Thursday, July 16, 2009

Now They’re Shooting at the Messenger-Shooters

When the message of Israeli war crimes in Gaza was delivered yesterday in the form of a 110-page booklet of IDF soldiers' testimonies, the knee-jerk response of the rightwing government and the IDF was to 'shoot the messenger', the IDF veterans group, Breaking the Silence. But now sensible folks are beginning to weigh in. Amos Harel, who has close knowledge and ties with the military, wrote a good piece this morning here.

A new wave of damning testimonies by Israel Defense Forces soldiers who took part in the recent fighting in Gaza has unleashed a knee-jerk reaction from the already sensitive Israeli public. (Leading the charge was Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who on Wednesday demanded that all criticism in military matters be directed at him, not the soldiers.)

The testimonies were released by "Breaking the Silence," an organization of former soldiers who use personal experiences to illustrate what they perceive to be the folly of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories. Once again, the organization has been singled out for rebuke. …

The nay-sayers should simmer down. The men behind the testimonies are soldiers, that is certain. Three of them met with Haaretz, at the paper's request. While there is no definite way of vouching for the credibility of their reports, it is safe to say that they did fight in Gaza and that they provided enough authentic detail to prove that they are not imposters.

The refusal to disclose their identities, especially for those witnesses still completing their mandatory military service, stems from a fear of possible retribution, both from their commanders and from their peers.

Telling their stories to outside organizations, in particular the media, is seen as tattling. It was enough for these soldiers to hear from graduates of a pre-army prep course about the onslaught they faced after previous Cast Lead testimonies - vehemently denied in the Military Advocate General's subsequent report - to understand that their fears are not unfounded. It will be interesting to hear the full version of events once these soldiers are discharged.

On the flip side, Breaking the Silence, founded in 2004 by veterans of the second intifada, has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classed as a "human rights organization." Any organization whose website includes the claim by members to expose the "corruption which permeates the military system" is not a neutral observer.

The organization has a clear agenda: to expose the consequences of IDF troops serving in the West Bank and Gaza. This seems more of interest to its members than seeking justice for specific injustices. The fact that the material was published just six months after the end of the conflict will diminish its impact in the eyes of a public supportive of their troops.

But this does not mean that the documented evidence, some of which was videotaped, is fabricated. It goes without saying, however, that the vague contextual descriptions hamper the possibility that the IDF could use such testimonies in a criminal investigation.

Harel is not a supporter of BtS, and he does not share BtS's skepticism that the IDF is incapable, in a long-term occupation, of acting as a professional army with moral standards. Well and good. But he knows better than to dismiss the testimonies as false, fabricated, or of no value.

And Nahman Shai, former IDF spokesperson and now a Kadima member has called for forming an independent commission which would include both internal and external investigators, to investigate the claims of Breaking the Silence. Such a committee would be able to examine the testimonies and determine their veracity. Read it here

It may be that Shai is just grandstanding, especially since he knows that neither the IDF nor the government will hearken to his call. (Opposition members of parliament do that all the time.) But the fact remains he criticized explicitly the IDF reaction to the report (I heard him on the radio – the IDF radio station – with Ilan Dayyan this morning, where he said that the report should be taken seriously.)


Anonymous said...

This press release from B'Tselem might be of interest:

15 July '09: Military's attack on "Breaking the Silence" is groundless, given its refusal to investigate events in Operation Cast Lead

In light of the Israeli military’s attack against the credibility of the soldiers’ testimonies issued by “Breaking the Silence”, B’Tselem has urgently sent the Minister of Defense copies of letters previously sent to the judge advocate general, in which the organization reported grave suspicions that soldiers had used Palestinian civilians as human shields during Operation Cast Lead. The letters were based on testimonies given to B’Tselem by Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and were sent two and three weeks ago. To the best of B’Tselem’s knowledge, the army has not opened investigations to examine these suspicions.

The descriptions of events in the testimonies given to B’Tselem are very similar to those given by soldiers to “Breaking the Silence”. The military has refused to open serious, impartial investigations into these events, choosing instead to rely solely on internal debriefings conducted within the involved units as a method for determining the truth. B’Tselem says that in light of this policy, the assault on “Breaking the Silence” and media statements by military officials denying that human shields were used in the operation are disingenuous and unacceptable. In its response, the IDF Spokesperson criticized the anonymity of the soldiers whose testimonies were published by “Breaking the Silence”, yet when B’Tselem sent the army detailed letters including the names of the Palestinian victims, the exact dates and the precise locations of the events, no investigation was opened.

Since the end of Operation Cast Lead, B’Tselem has sent law enforcement authorities 19 separate demands to open investigations into events whose circumstances raise suspicions that the military acted unlawfully during the operation. These demands are based on field research and testimonies given to B’Tselem by Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip. In total, the letters sent by B’Tselem related to events in which 70 Palestinian civilians were killed, more than half of them minors. Among them were two letters that detailed grave suspicions that the military had used Palestinian civilians as human shields in ‘Ezbet ‘Abd Rabo in north-eastern Gaza, in violation of international humanitarian law and of an explicit ruling by the Israeli High Court of Justice. To date, the only response B’Tselem has received is confirmation that some of the letters have been received.

Eric Mendelsohn said...

There is winners' history and losers' history. Jews with a tisha b'av mentality wrote losers history for 2000 years--now the IDF and Israelis can write winners history.
However the prophetic voice may still be heard shouting that what you have done is victory but it was not done not the way you should have
done it.

Y. Ben-David said...

One thing that seems to be forgotten in all these discussions, is that the behavior of an army is at least partially dictated by the behavior of the enemy, and not just some abstract moral code they adopt. A good example was in World War II in the Pacific. According to the Geneva Convention, a soldier who surrenders must be treated humanely. However, during the American "island hopping" campaign Japanese soldiers who claimed to be surrendering would detonate hidden hand grenades to kill both themselves and the American GI's who were taking them prisoner. Wounded Japanese would try to kill American medics who were trying to help them. Thus, eventually American soldiers stopped taking prisoners and just shot them. The Americans reached the point of considering using poison gas to flush the Japanese out of caves, even though this had been outlawed after the First World War. In the end this idea was rejected.
"JohnW", a "progressive" commentator over at TMPCafe told how he was an American GI in the Battle of the Bulge, and how his buddies would not take German Waffen SS soldiers prisoner after they heard that some of the SS massacred American prisoners.

Over here, there was the case of the Palestinian woman who came to the Erez Crossing, claimed she needed medical attention in Israel, and couldn't go through the explosive detector since she had a metal plate in her leg, so two soldiers tried to help her go around the detector. This way her explosive vest was not detected and the two soldiers lost their lives trying to help her. I don't think it should surprise you "progressives" that these type of actions, including the many suicide bombings that the Palestinians carried out against us with the full support of both their HAMAS and FATAH leadership, will affect how the IDF relates to "innocent civilians" during the condut of operations.

Mike said...

Y Ben-David,

Does it mean there should be no code of conduct at all and that soldiers are allowed do what they want? In this case, what is the purpose of the Geneva Convention? Are Israeli's above it? Where do you put limits?

Doesn't our "holy book", the Talmud, say something about it? The Jewish religion is full of forbidden things, more than you can count them, but killing children is OK? This is Jewish ethics?

Why did 300 Palestinian children die? Were they also threatening Israeli soldiers with hidden bombs?

Besides, the examples you mention did occur on battlefields not in an area populated by civilians.