Breaking the silence on Israeli crimes in Gaza

A firestorm has erupted after Breaking the Silence, an Israeli nongovernmental organization, released soldiers’ testimonies from Operation Protective Edge, describing what amounts to war crimes. The testimonies shed light on orders and details from front line Israeli soldiers that provide firsthand accounts of violations of the 4th Geneva Convention and the treatment of civilian populations at a time of war. A staff sergeant deployed in Deir al-Balah during the summer 2014 assault testified: “Anything still there is as good as dead. Anything you see moving in the neighborhoods you’re in is not supposed to be there. The [Palestinian] civilians know they are not supposed to be there. Therefore whoever you see there, you kill.”

“What the hell, why did you have to shoot him again?” was the question of a staff sergeant’s published testimony #182607, which provided details of the cold-blooded murder of an elderly Palestinian man. Having shot a defenseless old man whose body lay out in the street, the platoon then went out from the building and one member callously shot the “grandpa” again. Soldier Testimony #882257 provided that the “rules of engagement were, in effect, to shoot to kill upon any identification.”

One disturbing testimony by an infantry staff sergeant in the northern Gaza Strip, #750834, which dealt with his desire to shoot a mentally challenged Palestinians, said: “I really, really wanted to shoot her in the knees.” Another indicated that the rules of engagement were that “[t]here’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved,” which meant that anyone in the area, civilian or otherwise, was a legitimate military target.

The published testimonies incriminate the Israeli military command structure for systematic disregard for the safety of the civilian population with instructions given to platoons such as: “Anything you see in the neighborhoods you’re in, anything within a reasonable distance, say between zero and 200 meters, is dead on the spot. No authorization needed.”

As expected, the Israel-does-no-wrong chorus of defenders went into overdrive to first discredit Breaking the Silence due to its receiving foreign funding and second, to obfuscate the testimonies by parsing words and meaning. The strategy was evidenced in the former Associated Press reporter Matti Freidman post on Facebook, which summed up Israel’s defenders’ position on the released testimonies.

Freidman’s response was one, “War is awful,” which is basic enough and all can agree with it, but then he informs us that the soldiers on the front lines do not have a full view of the battlefield like the higher-ups, so they might not really know what they are seeing or understand the reasons behind the commands they are executing. While knowledge of the full extent of the battlefield is a given fact, this does not remedy or alter the clear cases of murdering civilians who did not present any threat or danger to the army. One does not need to view the whole battlefield to know that shooting a “grandpa” twice is wrong and a crime, seeing the whole battlefield or not.

Blurring the second line of Israeli military responsibility was directed at the media and “professional journalists looking at this report,” directing them to find standards by which one can reach a conclusion on the rate of civilian casualties. Again, Freidman asks: “Civilian casualty rates are high – compared to what? Compared to the U.S. in Fallujah? The British in Northern Ireland? The Canadians in Helmand Province?”

The response to this obfuscation is that soldiers’ testimony should be examined on their own merits and not in comparison or in relation to others. Indeed, the basis of judgment should be the 4th Geneva Convention, which is globally accepted as the standard for the treatment of civilians at the time of war. The mere fact that the U.S., U.K. and Canada violated the rules and got away with it does not nullify the force of the 4th Geneva Convention and the responsibilities of contracting parties.

The last line of arguments is directed at Breaking the Silence, as a nongovernmental organization, and for being “funded in large part by European money which serves mainly to provide international reporters with the lurid examples of Israeli malfeasance that they crave.” Freidman’s conclusion was that Breaking the Silence’s European funding is intended “to defame” Israel, which is an underhanded way to imply racist motivations behind it.

This strategy is one of the most successful, for it makes the messenger the issue while completely avoiding a discussion of the message that Israeli war crimes during the summer 2014 assault on Gaza. If foreign funding is the basis of discounting the veracity of a point of view, then Israel as a state is propped up by European and U.S. funding. Maybe Israel’s defenders should begin to challenge their own credentials considering all the cash they get from foreign countries.