The Soldiers’ Testimony and Failure of Cast Lead

Gershom Gorenberg

My take on the soldiers’ testimony from Gaza comes in my new article at the American Prospect:

The soldier had served as a squad commander during the Israeli army’s invasion of the Gaza Strip last winter. His unit was assigned to advance into Gaza City. His initial orders, he recalled, were that after an armored vehicle broke down the door of a building, his men were to enter, spraying fire: “I call it murdering … going up one floor after another, and anyone we spot, shoot him.” The word from his higher-ups was that anyone who hadn’t fled the neighborhood could be assumed to be a terrorist. The orders fit a pattern: In Gaza, “as you know, they used lots and lots of force and killed lots and lots of people on the way so that we wouldn’t be hurt,” he said.

Before the operation began, he recounted, the orders were softened. The building’s occupants would be given five minutes to leave and be searched on their way out. When he told his squad, some soldiers objected. “Anyone there is a terrorist; that’s a fact,” one said. The squad commander was upset. “It’s pretty frustrating that inside Gaza you’re allowed to do what you want,” he explained at a discussion in February among graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin Academy, a pre-army training course.

A transcript from that gathering, published in an academy newsletter, reached the Israeli media late last week. (The full Hebrew text is here; a Ha’aretz report in English is here.) Predictably, it set off a storm. In contrast to earlier criticism of the Gaza campaign, this time charges of disregard for civilian’s lives came not from Palestinians or the foreign media but from Israeli soldiers. Their testimony challenged the story of the war that is widely accepted in Israel and indicated a change, apparently dictated from above, in the Israel Defense Forces’ rules for fighting.

The soldiers who spoke at the academy hadn’t served together and weren’t talking about a breakdown in a single unit. Instead, they described an atmosphere in which “the lives of Palestinians were, let’s say much less important than the lives of our soldiers,” as one put it…

Read the full article here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

10 thoughts on “The Soldiers’ Testimony and Failure of Cast Lead”

  1. Thanks so much for linking the copy of בריזה with the original transcript; I’d been looking for it for a while, only finding the excerpts that הארץ put out the weekend after the story broke.

  2. Richard Boudreaux filed a story on Israeli soldiers being exhorted on by military rabbis – http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-israel-holywar25-2009mar25,0,4876301.story .

    “Rabbi David Hartman … said the religious nationalist belief in holy war is still a minority view in the army.”

    Nevertheless, these allegations of Cast Lead operational orders and rabbis urging soldiers to think in terms of expulsion of non-Jews are dangerous trends.

  3. “Instead, they described an atmosphere in which “the lives of Palestinians were, let’s say much less important than the lives of our soldiers,””

    What is fucking wrong with that? The Israeli soldier is my 19 year old neighbor. Of course that he is more important to me than the life of a Palestinian in a combat zone after being warned to leave. And I guess that his own life is more important to him than the life of Abdul or Ahmed there.
    For the sake of me, you don’t seem to like soldiers very much!

  4. This article has accented my outrage after reading Ethan Bronner’s article in this Sunday’s New York Times “A Religious War in Israel’s Army”which gave me, a non-jew, some insight into what I saw when I was in Israel.The change from a secular dominated army to one more and more taken over by religious nationalists including many from the settler movement in the West Bank including the officer corps of the elite Golanti Brigade. Most disconcerting was Brig. General Avichal Rontzki’s(the military’s chief rabbi)reference to a classical Hebrew text in this latest conflict”He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful ” We get it Rabbi West Bank settler ;put a little twist on it and it’s right out of the SS playbook on their treatment of the Jews. Those on the Right are always Right”

    My church , The United Methodist Church, has taken up the cause of the innocent Palestinians in this Gaza fracas and at our National Conference passed several resolutions condeming Israel’s conduct and the illegal settlements in the West Bank as well as Hamas’ conduct. We choose to abide by the election results of the Palestinian people who choose Hamas over Fatah but condemn the thugs at the top of the leadership of Hamas. We have decided to divest the church’s holdings in Caterpillar Corp.. who sells armoured bulldozers to the US government which in turn sells them to Israel, much to the displeasure of the CEO who is a member of a United Methodist church in Peoria , Ill. home base for Caterpillar.
    As I have been reminded by Y.Ben David to wit: “you don’t live here” but’ neither did I just fall off the turnip truck” I would like steal a little from the article wherein the Time’s writer refers to the Jewish philosopher Habertal who opines on the Jewish religious right as follows ; “The right tends to make an equation between authenticity and brutality, as if the idea of humanism were a Western and alien implant to Judaism” The Times writer then concludes that Habertal says”They seem not to know that nationalism and fascism are also Western ideas and that hypernationalism is not Jewish at all” Much can be learned from these statements

  5. mr. gorenberg, i must say your writings are usually very insightful and powerfully critical, but this one was quite disappointing.
    it lacked any clear stance, any real criticism or at least profound insight into the meaning, causes and implications of all this, and in stead was a kind of dull recycle of the affair with bits of weak comments, as if you tried to walk around the issue and not make a clear-cut statement on what your opinion is.

  6. Fabian — is there a Palestinian state? Until there is, you don’t get to wash your hands of responsibility for the Palestinians. (Even once there is one, you still need to follow rules of engagement when you do go there to fight.)

  7. “Fabian — is there a Palestinian state? Until there is, you don’t get to wash your hands of responsibility for the Palestinians.”
    That is a complete non-sequitur. We are all in one form or another responsible for someone else. The question is, which one is more important to you, that the weight of responsibility is heavier on him. My fellow Israelis are more important to me than the Palestinians.

    ” (Even once there is one, you still need to follow rules of engagement when you do go there to fight.)”
    Nobody says the IDF did not follow the rules. And following the rules does not ensures that there will be no civilian victims.

    Finally, I am 100% certain that the international community will always make us responsible for the fate of the Palestinians even if they get their state. I have solid evidences that it will be so. Not only that the disengagement from Gaza did not seem to affect the degree to which we Israelis are considered responsible for a people who elected terrorists how vowed to kill us, even if it takes the complete destruction of their own people, but there are historical precedents.

    In 1947 it was argued that since the Arab state to be created besides the Jewish state will be more underdeveloped (nobody explicitly said that it was underdeveloped because the Arabs did not do anything to develop their own state while the Jews created universities, banks, kibutzim, etc), the Jewish State would be required to assist financially its neighbor!

    The Jews were required to pay for the lazyness of the Arabs!

    As I say, historical precedents that show that when you want to fuck the Jews, you can display infinite excuses.

  8. Fabian: “We are all in one form or another responsible for someone else.”

    Not in such an abstract and generalised way. Despite the “disengagement”, Israel continues to exert almost total control over Gaza and the West Bank, and with that comes another quality of responsibility than that we have for, say, Inuits, by way of our carbon footprints. Regarding Israeli responsibility, WB and Gaza inhabitants are second only to Israeli citizens.
    Speaking of which, do you include Palestinian Israelis in your “fellow Israelis” who are more important to you than “the Palestinians”? Just asking.
    Even if there is a hierarchy in importance, that doesn’t mean Palestinian civilians can be gunned down willy-nilly with impunity.

    “Nobody says the IDF did not follow the rules.”
    If you believe that, you must’ve just arrived from another galaxy.

  9. Lets interpret Mr Hilborn’s comments
    My church , The United Methodist Church, has taken up the cause of the innocent Palestinians .. Our church is offended by a Jewish state. It goes against our theological beliefs of supercessionism, in which the Jews are Divinely rejected after the Jews rejected Jesus. If Egypt has invaded Palestine in 1948, killed all the Jews and continued to oppress the Palestinians, it would not be my concern, but a Jewish state is theologically offensive

    hypernationalism is not Jewish at all…thats why Chanukah must be outlawed

    We choose to abide by the election results of the Palestinian people who choose Hamas over Fatah but condemn the thugs at the top of the leadership of Hamas… We wish Hamas was more effective. Hamas should wait until Iran gets it some better weapons. The decision not to renew the truce with Israel was morally justified, but strategically not a good idea. Hamas is a good organization because if fulfills our theology without requiring us to get our hands dirty

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