is often impossible to identify innocent bystanders ahead of time, especially when Palestinian gunmen fire from amid a crowd.

The army has not disguised the fact that many innocent lives have been claimed during anti-terror actions. According to the IDF’s own count, some 18 percent of the 1,975 Palestinians killed since the intifada began in September 2000 had nothing to do with terrorism and did not pose any threat to Israelis. Seven percent have been children under the age of 16.

Palestinians say Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed 2,181 Palestinians and injured 22,218.

With Israelis focused on their own civilian casualties — and with most Israelis blaming the Palestinians for the outbreak and continuation of the violence — Israelis have developed a thick skin about Palestinian civilian casualties. Palestinian civilian deaths are reported in the press, but generally receive little fanfare.

They usually are regarded as “regrettable accidents,” the kind that could not be prevented during combat against terrorists who deliberately seek shelter among their own side’s innocents.

A few Israeli organizations and individuals have made a point of following such incidents, among them the human rights organization B’Tselem — and Ha’aretz journalist Gideon Levy, who reports weekly on alleged human rights violations in the territories.

Levy’s persistence in covering “the other side of the intifada” has made him a frequent target of criticism by Israelis who feel he ignores Palestinian responsibility for the violence. Some reportedly have canceled their subscriptions to Ha’aretz because of Levy’s articles.

That shield of indifference was shattered last week with the tragic killing of two Israeli security men — Yoav Doron and Yehuda Ben-Yosef — who were mistaken for terrorists.

The two were on guard duty in a secluded position near Hebron when an Israeli commando unit that had been alerted to the presence of a terror squad in the region spotted them and launched a barrage of gunfire and a helicopter missile.

The men’s car was pocked by hundreds of bullet holes, an indication of the soldiers’ determination that no one would escape alive.

“The incident reminded Palestinians of hundreds of similar incidents that have never interested most Israelis,” Levy wrote in Ha’aretz.

The incident came after the United States and Britain recently criticized the IDF for a recent spate of killings of Palestinian civilians.

In an interview conducted prior to the killing of the two security men, the IDF’s chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, rejected allegations that soldiers have become too light on the trigger.

“Every incident in which innocent people die is personally investigated by the chief of staff,” Ya’alon told the Ma’ariv newspaper last weekend.

As a case in point, he noted the recent killing of a pregnant woman during the demolition of a house in a Gaza Strip refugee camp.

Ya’alon’s inquiry showed that the officer in charge did not want to risk the lives of his soldiers by sending them personally into the building, which was to be demolished. He sufficed with a warning on his loudspeaker, which the woman apparently did not hear.

She stayed in the building, and was killed under the rubble.

In another incident, an Israeli tank commander was sent to jail for having shelled a taxi in Nablus.

Few soldiers have protested such operations. During the early stages of the intifada, the army expressed concern over soldiers who refused to serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, and newspapers like Ha’aretz gave the phenomenon extensive coverage.

However, only a handful of conscientious objectors in fact avoided duty in the territories, and the phenomenon never reached the level of a real protest movement.

Perhaps the most egregious example of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side was the decision last July to drop a one-ton bomb on the Gaza apartment building where the head of Hamas’ military wing was sleeping.

The bomb destroyed the building, killing Salah Shehada — but taking the lives of 15 Palestinian civilians as well.

Recently, a military intelligence officer prevented an air attack against Palestinian targets for fear that innocent people would be hurt. Ayalon’s reaction to that incident was indicative of the moral dilemmas the IDF faces.

“This officer should be decorated with honors from an ethical perspective,” said Ya’alon, “but he should be fired from a functional point of view.”

It was the officer’s responsibility to make sure that no innocent civilians would be hurt in the IDF operation, not to cancel it altogether, Ya’alon implied.

“I can state unequivocally that there was no intention whatsoever to hurt innocent people, since I was the one who authorized the operation,” Ya’alon said, adding that the officer misinterpreted the situation.

Instead of “immediately raising the black flag, he spoke about the subject with friends and withheld the necessary information,” Ya’alon said. “I am proud that we have such officers who are sensitive to the moral and ethical aspects of their work, but from the functional point of view he has failed in his job.”

Recommended from JTA