larry derfner 88.
(photo credit: )
First we saw the destruction of Gaza on TV, then we heard about it from Palestinians, then from journalists (mainly foreign), then from the world's leading human rights organizations. We didn't believe it, or we found ways to justify it, but at any rate, we, the Israeli public, made sure the images and words went in one ear and out the other.
Then in March some of our own boys, IDF soldiers, talked about it - the orders that amounted to "when in doubt, shoot," the sniggering contempt for Palestinian life and property, the exhortations to holy war from IDF rabbis. That seemed to make a small dent in our consciousness for a couple days. But then the IDF conducted its brief, naturally closed investigation, announced that the stories were all hearsay and rumor, there was nothing to the accounts of an old woman and a mother getting shot deliberately, nothing to worry about, you can all go back to sleep now, and, of course, we did.
Now comes "Breaking the Silence," an organization of IDF combat reservists, with the testimonies of 26 soldiers who served in Operation Cast Lead, and the stories are very, very familiar, only they're much more detailed than what we've heard before. Over 100 pages of testimony about the extraordinary scale of destruction ("like in those World War II films where nothing remained"); the vandalism ("In one house we entered I saw guys had defecated in drawers"); the shoot-'em-up spirit ("The atmosphere was not one of fear but rather people too eager to shoot other people"); the elastic definition of "legitimate target" ("suspects, lookouts, people standing on roofs and looking towards our forces, making suspect movements on the roof, bending down, looking out beyond the rim"); the firing of napalm-like white phosphorous in thickly-populated areas; the killings of unarmed civilians in no-go zones; the rabbis' anti-Arab pep talks; and much, much more.
There are no stories about atrocities, of classic war crimes - of deliberate massacres of helpless civilians. In fact, there aren't that many Palestinians in these stories at all - most of the civilians had fled their homes after the IDF's warnings and Hamas fighters were mainly hiding, not fighting. The neighborhoods the soldiers entered were largely, though not entirely, deserted.
THE MAIN impression I got from reading the stories (there's also a DVD with videotaped testimonies of four soldiers) is that Operation Cast Lead wasn't a war, it was an onslaught. The IDF basically flattened whole neighborhoods and rural villages outside Gaza City and the refugee camps. (The city and camps were left mainly to the Air Force.)
One soldier, a reserve combat medic, told me his unit spent a week in an abandoned rural village where "about 50" houses had stood; by the time they left, most of the houses were rubble. "I saw every kind of destruction I could think of. Houses were blown up by airplanes, helicopters, artillery, D-9 bulldozers, machine guns, mortars," he said. The plan was to raze them all, he added, but the army had to leave Gaza early, what with Barack Obama getting inaugurated.
Why the deliberate destruction of abandoned homes? "The battalion commander told us there were two reasons: One, to make sure none of the houses could pose a threat to us, and two, for 'the day after.' We wanted to make sure the ground was flat so that after we left, Hamas would have no place to hide."
The combat medic, a young, kippa-wearing father who studies Jewish philosophy at university and whose living room wall is lined with holy books, also said an IDF rabbi told him and a few of his comrades that "this was a war between the children of light and the children of darkness," and that "we would not have to account for our sins." The last thing the rabbi told them, he recalls, was this: "Remember, guys, aim for the torso."
I don't know what depresses me more - these stories or the IDF's reaction to them. You would think that after reading 100-odd pages of such testimony from 26 veterans of the war - 14 conscripts and 12 reservists - the IDF brass would at least say it was disturbing, troubling, something.
"How do you know it's true?" an IDF spokesman told me over the phone. The soldiers' identities are hidden, there's no way the army can check their stories. Remember the accounts by the soldiers in the Rabin academy? They all turned out to be false. Breaking the Silence has an "agenda," said the spokesman.
I asked him if the IDF considered these fighters' accounts of the war to have any meaning, any value. The spokesman couldn't think of any; instead, he just repeated what he'd said about how the stories couldn't be checked, how Breaking the Silence was "hiding behind the anonymity" of the soldiers, how it has an agenda.
HE'S RIGHT. Breaking the Silence has an agenda - to tell the truth about what the IDF is doing to the Palestinians, worst of all during Operation Cast Lead. The IDF has an agenda, too - to hide it.
The IDF knows very well why those 26 soldiers remained anonymous: because if their identities were known, they would be branded as shtinkerim - informers - in the army, and their lives would become hell.
As for the earlier "debunking" of the Rabin academy soldiers' testimony, only in Israel does anyone believe that the IDF's lightning-fast, closed-door investigation was at all thorough, impartial or well-intentioned. To anyone genuinely interested in the truth, it had all the makings of a whitewash. In particular, the recanting by Danny Zamir, head of the Rabin academy, sounded like something from Arthur Miller's The Crucible.
Now, on top of the TV footage from Gaza, the word of Palestinian victims, journalists, human rights investigators and the Rabin academy soldiers, there are the war stories of 14 conscript and 12 reserve IDF veterans that we have to deny.
In a few weeks we'll be denying another report, that one by a UN committee headed by South Africa's Judge Richard Goldstone, one of the bravest, finest Jewish fighters for justice in modern times.
It doesn't matter who tells us the truth about what we did in Gaza - we'll deny it. If the entire IDF General Staff called a news conference and admitted that the evidence were true, we'd say they're leftists, they're kissing up to Obama, they're lying.
Even if our own sons tell us it's true, we'll tell them they're lying. We're telling that to another 26 of them right now.