The publication of the experiences of young soldiers from Operation Cast Lead has kicked off a public debate in Israel over the morality of the army’s conduct in Gaza.
The stories of the soldiers, alumni of the Oranim pre-military academy, were published last week in Haaretz and Maariv. They described several IDF units as acting in a trigger-happy army that operated with scant regard for Palestinian civilians.
The two most shocking cases were the alleged shooting by snipers of a mother and two children and an old woman. Following the reports, the IDF launched official inquiries into the cases, but at the same time began an intensive PR campaign to discredit the soldiers’ accounts.
The Guardian also published a series of investigations alleging IDF “war crimes”. Israel was accused of the killing of civilians by armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), using Palestinian civilians as human shields and firing on medical teams. The IDF has so far refused to comment on specific cases, pending the completion of its post-Gaza investigations.
IDF units are forbidden to use human shields, though similar cases have been reported in the past. The IDF has documented numerous cases in which Hamas has used Palestinian civilians to shield its operations.
“We could see in the surveillance cameras how, after they fired rockets at Israel, they sent children to retrieve the launch tubes,” said the commander of an attack helicopter squadron. “They knew we could detect the launch immediately and by sending children they prevented us from firing back and destroying the tubes.”
Hamas has also been accused of war crimes for using civilians as “human shields” and for taking advantage of the Gaza fighting to murder dozens of members of rival Palestinian factions.
The IDF has also denied that its soldiers shot at medical teams, saying that Hamas had commandeered ambulances to move fighters and arms.
During the Gaza operation and in the two months since, the world media has published Palestinian testimony of alleged war-crimes and reports from various international monitoring groups. United Nations agencies have made similar accusations.
This week, Human Rights Watch published a report detailing the alleged illegal use by the IDF of white phosphorus bombs. None of these reports have so far caused much discussion among the Israeli public, as most see such claims as one-sided.
But last week’s reports drew a very different response from the Israeli public and the IDF because they came from Israelis soldiers. IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi responded: “We have ordered investigations into what has been published in recent days. I can say that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. And you have to remember where we operated, in a place where Hamas transformed civilian neighbourhoods into war-zones. I don’t believe that IDF soldiers harmed Palestinian civilians in cold-blood. But we will wait for the results of the investigations.”
Senior officers, speaking anonymously, were angry the report had been published. “The newspapers acted in an extremely irresponsible way,” said one general. “None of the soldiers who spoke actually saw the alleged shootings and the papers haven’t corroborated these stories.”
Another officer said: “I was in all the sectors during the operation and did not see anything resembling these stories. I think the soldiers were caught up in an atmosphere of atonement and just repeated rumours.”
Some military sources sought to discredit the reports by labelling the Oranim Academy’s head, Danny Zamir, as a left-winger.
In 1990, Major Zamir, then a commander of a reserve company, was disciplined for refusing to guard an event orgamised by settlers in Nablus. The IDF has since promoted him, and he is now a deputy commander of an elite reserve battalion.