Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Gaza conflict allegations

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Update from AIJAC

April 1, 2009
Number 04/09 #01


Much has been made in the international media of allegations published in Haaretz a couple of weeks ago in which Israeli soldiers, speaking at a seminar, spoke about alleged Israelis misdeeds in the Gaza conflict in January. Much has been uncovered about this issue in Israel since the allegation were first aired, and most of it has been unreported, or reported only incompletely, in Australia. This Update contains some of these new findings and analysis resulting from it.

Most importantly, the IDF advocate general has finished investigating the two most serious alleged incidents raised in the seminar, involving civilians allegedly killed, and concluded that both soldiers who spoke of the incidents were not present at any such incidents and were simply reporting rumours they had heard. Moreover, neither of the rumours raised about Palestinian civilians killed appear to have been true. Similarly, claims about white phosphorus use made in the seminar were apparently based simply on what soldiers had read reported in the media. For this important information about what actually is behind this story that sparked worldwide media coverage, CLICK HERE. Another good story on these findings comes from the JTA. An earlier Jerusalem Post piece on the growing evidence that the allegations were false is here.

Earlier, the New York Times also had a piece on the the Israeli response to the allegations, which covers some of the same issues as the investigation discussed above as well as some others. These include new Israeli claims for the number of individuals killed in Gaza who were members of Hamas, as well as a good answer to claims made in Haaretz that religious rulings distributed by rabbis somehow contributed to the violence in Gaza. Finally, it includes some testimony from soldiers about efforts made to ensure civilians were protected and the various situations they had to deal with where apparent civilians undertook attacks or were used to protect Hamas fighters. For this additional story on the Gaza issue, CLICK HERE. An important comment on these allegations, and the misuse of them by the media and Israel's critics, comes from Barry Rubin. 

Finally, Washington Institute military expert Jeffrey White, who previously had a long career with the US Defense Intelligence Agency, looks at what can be said about Israel's performance in Gaza, regardless of these latest allegations. He points out that any Israeli operation in Gaza was always going to cause damage to civilian lives and property and no realistic observer could expect otherwise. However, looking at Israeli military conduct overall, he concludes, "Israel's conduct restricted the amount of damage inflicted on the civilian population as a whole" whether or not there were individual acts of improper or illegal violence by some soldiers. For this broader expert perspective on what Israel's behaviour in Gaza was actually like, CLICK HERE.

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IDF: Case closed on Gaza testimonies

Yaakov Katz

THE JERUSALEM POST, Mar. 30, 2009

Judge Advocate-General Brig.-Gen. Avichai Mandelblit exonerated the IDF on Monday and closed a Military Police investigation into accounts of alleged serious human rights violations during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip earlier this year.

Mandelblit launched the investigation last week after "testimonies" from soldiers, leaked to the media by head of the Rabin Pre-Military Academy, Danny Zamir, claimed that soldiers had deliberately shot and killed innocent Palestinians during the operation.

On Monday, the IDF said that the so-called testimonies offered at an academy conference were rumors and had been deliberately exaggerated to make a point to the participants at the conference.

The "testimonies" were reported widely in the international media - appearing, for example, on the front page of The New York Times.

In particular, the results of the investigation referred to a testimony from a soldier named Aviv, who claimed to have known of a soldier who had been given orders to fire at an elderly Palestinian woman. During his interrogation, the IDF said, Aviv admitted he had never witnessed such an incident and that he'd based his statement on a rumor he had heard.

In an unrelated investigation, it was found that in a similar incident, a woman suspected of being a suicide bomber approached IDF troops, who opened fired at her after repeatedly trying to stop her from advancing.

Aviv admitted that he had not witnessed additional incidents he had described during the conference.

A claim made by a different soldier, Ram, who had supposedly been ordered to open fire at a woman and two children, was also found by the probe to be false.

After checking the claim, it was found that IDF troops had opened fire in a different direction, toward two suspicious men who were unrelated to the civilians in question.

The army also stressed that soldiers at the academy conference admitted to basing their claims relating to the use of phosphorous munitions during the operation on what they had heard in the media, and not from personal experience or knowledge.

Mandelblit said it was "unfortunate" that none of the speakers at the conference had been careful to be accurate in their claims.

"It seems that it will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the IDF and its soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead," he concluded.

Israeli human rights organizations protested the closure of the probe.

In a statement, groups including B'tselem, Adalah, Yesh Din and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said, "The speedy closing of the investigation immediately raises suspicions that the very opening of the investigation was merely the army's attempt to wipe its hands of all blame for illegal activity during Operation Cast Lead."

The groups said that the investigation ignored evidence and failed to recognize the illegal nature of some of the orders given during the operation.

They called on the attorney-general to allow for an independent non-partisan investigative body to be established to examine IDF activity in Gaza during the offensive.

Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.

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Israel Disputes Soldiers’ Accounts of Gaza Abuses


by ETHAN BRONNER

New York Times, Published: March 27, 2009

JERUSALEM — Israel is pushing back against accusations of civilian abuse in its Gaza war, asserting that an overwhelming majority of its soldiers acted honorably and that the account of a killing of a woman and her two children appears to be an urban myth spread by troops who did not witness it.

Officers are stepping forward, some at the urging of the top command, others on their own, offering numerous accounts of having held their fire out of concern for civilians, helping Palestinians in need and punishing improper soldier behavior.

“I’m not saying that nothing bad happened,” Bentzi Gruber, a colonel in the reserves and deputy commander of the armored division, said in an interview. “I heard about cases where people shot where they shouldn’t have shot and destroyed houses where they shouldn’t have destroyed houses. But the proportion and effort and directions we gave to our soldiers were entirely in the opposite direction.”

The accusations caused a furor here and abroad because they came on top of others that the civilian death toll was high and that soldiers took an unusually aggressive approach in Gaza.

The accounts that have received the most attention came from a taped conversation of Gaza veterans at a pre-military course. The soldiers there told of a sniper killing a woman and her two children walking in a no-go zone and of another case in which an elderly woman was shot dead for approaching a commandeered house.

The army’s advocate general has opened an investigation and has not yet issued a report. But officers familiar with the investigation say that those who spoke of the killing of the mother and her children did not witness it and that it almost certainly did not occur. Warning shots were fired near the family but not at it, the officers said, and a rumor spread among the troops of an improper shooting.

The second killing may also not have occurred, they said, although a similar event was recounted by Col. Herzl Halevy in January in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

“We saw a woman coming toward us,” he said then. “We shouted at her. We warned her a number of times not to get closer. We made hand motions. She did not stop. We shot her. When we examined her body, we did not find a bomb belt.”

Israeli commanders defend such actions because they say they confronted armed women in Gaza and Hamas gunmen dressed as women and in other guises, like doctors.

“We had a woman run at us with a grenade in one hand and the Koran in the other,” Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister, head of the military’s education corps, said in an interview in which he showed ethics kits distributed to commanders. “What we know till now is that there was no systematic moral failure. There were not more than a few — a very few — events still being investigated.”

Col. Roi Elkabets, commander of an armored brigade, told of occasions when fire was held. His troops saw “a woman, about 60 years old, walking with a white flag and six to eight children behind her, and behind them was a Hamas fighter with his gun.

“We did not shoot him.”

Almost everything about the Gaza operation has caused controversy: how many Palestinians were killed and what percentage were civilians, whether the rise in the number of religious Israeli soldiers has led to zealotry, and whether the use of enormous military force was a legitimate response to years of Hamas rocket fire on Israeli civilians.

The dispute is a proxy for a debate — both here and abroad — over whether Israel should shift its policy toward the Palestinians and whether Hamas should be seen more as a resistance movement or as a tool of Iranian ambition and terror.

Those who wish to press for an end to the occupation and settlement of the West Bank and to the boycott of Gaza so as to create a Palestinian state — either out of sympathy with Israel or contempt for it — have focused on the accounts of abuses. Those who think such moves would endanger Israel have dismissed them as a blood libel.

The debate began within hours of Israel’s attack in late December and continues daily. This week, Human Rights Watch issued a report citing six cases of improper use of white phosphorus by Israel and calling them evidence of war crimes. Israel has not completed its own study.

On Thursday, the military issued its first casualty count, saying 1,166 people were killed. Of those, it said 295 were noncombatants, 709 were what it called Hamas terror operatives and 162 were men whose affiliations remained unidentified.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza says that the number of dead is 1,417, of whom 926 were civilians and 236 combatants.

Both the military and the center have lists of names. The Israelis include some 250 policemen under “Hamas terror operatives.” The Palestinian center considers them noncombatants. The Israeli military argues that about 400 people die from natural causes in Gaza every month, a possible cause for the gap in the two counts.

Some soldiers have complained about the role of military rabbis and religious soldiers, saying that they have taken to their roles with the fervor of holy warriors, leading to more violence.

Stuart Cohen, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University who is religiously observant, says that the army has indeed grown more violent toward civilians in the past 25 years, partly because the Palestinians have. But he says it has nothing to do with the increase of religious soldiers.

For 12 years he has been studying the correspondence between religious soldiers and rabbis on combat morality, and overwhelmingly the rabbis have urged restraint. While he cannot measure how that advice has been put into practice, he suspects it has had a real effect. And other religious soldiers said their behavior in Gaza was especially respectful.

“When we entered houses, we actually cleaned up the place,” said Yishai Goldflam, 32, a religiously observant film student in Jerusalem whose open letter to the Palestinian owners of the house he occupied for some days was published in the newspaper Maariv. “There are always idiots who do immoral things. But they don’t represent the majority. I remember once when a soldier wanted to take a Coke from a store, and he was stopped by his fellow soldiers because it was the wrong thing to do.”

Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist who lectures military commanders, said they rejected the notion of willful abuse by their troops. But the commanders say more civilians died than should have and attribute it to two factors: faulty intelligence that led to attacking the wrong houses, and a failure, after warning Palestinians to leave, to provide safe escape routes.

Israel lost only a handful of men and almost no equipment, which many attribute to its overwhelming use of force.

But the top commanders say their consciences are clean.

“The question is, did we do all we could do to avoid hitting civilians?” said General Shermeister, the chief education officer. “My answer is yes.”

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Examining the Conduct of IDF Operations in Gaza

By Jeffrey White

PolicyWatch #1497, March 27, 2009

Critics have raised serious ethical questions about how the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) carried out Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. The IDF has been accused of war crimes ranging from launching an unjustified and aggressive war to wanton damage to civilian property. The Israeli government and the IDF have countered these claims, and investigations of some of the complaints, including those of individual misconduct by Israeli soldiers, are already underway. Analysis of Cast Lead, however, indicates that this operation was limited in scope, duration, and intensity, and that Israel's conduct restricted the amount of damage inflicted on the civilian population as a whole.

Background


It should come as no surprise that this issue was raised, since any large-scale IDF operation in Gaza was bound to put civilian life and property at risk. The destructive power of modern weapons is substantial, even when employed precisely. Ground combat can be intense and lethal to soldiers and civilians alike, particularly in an uncertain and emotionally charged environment. Military operations are not antiseptic events conducted in a vacuum; today, where irregular and asymmetric warfare is common, the lines between the civilian and military sectors are increasingly blurred, complicating military operations and increasing risks to civilians. The situation was further complicated by Israel's opponents -- Hamas and others -- who used the civilian population and property as cover for their offensive and defensive actions, including the booby-trapping of civilian housing and public buildings. But no reasonable observer of Cast Lead would have expected the operation to be free of violence to the civilian community in Gaza; civilians were going to be killed and wounded, and their property destroyed and damaged.

Strategic and Operational Aspects

Charges against Israel's conduct during the war give the impression of an unrestrained campaign against an undefended population. Some have suggested that the IDF deliberately and systematically inflicted excessive violence on Gaza's civilian population. In other words, the IDF, both as an organization and as individuals, directed the war against innocent civilians and those seeking to aid them. In the words of a UN report, Cast Lead was ". . . a massive assault on a densely populated urbanized setting where the defining reality could not but subject the entire civilian population to an inhumane form of warfare . . ." (author's emphasis). Analysis of the conduct of operations, however, paints a different picture. At the strategic level, it is evident that Cast Lead was an operation with limited political and military objectives -- too limited, in fact, for many Israeli critics of Ehud Olmert's government. The operation did not aim to overthrow or bring down the Hamas regime in Gaza (although it certainly intended to damage it), and it did not aim to reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip.

Ground operations were narrowly focused, and air operations, while ranging widely across Gaza, were concentrated in the north and the south. In addition, the IDF employed only a fraction of the ground combat power available to it. In essence, only one reinforced division was used in Cast Lead: three paratroop/infantry brigades and one armored brigade, plus supporting artillery and special units such as engineering and intelligence. This hardly constituted a "massive assault." This force was employed only in the north; central and southern Gaza saw no significant -- if any -- ground combat. Even where ground forces were employed, fighting was not sustained. Some units saw little intense combat, as reflected in the very low Israeli combat causalities. No attempt was made to penetrate with ground forces deeply into populated areas, even where Hamas fighters were known to be located.

The IDF took active measures to reduce civilian casualties, including the extensive use of leaflets and phone messages warning Palestinians to leave the area or to avoid potential targets. Civilian warnings also included the Israeli Air Force (IAF) "knocking" actions -- shots fired to alert building inhabitants of an imminent attack. While the efficacy of these measures is questionable given the military situation, the IDF did attempt to mitigate the effect of its actions on civilians.

The Tactical Level


Complaints against the IDF have come from sources of varying credibility. UN reporters and other witnesses have claimed that the IDF employed weapons, tactics, and rules of engagement (ROE) that resulted in the killing and wounding of civilians, and that these actions were, in some cases, "war crimes." Of course, the merit of any particular claim can be determined only by an investigation that considers what actually happened, the context, and the intentions of those involved. But without specifically addressing any individual claim, some important elements of the nature of the fighting need to be understood.

First, with respect to the use of aerial weapons, the IAF attacked a broad set of targets within Gaza, including leadership, infrastructure, smuggling tunnels, military facilities, roads, and rocket and mortar launch sites. These targets were not concentrated in designated military zones or areas, but often located near, next to, and within facilities that are normally civilian in purpose. There is good evidence that Hamas and other organizations made a conscious decision to place these targets in civilian areas. Israel chose to attack these targets and accepted the risk of collateral damage. But it did so with some substantial measure of accuracy. According to the IAF, 80 percent of the bombs used by the IAF were precision weapons, and 99 percent of the air strikes hit their targets. The extensive use of these weapons (up from 36 percent in the 2006 Lebanon War, according to the IDF) made the attacks more effective and probably reduced civilian losses. Nevertheless, civilian lives were lost and civilian property damaged.

Where ground combat occurred, the localized effects were often severe. Modern ground combat systems, and associated systems such as attack helicopters, are highly destructive. The IDF has not released its ROE for Cast Lead, but it seems evident that a high value was placed on protecting the lives of IDF soldiers. IDF ground commanders acknowledged this from the beginning of the operation, and it led directly to the use of heavy firepower against targets. Israeli sources also report that some low-level IDF commanders urged their troops to act aggressively and not take risks in dealing with suspect threats. Hamas and other combatants were interspersed with the civilian population, first as matter of choice for cover and concealment, and later out of perceived necessity to escape IDF fire. Palestinian fighters reportedly operated from within civilian dwellings, schools, and mosques, and used ambulances to transport combatants. Israeli sources report that Shifa hospital was used by Hamas as a command center for its senior leadership throughout the conflict. In addition, Hamas had trained youths and women for combat and suicide missions, and advertised this capability broadly. These actions further contributed to the uncertainty as to who was and was not a combatant in Gaza. For innocent civilians, this sometimes was a lethal environment.

IDF measures to protect its soldiers undoubtedly translated into additional destruction or damage to civilian property – tactics that included using bulldozers and other armored vehicles to clear axes of advance, breaking through exterior and interior walls of structures to avoid exposure to observation and fire, and clearing rooms for use by IDF personnel. These measures, though, were taken in response to Hamas's preparation of the battlefield with mines and improvised explosive devices intended to impede Israeli movement and inflict casualties, as well as to the group's tactical employment of snipers and antitank weapons. In effect, Hamas had already prepared the civilian environment for military purposes. IDF commanders felt it was an acceptable trade-off to open an approach through civilian houses or greenhouses rather than risk being ambushed and taking losses.

Conduct of War vs. Conduct of Soldiers

The issues concerning IDF treatment of Palestinian lives and property are being used by some critics to argue that IDF soldiers were motivated by racism or religiously inspired fervor against the Palestinians, and that the IDF devalued Palestinian life, as demonstrated by the nature of Cast Lead, the aggressive tactics and weapons employed by the IDF, and its allegedly loose ROE. These arguments are similar to some assertions by historians that the U.S. conducted a racist war against the Japanese during World War II. These arguments are flawed, however, in that they conflate the "conduct of war," the objectives, plans, and operations that are carried out, with the "experience of war," the conduct of individual soldiers. In the case of Cast Lead, it is clear that the Palestinian population was not the target. In other words, Cast Lead was not conducted with the aim of killing civilians and damaging their property, although Palestinian civilians were killed and property destroyed as a consequence of military operations.

The "experience of war" refers to what individual soldiers did, saw, heard, and thought. Obviously, the experience of individuals can vary enormously in an operation on the scale of Cast Lead. Soldiers sometimes do terrible things, and this is true of all armies at all times, but this does not excuse criminal conduct and breakdowns in discipline. So far, there have been only a few cases of alleged serious misconduct involving the "cold-blooded" killing of civilians, and these are in dispute. Some Israeli soldiers were none too gentle in their treatment of civilian property, but others exercised consideration. The IDF, for its own good, needs to investigate the serious allegations carefully -- even more so if they point to systemic problems in discipline, training, or the climate in specific units.

Conclusion

The criticism leveled against the IDF raises a broader issue: to what standard should the armed forces of states be held when they are in conflict with nonstate actors operating from within a civilian population. Certainly, these standards should be high, but they cannot be so high as to prevent states from acting in legitimate self-defense. Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations put the Palestinian population of Gaza at risk, often deliberately. Israel responded with an operation that in its essential elements was limited. To be sure, Israel had its own reasons for keeping its operation limited, but the overall effect was to reduce the consequences, harsh as they were, for the civilian population.

Jeffrey White is a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq and the Levant.             

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