Ex-soldiers' group speaks out to condemn Israeli shelling of civilians

By Ben Lynfield

An Israeli soldier carries a tank shell near Gaza during shelling last week. Photo / AP
An Israeli soldier carries a tank shell near Gaza during shelling last week. Photo / AP

Memories of his service along the Gaza border two years ago have been streaming through the mind of Shai Davidovich this week as he hears news of heavy Palestinian civilian casualties from the Israeli military campaign.

Davidovich, 27, educational director for the ex-soldiers' group Breaking the Silence, served in field intelligence during Operation Pillar of Defence, a previous Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza in 2012. He says he was repeatedly ordered to help prepare for the firing of artillery during the hostilities.

"We got orders every day that at 5pm we will shoot artillery. We prepared all day for this, but in the end it didn't happen. It was surrealistic to see kids playing in Beit Hanoun ... I don't remember that anyone ever spoke about the civilian population. I thought to myself, 'How can you fire without harming civilians?' Artillery is an imprecise weapon. Artillery fire to an area inhabited by civilians cannot be moral, we trained on open areas."

Davidovich unequivocally opposes the new conflict, unlike the near-consensus of Israelis who view this as a just war of self-defence against rocket fire and tunnel infiltrations, and blame Hamas for all the civilian casualties.

"Any campaign in which the civilian population is harmed on a large scale cannot be moral. Israel has a right to defend itself, but not like this."

Alarmed at the civilian deaths, Breaking the Silence compiled testimonies from soldiers who served in previous Israeli operations in Gaza to make a statement against the current fighting. The testimonies cover Operation Rainbow in 2004, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 and Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012.

"If you look at all the recent operations continuing into the current operation you see a moral descent that doesn't stop and a military aggressiveness that only increases," says Yehuda Shaul, the founder of Breaking the Silence. "The level of destruction, the death toll of civilians and the practices teach us that it gets worse and worse."

He takes issue with the use of artillery and the bombing of family homes of Hamas personalities, which the army says are used for command and are, therefore, legitimate targets.

Shaul says that even if Israel warns civilians to vacate areas to be targeted, that does not absolve it of moral responsibility for their fate.

"If they don't leave do they deserve to die? ... When you use artillery in a place like Gaza you can't say you are taking every precaution to avoid civilian casualties. It's not the case that generals are looking to kill more civilians, far from that. But we are far away from the official line that everything is being done to avoid civilian casualties."

The army believes the group is rehashing old claims in order to embarrass it at a sensitive time. Asked about Breaking the Silence's allegations, Colonel Shaul Shay, former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council and a scholar at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, says that the army "kept, is keeping and will keep high moral standards in all its Gaza operations".

"To our sorrow, the approach of Hamas is to use civilians as a human shield and to war against our civilian population. The army adheres in an exceptional manner almost to the point of endangering our soldiers in order to try to have war with minimum civilian casualties.

"The more Hamas shelling builds shooting positions, tunnels and attack positions in built-up areas, the more the army is forced to fight there and from this there are [civilian] casualties.

"Breaking the Silence has no case and it saddens me that Israelis make such claims at such a time, claims that serve the propaganda ... of the enemy."

Under fire, under pressure

Sgt Major Amir Marmor
Unit: Armoured Corps, 2008-2009
"We began a week of practice on the ground, during which we talked with the officers commanding the operation. Pretty soon we realised that the idea was not just a campaign, but an actual war in which gloves were to be taken off. Considerations we were accustomed to hearing in briefings, like rules of engagement and attempts not to hurt innocents and the like, were not made this time. On the contrary, the attitude was, war is war. To paraphrase the brigade commander who spoke to us one day in the field ... we should have no second thoughts about damaging anything - including mosques, including any threat we feel, real or imagined. The approach is to open fire and to try not to consider the repercussions. At any obstacle, any problem, we open fire and don't ask questions. Even if it's firing in the dark, aiming at an unknown target, firing when we can't see, deterrent fire, no problem with that. A vehicle that's in the way, crush it. A building in the way, shell it. This was the spirit of things that was repeated throughout the training."

Staff Sgt Shai Davidovich
Unit: Field intelligence, 2012
"We were positioned east of Beit Hanoun [north Gaza]. People are walking around in the streets with lots of children hanging about. I see kids on bicycles in a street where shells are falling and the children run around free. Not far from the houses was a major hit ... Our mission was to shoot at sources of fire. It was very intense in both directions ... Crazy blasts. You keep seeing all of Gaza up in the air. The light it created, it was insane ... I don't remember seeing a group of combatants, just flashes of rockets fired all the time. You see houses but it's very difficult to detect a target. You can't be precise - you can't really aim."

Anonymous
Unit: Artillery, 2008-2009
"The problem with artillery fighting in an urban area is that one tries to be as precise as possible, but there are a million parameters at play: weather, the weight of the shell. I might have a high-explosive squash head that blows up and destroys a lot with that kind of weight, and then another shell of a different weight. If you don't check the weight, you can have a 200-300m difference in range that may end up hitting a school instead of the target.

- Independent

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