External Affairs

An Indictment of the Israeli Way of Waging War

The UN report blames Hamas too, but says Israel’s growing ‘military culture’ resulted in the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians

The home of the Kware' family, after it was bombed by the Israeli military in Gaza in 2014. Photo by Muhammad Sabah and B'Tselem. Licensed under CC BY 4.0

The home of the Kware’ family, after it was bombed by the Israeli military in Gaza in 2014. Photo by Muhammad Sabah and B’Tselem. Licensed under CC BY 4.0

It needs some effort to recall that just a year ago Israel had unleashed the full might of its armed forces upon the people of Gaza and, over a seven-week period, wreaked extraordinary death and devastation upon its hapless population. Images of Israeli assaults over the years, so vivid at the time they were perpetrated, fade quickly: we can barely remember the picture of Muhammed al Durra, cowering behind his father in the face of Israeli shelling, during the Intifada in 2000, and the next shot of his bleeding dead body. Or even more recently, the image of those four boys from the Bakir family playing football on the Gaza beach last year, mowed down by Israeli shelling.

Israel’s atrocities fade from the pages of newspapers and even from memory; the only place they remain alive are reports prepared a few months later by human rights organisations that document the violence in excruciating detail, are routinely condemned by Israel as biased and anti-Semitic, and then quickly disappear from public discourse, until the next assault results in another report.

Findings of Gaza enquiry

The Gaza violence of last year has now yielded a report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The enquiry commission was headed by US jurist Mary McGowan Davis and Doudou Diene, a lawyer from Senegal. The investigators were barred from visiting Israel and Gaza; the commission prepared its report on the basis of numerous interviews, written submissions, satellite imagery, government documents and statements and interviews with military experts.

The 217-page report, released on Monday, June 22, has captured global headlines saying that it has found both Israel and Hamas guilty of possible war- crimes, a tribute to the even-handedness of the report. Briefly, the report notes that in the seven weeks from July 8 to August 26, 2014, in an assault which included air, sea and ground attacks by Israel in Gaza, 2252 Palestinians were killed, of whom 65 percent were civilians; on the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, of whom 67 were soldiers. During the operation, Israel carried out 6000 airstrikes, and fired 14,500 tank shells and 45,000 artillery shells. In return, Hamas fired nearly 5000 rockets and over 1700 mortars.

These bland figures do not convey the enormity of the destruction; the report simply says: “the scale of the devastation [in Gaza] was unprecedented.” It documents the use of the lethal GBU-32/MK-82 1000 lb and GBU-31/MK-84 2000 lb bombs that have a wide kill and injury radius and thus constitute “indiscriminate attacks”. A large number of residential localities that had no military value were targeted by precision-guided missiles. The attacks often took place late at night or early mornings and late evenings when families were breaking the Ramadan fast together: 142 families lost three or more family members. In the assault, 18,000 Palestinian homes were destroyed, as also 11 UN buildings, rendering 100,000 people homeless; 17 hospitals were destroyed or damaged, as were 56 primary health centres; 30 percent of all educational facilities were destroyed or damaged.

Warnings consisted of “roof-knocking” in which a smaller bomb was lobbed on a roof to alert the residents that a more powerful one was on the way, which confused people and gave them no time to escape in any case. Leaflets were also useless since they did not indicate the intended targets nor did they provide any safe havens since even the beaches were off-limits. While the enquiry could find no evidence of Hamas using “human shields”, it discovered that Israeli forces used Arab prisoners as human shields, forcing them to open doors, inspect rooms and switch on lights to test the presence of explosives.

Disregard to civilians

The report debunks another Israeli allegation – that Hamas fired its rockets from crowded civilian areas, thus causing the deaths of Palestinians when Israel retaliated. The report says instead that it is Israel that has located several of its military facilities in densely populated areas. The report asserts that the extent of the assault, the weaponry used, and the widespread destruction indicate high-level military and even political sanction, particularly the “military culture” that allowed the use of “massive firepower … in utter disregard of its devastating impact on the civilian population”. The report demands that Israel “break its lamentable record in holding wrong-doers accountable”.

A Palestinians searches through rubble of his destroyed homes hit by Israeli strikes in Towers Al-andaa - the northern Gaza Strip. UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

A Palestinians searches through rubble of his destroyed homes hit by Israeli strikes in Towers Al-andaa – the northern Gaza Strip. UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

The report criticises Hamas for unleashing its rockets and mortar shells which “caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of Israeli civilians”. The report says that these attacks were ‘’indiscriminate in nature” and were intended “to spread terror among the civilian population”, a possible violation of international humanitarian law. The severest criticism of Hamas is that after the Gaza operation it executed 21 Palestinians as collaborators. Though the enquiry commission has projected its findings as even-handed, a careful reading of the report makes it clear that there can really be no moral equivalence between the actions of the two contenders, given the great gap in their resources and firepower, and the viciousness and cruelty with which Israel sought to decimate its enemy – not just Hamas but the whole population of Gaza.

Israel’s response to the report has been on predictable lines. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it “flawed and biased”, noting the UNHRC has “a singular obsession with Israel”. He then asserted: “Israel is now faced with an unprecedented attack of de-legitimisation.” He has also said that reading the report would be a “waste of time”. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations has said that “the UN has been taken hostage by terrorist organisations”. The Israeli foreign office spokesman called the report “politically motivated and morally flawed from the outset”, adding that it had failed to distinguish between Israel’s ‘’moral behaviour” and the terrorist organisations it confronted. However, a columnist in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz says that the report makes “harrowing reading” and that several actions of Israeli soldiers were “atrocious”.

‘Breaking the Silence’

However, the severest indictment of Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war has come not from the report but from its own soldiers who participated in the assault. In a 240-page report titled This is How We Fought in Gaza 2014, 60 Israeli officers and soldiers have described how massive Palestinian casualties were caused by Israel’s “lax rules of engagement and indiscriminate artillery fire”. The report, brought out by the activist Israeli group of former military personnel, Breaking the Silence points out that commanders told soldiers to see all Palestinians in Gaza “as a potential threat….There is no such thing as a person who is uninvolved.” The simple instruction to soldiers was: “Open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in.” Thus, entire neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble for no operational reason but to “demonstrate presence in the area”.

The testimony of individual soldiers reflects a mindset of deep-seated racist animosity that has been imbued into Israeli soldiers. The following instructions from commanders quoted in the report are illustrative:

  • “The [Palestinian] civilians know they are not supposed to be there. Therefore, whoever you see there, you kill …”
  • “Anything you see in the neighbourhoods you’re in … is dead on the spot. No authorisation needed.”
  • [Following the killing of two women]: “They were counted as terrorists. They were shot, so it’s clear they were terrorists.”
  • [After the death of a soldier]: “Fire like they do at funerals, but with shells and on houses… It is a type of revenge.”
  • [[After the multiple shootings of an old man for sport]: “We have casualties up front, don’t bother us, do what you need to do.”

As the Gaza attacks progressed, the report describes the depths of brutalisation that several soldiers reached in the shape of random killings for sport, the bulldozing of residential blocks, target practice on moving vehicles including cars, trucks and ambulances, and overrunning motor cars with tanks. A soldier explains this moral collapse thus: “ … after three weeks in Gaza, when you are firing at everything that moves, and even things that don’t move, at a psychotic pace … good and bad get mixed up and your morality starts to get lost, and you lose your compass. And it becomes a computer game.”

A year later, the tribulations of the Gazans are not over: over 20,000 people are still homeless, with hardly any reconstruction having taken place due to the absence of building materials. About 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line; unemployment is around 50 per cent, with 67 per cent of young people without work. Over 1000 of the 3000 children injured in the conflict will be permanently disabled; about 20 per cent of the population is in need of long term mental health attention.

Root causes

The Gaza operation was only the latest in a long line of assaults that Israel has been carrying out on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Even the investigation of the earlier Israeli assault on Gaza in 2009, in which 1400 Palestinians were killed, had elicited a similar indictment of Israel, including criticisms of its collective punishments, destruction of public buildings, and use of disproportionate force “designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population”.

The increasing influence of the settler movement and of Right Wing parties in Israeli politics has imparted a near-universal culture of violence by Israeli state authorities which has been strengthened by increasing religiosity in the armed forces, mainly through the presence of extremist rabbis who compare Palestinians to the Philistines, the biblical enemies of the Jewish people. This has inculcated in the psyche of a section of Israelis a violent and racist worldview. Even prominent Israeli scholars and political leaders use racist and demeaning language to describe Arabs in order to dehumanise them.

A Ha’aretz columnist, Chem Shalev, points out that the Israeli media did not cover the carnage in Gaza or, when it did so, portrayed it as well-deserved. He notes that there is now a vicious circle in Israel in terms of which international criticism of Israel is dismissed as “incorrigible anti-Israeli sentiments and rampant anti-Semitism”; this leads to “a sense of siege and isolation (that) drives Israelis further to the insular right”. This mindset, in Shalev’s view, believes that “every opportunity is a trap, every risk is existential, and every reaction is justifiable”, including, it would seem, wilful killings, inhuman treatment, and systematic deprivation of dignity of the people of Gaza.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates