April 27, 2009
Testimony given by Israeli soldiers involved in Israel’s 22-day December-January assault on Gaza to a pre-military preparatory program at the Oranim Academic College in Israel on February 13, and which the March 18 Haaretz daily began printing daily excerpts of, revealed that they repeatedly committed crimes with impunity in Gaza.
One soldier, a squad commander, revealed that his unit was instructed to open fire in densely populated areas without warning. “We were supposed to go in with an armoured personnel carrier called an Achzarit [literally meaning “cruel”] to burst through the lower door [of Palestinian houses], to start shooting inside and then … I call this murder … in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified — we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?” He said his commanding officers “said this was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled. I didn’t really understand: On the one hand they don’t really have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand they’re telling us they hadn’t fled so it’s their fault.”
The squad commander said that Palestinian civilians were suppose to be given five minutes’ warning to leave their houses. However, many soldiers under his command challenged this, one soldier saying, “Anyone who’s in there is a terrorist”. According to the squad commander, that sentiment was backed up by other soldiers under his command who said, “We need to murder any person who’s in there … any person who’s in Gaza is a terrorist”.
‘Do anything you want’
According to the squad commander, the soldiers believed that “inside Gaza you are allowed to do anything you want”. He went on to say that commanding officers did little to counter this attitude and that it was permissible “to write ‘death to the Arabs’ on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can”.
The squad commander also related that soldiers under his command killed an old woman was who walking down the road. When asked why this happened, he responded, “That’s what is so nice, supposedly, about Gaza: you see a person on a road, walking along a path. He doesn’t have to be with a weapon, you don’t have to identify him with anything and you can just shoot him. With us it was an old woman, on whom I didn’t see any weapon.”
According to another soldier, the descriptions of the squad commander were accurate. A third soldier said that lax rules of conduct within the attacking Israeli army also resulted in the death of many Palestinian civilians. In one incident, Israeli troops occupied a Palestinian house for several days, detaining the family who owned the house. According to the soldier, after a few days an order came through to release the family. However, not all the soldiers were informed “and they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go”. As a result, a mother and her two children were shot dead.
According to Rachel Johnson, an Australian human rights activist with the International Solidarity Movement, the testimony of the soldiers is just the tip of the iceberg. Johnson, who entered Gaza two days after the war concluded, visited dozens of Palestinian villages and cities, taking testimony and writing reports about the attacks on Palestinian civilians. Along with other international human rights activists, she also provided international accompaniment to Palestinian civilians who were still coming under Israeli fire, despite Israel’s supposed unilateral cease-fire.
Johnson told Direct Action that while it was clear that Israeli soldiers were allowed to act with impunity in Gaza, this “was part of a broader sanctioned policy by the Israeli military that sought to deliberately target Palestinian civilian infrastructure and Palestinian civilians”. She noted that the Israeli military wantonly destroyed civilian houses during the three-week bombardment. “Of the thousands of houses that were destroyed during those three weeks of ceaseless bombardment, the vast majority were in villages that were close to the Green Line [the 1949 armistice line] … In these areas that were harshly targeted during the attacks, entire neighbourhoods were wiped out, with the devastation being total”. She recounted that “in Gaza city, locals often now struggle to orientate themselves”, because “buildings were not just bombed, but the area was then bulldozed, altering the landscape utterly”.
Bulldozers used against residents
According to Johnson, Palestinian civilians not only endured aerial bombardment, but many residential areas were either destroyed by military bulldozers or by the placing of “internal explosives by Israeli ground forces”. She told DA: “The huge civilian death toll is largely a result of the fact that houses were destroyed while the residents were still inside”. She said that in the village of Khoza’a, “Israeli bulldozers tried to bury more than 200 of the residents of the village alive, using debris from the bulldozed houses … When they tried to run, they were shot at … Finally they were able to crawl away and most of them survived.” However, 15 people were killed in Khoza’a on that night. In addition, 150 houses were destroyed.
Johnson told DA that “the bombing of houses created an intense level of fear and helplessness among the residents of Gaza”. She “often encountered the rhetorical cry ‘Where could we go? There is nowhere that was safe. We would think to go to the school, but they bomb the schools. We would go the mosque, but they bomb the mosques.’”
White phosphorous was used widely in Gaza, Johnson said. Use of munitions containing white phosphorus is illegal in populated areas under international law. It causes severe burns and death because it is easily absorbed into the skin and burns through soft tissue to the bone and vital body organs, resulting in multiple organ failure. Johnson said many Gazan children are suffering from severe white phosphorous burns. “Doctors in Gaza simply don’t know what to do with these burns, which are very common”.
Johnson noted that the Israeli military also repeatedly attacked medical personnel and hospitals during its war on the civilian population, recounting that a number of her colleagues who were in Gaza during the war were inside hospitals when they were being bombed by the Israel military. Johnson pointed out that the targeting of medical facilities or people seeking medical aid is a war crime under international law. Her testimony is corroborated by the Israeli-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR-Israel), which issued a report on March 23 noting that in Gaza the Israeli military repeatedly targeted medical facilities and medical teams in contravention of international law.
The report by PHR-Israel noted that in many cases the Israeli military refused to “give medical assistance to wounded human beings that were within several feet of soldiers” and refused to allow the evacuation of wounded or trapped civilians for days, leaving them in isolated areas with no food, water or medical treatment. PHR-Israel also noted that 16 medical personnel had been killed and another 25 wounded by Israeli fire while performing their duties. In addition, the report stated, “34 medical facilities were hit by the army, eight hospitals and 26 primary care clinics”. This was a “severe violation of directives of international law that forbid attacks on medical personnel and medical facilities”. PHR-Israel said that the actions of the military were “in violation of the army’s code of ethics, the medical code of ethics and basic human values”.