Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Breaking the Silence Gaza Testimonies: The Use of “Johnnies” as Human Shields

Dear Readers:

In the Jewish calendar, we have entered a semi-mourning period known as the Three Weeks, between the 17th of Tammuz, when the wall of Jerusalem was breached the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, until the 9th of Av, the day of the destruction of the First Temple. I think it appropriate that during this period, I shall bring one testimony of the IDF soldiers a day.

The reaction of the IDF has been confused and angry to Breaking the Silence's booklet. Of course, they have attacked the messenger, rather than the message. But they have not spoken with one voice. For example, in Amos Harel's article in Haaretz this morning here, the reactions to the prohibited use of Palestinians as human shields by the Golani brigade were as follows:

    There were no human shields in Golani (I just heard this on the radio.)

    There may have been, but they actually volunteered so that their houses would not be destroyed.

    The officers were acting in what they thought were according to the spirit of the law.

    Some officers don't yet get the meaning of the prohibition of human shields.

In the case of the Palestinians who were given sledgehammers to break down the walls (see below), the IDF again said that the Palestinians volunteered to do it themselves, so as to minimize the damage.

Haaretz published a long artice in Hebrew with a video of the testimony here. Even if you don't know Hebrew, it is worth watching – and it sounds very authentic. (Note what follows is not a direct translation of what is on Haaretz)


It was the first week of the war, fighting was intense, there were explosive charges to expose, tunnels in open spaces and armed men inside houses. Combat was slow and basically a very small area was occupied. Every unit, every force had a small designated area of responsibility several dozen houses only, which they had to take over, and that took a whole week. That is combat and it took a whole week. They really moved slowly. Close in on each house. The method used has a new name now — no longer 'neighbor procedure.' Now people are called 'Johnnie.' They're Palestinian civilians, and they're called Johnnies and there were civilians there who stayed in spite of the flyers the army distributed before it went in. Most people did leave, but some civilians stayed to watch over the houses. Perhaps they had nowhere else to go. Later we saw people there who could not walk, some simply stayed to keep watch. To every house we close in on, we send the neighbor in, 'the Johnnie,' and if there are armed men inside, we start, like working the 'pressure cooker' in the West Bank.

Every unit is familiar with a different kind of 'pressure cooker' practice. What do you mean by it?

I'm not sure either about the 'pressure cooker' procedures there, they could be different. Essentially the point was to get them out alive, go in, to catch the armed men. There weren't many encounters. Just a few. In one case, our men tried to get them to come out, then they opened fire, fired some anti-tank missiles at the house and at some point brought in a D-9, bulldozer, and combat helicopters. There were three armed men inside. The helicopters fired anti-tank missiles and again the neighbor was sent in. At first he told them that nothing had happened to them yet, they were still in there. Again helicopters were summoned and fired, I don't know at what stage of escalation (in the use of force). The neighbor was sent in once again. He said that two were dead and one was still alive, so a D-9 was brought in and started demolishing the house over him until the neighbor went in, the last armed man came out and was caught and passed on to the Shabak... The commanders tell what they saw and make sure we know how things work on the inside. They also talked about things that bothered them. They said that civilians were used to a greater extent than just sending them into houses. For example, some of them were made to smash walls with 5 kilo sledgehammers. There was a wall around a yard where the force didn't want to use the gate, it needed an alternative opening for fear of booby-traps or any other device. So the "Johnnies" themselves were required to bang open another hole with a sledgehammer. Talking of such things, by the way, there was a story published by Amira Hass in Haaretz daily newspaper, about Jebalya where a guy tells exactly the same thing. It's the guy who was sent. I saw him afterwards, the guy who was made to go into that house three times. He also told us about being given sledgehammers to break walls.

So you say that, from your own experience, there's truth in these publications.

Yes. It was ludicrous to read it and then hear the response of the army spokesperson that the matter was investigated and there are no testimonies on the ground and that the Israeli army is a moral army. It raises doubts about the army spokesperson's responses in general when you know for a fact that these things actually did take place... Sometimes the force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian's shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield. Commanders said these were the instructions and we had to do it... Anyway, at the concluding debriefing, he (the unit commander) said he didn't know about these things, and the guys, commanders who had been there the first week, said they saw civilians being assigned to break walls and enter with rifle barrels on their shoulders. He said he didn't know this and would look into it. I think nothing substantial had been done about it, I'm also in touch with one of the officers there at present and I don't know if an investigation was made and nothing was found or that nothing was cleared up. Several weeks later, the story came out in the paper about these exact incidents, where they were given sledgehammers to break walls, in our area, this I can say with certainty.


Tobias said...

I say the following as a former naval officer. A military - any military - has one basic capability: Organized, lethal violence. And it has two basic missions: To disable enemy forces and to preserve its own forces (as well as its own side's civilians.)

It follows with relentless logic that an army which is not kept in check by other considerations will indiscriminately use violence against any "enemy", including civilians, when it serves its perceived needs. This can only be modified by civilian control to enforce desirable standards of ethics. This is not to say that individual soldiers are not capable of putting ethics above military "needs". But the military, as an organization, definitely is not.

The Israeli government, and from what I see, most of the Israeli public give their military carte blanche in this regard. It is therefor again entirely logical that the IDF should employ any tactics, no matter how callous, it deems militarily effective - unless and until the government will intervene to prevent an international loss of face.

The use of "Johnnies" is basically no different from many other tactics the IDF - and other armies - employ. They all represent the idea that an undetermined, but very high number of "their" lives is worth less than even one of "our" lives. And this is even believed to be a "moral" position: See, we don't kill civilians for fun, only if we have a good reason.
Which is, incidentally, the position that most civilized nations have on animals: Killing them to satisfy one's sadism is wrong, but killing them for a "good reason" is perfectly allright.

Jerry Haber said...

Tobias, thank you for your comment.

The question of morality and armies is, as you know, a complicated one for all folks involved. Just War theory is taught in military academies. Written military codes of ethics are now de rigeur. And some armies (and states) know that you can lose a battle, and maybe your long-term objectives, by not reigning in soldiers. An undisciplined army is a crappy army.

An army is also a reflection of its society, especially when it is not a volunteer army. Decent societies do not tolerate armies that behave like animals.

The use of "Johnnies" is forbidden under Israeli law. Such was the ruling of the High Court. That is why even today, the head of the Golani brigade denies the practice.

Most important, Israelis are taught that their army is the most moral army in the world. You and I may know that that doesn't say much. But, again, an army is a reflection of the society, and Israel society's self-image will not tolerate an en la guerre comme en la guerre policy. So what happens is that the IDF has to lie about its activities in order to preserve its image. And that is bad for the IDF and for the society.

You are a formal naval office. The leaders of Breaking the Silence are former infantry officers. I have no idea what the long-term effects of their work will be. But, as I wrote, if it breaks down the image of the army as a moral one, that will be enough.

Mike said...

I wonder, what is the origin of the claim "The most moral army in the world?" When did it started? It reminds me of the "Noble savage" myth.

Y. Ben-David said...

Without getting into the question of whether the IDF is indeed "the most moral army in the world" or not, the reason the governments of Israel feel they need to say it is is part of a very deep inferiority complex the Zionist movement has about their Jewish/Zionist identity. Unlike almost all other countries in the world, many Israelis, particularly those on the Left (i.e. what has traditionally been called "Labor Zionism") deep down feel that the Jewish state is an abberation, something that does not have a "natural" right to exist, in the way that Frenchman view France as a natural, real country, or Britain or China, etc. Labor Zionism is essentially unnatural combination of socialist "universalism" along with "Jewish particularism". This uneasy relationship causes great discomfort of those who ascribe to this philosophy, and so to make up for this problem, it was found necessary to prove both to the outside world, particularly the "progressives" out there and to the Labor Zionists inside that "Israel is the most moral country in the world" and so the "IDF must be the most moral army in the world". A classic example of this was the long-time denial that organized crime existted in Israel. Everyone knew it existed but several decades ago official commissions were set up to study the problem and they ended up concluding that it didn't exist, because if they did admit it, it was like "hanging our dirty laundry out for others to see". If this were to happen, it was feared that "progressives" outside Israel would pull the plug on their support. Another example was Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's statement after the great victory in the Six-Day War which said that somehow Israel now had to show the world that it was "Shimshon haNebbisher", i.e. a strong country that somehow still wanted to convince the world that it was still as weak, pathetic, victim country, which the "progressives" feel much more comfortable with.
Also recall Golda Meir's unforgettable line "we can forgive the Arabs for killing our people but we can't forgive them for making us kill theirs". I can't picture the leader of any other country making such a statement.
No other country wants to be viewed as a pathetic weakling, happy to have its own citizens killed just to make a point, and no other country would tear itself and its army up with guilt feelings if immoral conduct was revealed on the part of some of its soldiers, but "progressive" Jews revel in this sort of self-flaggelation. The idea of Zionism was to make the Jews a "normal" people, but we see that is has failed to do this, at least with the "progressive" part of its population.

JES said...

Hmmm, Jerry. What do you think should have been done differently if you or your sons had been soldiers on the ground?

Jerry Haber said...

"Hmmm, Jerry. What do you think should have been done differently if you or your sons had been soldiers on the ground?"

Conform to international conventions and even the IDF's own code.

Of course, the question isn't fair, since there would not have been a military operation in Gaza had I anything to do with it. You guys get yourselves into a dumb war, and then ask, What would you have done? The answer is simple. I would have negotiated a cease fire with Hamas, exchanged prisoners, and lifted the siege on Gaza, released Hamas politicians, etc., etc. It was a dumb, unnecessary, and unjust operation. But once in an operation, I would have tried to minimize civilian casualities, even at an increased risk to soldiers, including my son and me.

And you certainly agree with me. Because you would not have justified the airforce bombing the hell out of Gaza in order to minimize the risk to our soldiers. So the question is going to be how much risk. But that question has to be asked before the war, not only during it.

Greg said...

" Unlike almost all other countries in the world, many Israelis, particularly those on the Left (i.e. what has traditionally been called "Labor Zionism") deep down feel that the Jewish state is an abberation, something that does not have a "natural" right to exist, in the way that Frenchman view France as a natural, real country, or Britain or China, etc."

I found this interesting. Despite what Frenchman et al may feel, their country has no natural right to exist either. Israelis have no need to feel less secure than any other nationality. All borders are artificial, all nationalism is racist in its own way. There is no justification for any nation. It's just an aberration of the us/them mentality. Bad things inevitably follow. Israel seems to me no better or worse than any other population concerned with these matters. The horrors they commit during war or occupation, what have you, are common place, unexceptional occurrences. We should neither magnify nor diminish their severity. To do so invokes a romanticism that, while compelling, isn't helpful.

Of course that begs the question of what would be helpful. I'd like to see a no-state solution. Israel gets no state, the Palestinians get no state. The right of return becomes the right to come here, which is available not only to Palestinians but all people. More details to follow.