“I am not going to apologise for even one moment that we carried out an operation in which only ten soldiers were killed,” said a very senior IDF officer this week. “We fought against a vicious enemy that used civilians, ambulances, schools and mosques as shields, every step of the way. So I’m not prepared for any self-flagellation, just a degree of self-criticism.” This attitude encapsulates the reasoning behind a series of reports released this week by the IDF on the fighting in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead.
It is a line of thinking that is totally acceptable to a large part of the Israeli public, civilians and military personnel. But the reports are unlikely to convince sceptics, certainly not those predisposed to believe the reports by NGOs and the international media, which accuse Israel of war crimes.
The five reports were compiled by experienced colonels who were not actively involved in the recent fighting.
They prove one thing. The IDF was acting on a comprehensive plan when it attacked Gaza, a plan that included clear instructions on the need to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. Schools, hospitals and international aid agencies were clearly marked out on the soldiers’ maps as no-fire areas. The local population was warned in advance, through leaflets, intrusions into Palestinian television broadcasts, phone-calls and even “roof-knocks”, a small explosion that preceded a much larger one that would obliterate a targeted building a few minutes later. For the IDF at least, these procedures are proof of what its commanders claim is “the most moral army in the world”.
But what is not clear is how, when and why the commanders, and their soldiers, decided to overstep the guidelines in combat situations where IDF personnel were in danger. As they admit they did.
The reports do not offer a full answer to this question as they refer only to a small number of cases, painstakingly investigated by the team of colonels. At the most, they explain the deaths of 10 per cent of the 300 civilians that the IDF estimate were killed in the operation.
For many of Israel’s supporters, the fact that Hamas operated from behind civilian lines is explanation enough. And for them this latest report, with its admission of a handful of “operational mistakes”, is more than sufficient. For Israel’s relentless detractors, any document prepared by the IDF is a whitewash and its war crimes are an incontestable fact.
In the absence of an investigation by an objective party, trusted by all sides (and no, the United Nations does not fit the bill), this is the best we are going to get.