The co-founder of the controversial Israeli human rights organisation Breaking the Silence (BTS) has told a London audience that the IDF suspended its rules of engagement during the Gaza conflict in order to protect the lives of Israeli soldiers.
Yehuda Shaul, a 27-year-old former infantryman in the Israeli army, was in London this week to promote the work of BTS.
Speaking at a public meeting organised by Christian Aid, he said that the accounts which BTS had collected from soldiers who took part in Operation Cast Lead demonstrated they were under orders not to take the usual precautions to avoid unnecessary loss of civilian life.
He also claimed that systematic bulldozing of buildings and Palestinian homes had taken place. This so-called “day after” policy was designed to reduce the need for further military action after the withdrawal of Israeli troops, he said.
Mr Shaul’s claims come at the same time as reports surfaced that an interview had been given — though as yet not published — to Israeli daily Yediot Achronot in which a senior commander had confirmed that civilians were put at risk to minimise Israeli military losses.
According to these reports, published in the Independent, the usual IDF rule that suspects needed to have a weapon and show the intention of using it before being fired on was not applied in Operation Cast Lead.
Mr Shaul said an independent inquiry into events in Gaza was needed, not to satisfy the international community, but to restore Israel’s faith in its own democratic principles.
Mr Shaul told the JC that it was increasingly difficult to criticise the government from within Israel. “It’s not just foreign governments any more, it’s not just gentiles, it’s even Jews. It’s anyone who’s not in line.
“What is democracy? That is what I ask. What is a democratic Jewish state? And I think in essence, we have the responsibility towards our society, to struggle so that different voices are allowed to be heard.”
Mr Shaul and his fellow IDF veterans who set up BTS have been making themselves unpopular with the Israeli government since 2004, when they first published photographs and testimonies from soldiers’ experiences of serving in the West Bank. But last summer it published testimonies from soldiers serving in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the Israeli government embarked on a campaign to discredit the organisation.
“When we talk about hostility, it’s July 15 2009, that’s the turning point,” Mr Shaul said. “We didn’t anticipate this reaction from the government… we were viciously attacked on two main issues — one was the anonymity of the testimonies, and two was that we received foreign funding.”
He is sanguine about the controversy now. “I don’t want to think that our government wants to block foreign funding for human rights groups. I think this was a good PR attempt to discredit us inside Israel. ‘You thought Breaking the Silence were the good guys, those ex-soldiers who have earned the right to speak out. Let’s tell you something, they serve European interests’. That was what they were saying.”
The latest testimonies include accounts of women soldiers beating and humiliating Palestinian detainees. In one account, a first sergeant reported barrack-room conversations: “The tough female combatant has no problem beating up Arabs… Take a look at that one, a real ‘ball-breaker’, see her humiliating them, slapping them, what a slap she gave that guy! You hear this kind of talk all the time.”
Mr Shaul said he was merely trying to get the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the public arena. “There must be a way to open this issue to say the truth as we know it, coming out from soldiers who have served there and represent our country.”
However, he was still not ready to accept the conclusions of Judge Richard Goldstone’s United Nations report on Gaza. He said: “I think what happened in Gaza is somewhere between what the Israeli government is saying, the official line, and Goldstone.”
Anshel Pfeffer writes: For the past five years, Breaking the Silence has been publishing eyewitness stories of IDF soldiers who served in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the second intifada and in Operation Cast Lead.
Official IDF and government spokespeople have attacked its reports, compiled by a team of researchers, for being based on anonymous sources. BTS says that most of its interviewees are serving soldiers who will be disciplined if their identities become known. Nor are soldiers who have finished their military service eager for their names to be used.
Journalists who have tried independently to corroborate the reports have found them to be well researched, but have criticised its sweeping judgments and publicity stunts.
BTS has also been criticised for receiving funding from various European foundations and governments, but in this, BTS is no different than almost any other Israeli human-rights organisation which also receive significant foreign, mainly European, funding.