How do we determine morality when war is a constant?
This question guides the Isareli non-profit Breaking the Silence, a group of former military veterans that publishes anonymous testimonies from soldiers and officers who participate in Israel’s defense operations. Following 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, and the intense focus from media and governments from across the globe, Breaking the Silence produced a new collection of testimonies from Israeli soldiers called “This is How We Fought in Gaza” in hopes that a frank discussion of their country’s tactics in war would follow.
The group’s work is not without critics. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, on June 2nd, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely made an official announcement in advance of Breaking the Silence’s exhibit in Zurich, Switzerland, saying, “We will not ignore an organization whose sole purpose is to shame Israeli soldiers, as it operates in the international arena to inflict severe damage on Israel's image." The Israeli government issued a formal request to the Swiss government to stop funding the exhibit. Despite internal back and forth, the exhibit opened at Kulturhaus Helferei in Zurich on June 4th, and is expected to remain open until June 14th.
Last week, Avner Gvaryahu, Breaking the Silence’s Outreach Coordinator, made a brief visit to the United States to urge Americans from all walks of life to listen to his group’s findings. “Every time a [military] operation ends, a new one begins,” Gvaryahu explained at a private, on the record gathering on June 2nd in Washington, DC. “Our mission is to hold up a mirror to Israeli society. But the image [of war] is ugly, so we [Israeli society] cover the mirror.”
Excerpt from testimony 438564:
One platoon was about to ‘open’ a house with a MATADOR (portable anti-tank rocket), and there was a field interrogator – usually that’s a reservist who speaks Arabic who comes around with an electric megaphone and shouts really loudly that if anyone is in the house they should come out. They were about to launch the rocket and then *** yelled, “Don’t shoot” because he could hear people inside the house, he saved an entire family. They found this family in one of the houses and moved them to another house, a two-minute walk from there. It was very weird, protecting them. We put them in the guest room. They were all sitting there on a sofa, on a mattress, sitting and not saying a word. There were a few kids there, and a few women and someone who was definitely the father. He had the air of a father. *** guarded them first, and he had a bag of jelly candies in his pocket and he said he didn’t know whether to give them some. In the end we did give the kids some candy. This is a dilemma we knew from Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). You have no reason to be nice to a Palestinian at a checkpoint – he won’t like you any better for it. You’re a son of a bitch, you’re oppressing him with this checkpoint you’re manning. And he said the same thing: “These kids, what’s going on now is for sure the most traumatic thing to have ever happened in their lives until now – if I give them some jelly candy will they really feel any better? What kind of crap is that?” In the end he did give them candies, ‘cause they were cute.
Excerpt from testimony 275757:
Me personally, deep inside I mean, I was a bit bothered, but after three weeks in Gaza, during which you’re shooting at anything that moves– and also at what isn’t moving, crazy amounts –you aren’t anymore really… The good and the bad get a bit mixed up, and your morals get a bit lost and you sort of lose it, and it also becomes a bit like a computer game, totally cool and real.
Excerpt from testimony 579669:
There weren’t really any rules of engagement, it was more protocols. The idea was, if you spot something – shoot. They told us: “There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot.” Whether it posed a threat or not wasn’t a question, and that makes sense to me. If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal. First of all, because it’s Gaza, and second, because that’s warfare. That, too, was made clear to us – they told us, “Don’t be afraid to shoot,” and they made it clear that there were no uninvolved civilians.
Excerpt from testimony 339079:
As opposed to previous operations, you could feel there was a radicalization in the way the whole thing was conducted. The discourse was extremely right-wing. The military obviously has very clear enemies – the Arabs, Hamas. There is this rigid dichotomy. There are those involved [Palestinians involved in the fighting] and those uninvolved, and that’s it. But the very fact that they’re described as ‘uninvolved’, rather than as civilians, and the desensitization to the surging number of dead on the Palestinian side – and it doesn’t matter whether they’re involved or not – the unfathomable number of dead on one of the sides, the unimaginable level of destruction, the way militant cells and people were regarded as targets and not as living beings – that’s something that troubles me. The discourse is racist. The discourse is nationalistic. The discourse is anti-leftist. It was an atmosphere that really, really scared me. And it was really felt, while we were inside. During the operation it gets radicalized. I was at the base, and some clerk says to me, “Yeah, give it to them, kill them all.” And you say to yourself, ‘Whatever, they’re just kids, it’s just talk’ – but they’re talking that way because someone allowed them to talk that way. If that clerk was the only one saying it I’d write her off – but when everyone starts talking like that…
Excerpted from testimony 750834:
There was this mentally handicapped girl in the neighborhood, apparently, and the fact that shots were fired near her feet only made her laugh (earlier in his testimony the soldier described a practice of shooting near people’s feet in order to get them to distance themselves from the forces). She would keep getting closer and it was clear to everyone that she was mentally handicapped, so no one shot at her. No one knew how to deal with this situation. She wandered around the areas of the advance guard company and some other company – I assume she just wanted to return home, I assume she ran away from her parents, I don’t think they would have sent her there. It is possible that she was being taken advantage of – perhaps it was a show, I don’t know. I thought to myself that it was a show, and I admit that I really, really wanted to shoot her in the knees because I was convinced it was one. I was sure she was being sent by Hamas to test our alertness, to test our limits, to figure out how we respond to civilians. Later they also let loose a flock of sheep on us, seven or ten of whom had bombs tied to their bellies from below. I don’t know if I was right or wrong, but I was convinced that this girl was a test. Eventually, enough people fired shots near her feet for her to apparently get the message that ‘OK, maybe I shouldn’t be here,’ and she turned and walked away. The reason this happened is that earlier that day we heard about an old man who went in the direction of a house held by a different force; [the soldiers] didn’t really know what to do so they went up to him. This guy, 70 or 80 years old, turned out to be booby-trapped from head to toe. From that moment on the protocol was very, very clear: shoot toward the feet. And if they don’t go away, shoot to kill.
Excerpted from testimony 12665:
The motto guiding lots of people was, “Let’s show them.” It was evident that that was a starting point. “Let’s show them.” Lots of guys who did their reserve duty with me don’t have much pity towards… The only thing that drives them is to look after their soldiers, and the mission – they are driven towards an IDF victory, at any price. And they sleep just fine at night. They are totally at peace with that. These aren’t people who spend their days looking for things to kill. By no means. But they aren’t afraid to kill, either. They don’t see it as something bad. The power-trip element is also at play, it’s all kinds of things. I think that a lot can be learned from Operation ‘Protective Edge’ about the issue of dealing with civilians, and how that works. There were a lot of people there who really hate Arabs. Really, really hate Arabs. You could see the hate in their eyes.
Excerpted from testimony 867854:
A typical officer’s response was, “It’s a complicated situation, I realize a situation might arise in which innocent people get killed, but you cannot take that risk or put your comrades at risk, you must shoot without hesitation.” The instructions are to shoot right away. Whoever you spot – be they armed or unarmed, no matter what. The instructions are very clear. Any person you run into, that you see with your eyes – shoot to kill. It’s an explicit instruction.
Excerpted from testimony 25091:
We went in [to the Gaza Strip] through the Nahal Oz entrance, we drove a bit north and then continued west. The houses were already in ruins by the time we got there. The D9 (armored bulldozer) used the rubble from the houses to form a rampart compound for us. There were chicken coops that weren’t destroyed by the aerial strikes, and the D9 simply came and peeled them apart. There was concern about tunnels there, so the coops were just crushed. The D9 comes over, lowers its blade on those houses and within an hour and a half everything is wrapped up into itself. Chickens in metal panels, in all those cages they have there, really big and pretty and it smells like roses. It was total destruction in there – the photos online are child’s play compared to what we saw there in reality. It wasn’t so much razing there – it was havoc, mostly: wrecked houses, collapsed balconies, exposed living rooms, destroyed stores. That’s what we saw. I never saw anything like it, not even in Lebanon. There was destruction there, too – but never in my life did I see anything like this.
Excerpt from testimony 713875:
There were lots of discussions on ethics before we entered [the Gaza Strip]: what we can do, what we can’t do. When we enter a house, can we sleep on the beds? Should we sleep on the floor? But when I’m actually going into combat, whether or not it’s OK to sleep on their bed is the last thing I’m worried about. What’s sleeping on their bed compared to my life? Some people did voice concerns. When we left the first house [we had taken over], we slogged away cleaning it for about three hours because there was some claim that we shouldn’t let it be detected that we had been in there – and also because of the moral aspect – that we need to try and return the house to its former state, as much as possible. When we left [the Gaza Strip], most of the houses we had stayed in were blown up, so it’s kind of funny… But the way we treated all the following houses was different. It becomes clear that you don’t have it in you to deal with this – not emotionally, not physically. You don’t have the patience to keep a house clean. It was a dilemma, when we entered houses.
Excerpt from testimony 133982:
We slept on their mattresses. In the beginning when there was water we used toilets, and after that we used sandbags. There was an intense argument over whether it’s OK to use their kitchens or not. I was in the ‘yes’ faction, but there were lots of guys against it. One guy was the first to go make black coffee and that led to lengthy deliberations: to drink or not to drink. The way I saw it, I pictured this family returning to their house and seeing it totally wrecked, the windows all broken, the floors torn up and the walls messed up by grenades and they say, “The sons of bitches ate my cornflakes, I can’t believe it.” No chance. They won’t care if you used their cooking gas, if you used their kitchen. That’s total bullshit in my opinion. I don’t think that type of quandary is complex at all. I think it’s totally irrelevant, at that point it simply doesn’t matter if you do or don’t use their cooking gas or their kitchens. All this happened before we knew the houses would be blown up once we left them. The very day we left Gaza, all the houses we had stayed in were blown up by combat engineers working together with a small force, and then we were told, “It’s time to leave.”