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(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office [file])
Operation Cast Lead was completely justified, isolated acts of vandalism do not make the IDF an army of war criminals, and religious graduates of the military preparatory programs add to the morality of the IDF, Danny Zamir, the head of the Rabin Pre-Military Academy in Kiryat Tivon, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Zamir's comments came after the Post obtained a copy of an article he wrote for circulation abroad, in which he tried to put into context the brouhaha that resulted from publication of a discussion among nine graduates of his program after Operation Cast Lead. The discussion included allegations of two instances in which soldiers deliberately shot and killed innocent Palestinians, and of wanton vandalism.
"The whole story spun out of control," Zamir said. "From an internal discussion where soldiers talked about what was difficult and painful in the war, and which I took to the army because I expected them to deal with the issues raised, the international media turned the IDF into war criminals."
The transcript of the soldiers' comments, which appeared in an internal newsletter that was posted on the Internet, led to a media sensation, with numerous articles using the soldiers' comments to substantiate allegations of Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
Last week, Judge Advocate-General Brig.-Gen. Avichai Mandelblit exonerated the IDF and closed a Military Police investigation into the affair, saying it was based not on eyewitness accounts, but on hearsay.
Referring specifically to articles in The New York Times, Zamir wrote that "both explicitly and by insinuation, the articles claim a decline in the IDF's commitment to its moral code of conduct in combat, and moreover, that this decline stems from a specific increase in the prominence of religious soldiers and commanders in the IDF in general, and from the strengthening of the position of IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Ronsky in particular.
"It was as if the media were altogether so eager to find reason to criticize the IDF that they pounced on one discussion by nine soldiers who met after returning from the battlefield to share their experiences and subjective feelings with each other, using that one episode to draw conclusions that felt more like an indictment," he wrote.
"Dogma replaced balance and led to a dangerous misunderstanding of the depth and complexity of Israeli reality. The individual accounts were never intended to serve as a basis for broad generalizations and summary conclusions by the media; they were published internally, intended for program graduates and their parents as a tool to be used in the process of educating and guiding the next generation," he said.
Zamir, an officer in the reserves whose children are in the IDF, said that if he believed the IDF was an army of war criminals, he would not be in it.
"It is important to put it in context, and very difficult to explain to the American public how complicated the situation is," Zamir told the Post.
Zamir said he had no way of knowing whether the alleged shooting incidents ever took place, though he felt isolated incidents of vandalism described by soldiers did occur.
"I think that some of the acts of vandalism inside homes were done, but you have to put it in context. That doesn't turn them into war criminals," he said. "When the American army conquered Fallujah three years ago, tens of thousands of people were killed. When the Russian army conquered Chechnya in 2000, it turned Grozny into dust.
"Operation Cast Lead was justified; the IDF worked in a surgical manner. Unfortunately, in these types of operations, civilians will be killed. The IDF operated in a way in which it tried to protect civilians in the most crowded place in the world," he said. "There were no orders to kill civilians or any summary executions or things like that. There were problems, but problems that the army can deal with."
Zamir said that what disturbed him the most was an article in The New York Times under the headline "A religious war in Israel's army," which left the impression that a veritable kulturkampf between religious and secular soldiers was under way. Zamir also said he felt the article left the feeling that he was at loggerheads with Ronsky, someone he considers a close friend.
"I respect the religious Zionists a great deal, even though we have gaps in our world view, regarding the settlements and other things," he said. "We are friends. To use a metaphor from the army, we are all carrying the stretcher. To make it as if we are enemies is ugly; to put all the problems on the religious soldiers is simply wrong."
In fact, he said, "the most amazing thing that happens during battle and in the army is the cooperation between the Left and the Right, the religious and the secular. We have great relations, with a great deal of respect and faith in one another."
Zamir said the more graduates of the religious preparatory academies, and the more rabbis being taught by Ronsky, the better.
"There will be a higher moral level in the army," he said. "The religious Zionists are leading the camp in many areas - in the army, in the communities in the periphery, in education - and an impression is wrongly created that they are ayatollahs who are ruling the world. It's not right, and I'm saying this as someone who is a leftist and secular."
In 1990, Zamir, then a paratrooper company commander in the reserves, was tried and sentenced to prison for refusing to guard a ceremony where Torah scrolls were brought to Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. A 2004 book entitled Refusnik: Israel's Soldiers of Conscience, compiled and edited by Peretz Kidron, contains words Zamir wrote at the time explaining his decision.
Zamir said Monday that until the recent events, he did not even know that he had appeared in that book.
"They took something I wrote in 1990 and included it," he said. "They didn't ask me, and I didn't know about it."
He explained that "that was before Oslo, and I thought that Israel was using methods that were not in keeping with the Jewish and democratic nature of the state. Since 1992 I have made it clear that there is no rationale for refusing to serve, and I believe that to this day."
According to Zamir, anyone in his preparatory academy who says they do not want to serve are asked to leave.
"We have 100 percent enlistment," he said, "and 30% of our soldiers become officers."