News & Current Affairs

July 15, 2009

Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

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Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

Destroyed house in Gaza

Soldiers are quoted saying they opened fire at any “suspect places”

A human rights group founded by Israeli veterans has collected what it says are damning testimonies from soldiers who took part in the offensive in January against Hamas fighters in Gaza. \

Standing by the ruins of his home in Gaza, Majdi Abed Rabbo explained how Israeli troops had used him as a human shield.

“The Israeli soldiers handcuffed me and pointed the gun at my neck,” he said. “They controlled every step.”

In this manner, Mr Abed Rabbo said, he was forced to go in ahead of Israeli soldiers as they cleared houses containing Palestinian gunmen.

This same incident was described by one of the Israeli soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.

Majdi Abed Rabbo

Israel’s military is now looking into Majdi Abed Rabbo’s claims

“A Palestinian neighbour is brought in,” he says. “It was procedure. The soldier places his gun barrel on the civilian’s shoulder.”

If true, that was a clear breach of the international laws of war – which say soldiers have a duty of care to non-combatants – and of Israeli law.

The Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the so-called “neighbour policy”, of using Palestinians to shield advancing troops, in 2005.

Until now, the Israeli army always had a ready answer to allegations that war crimes were committed during its offensive in Gaza.

Such claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda.

Now, though, the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

Testimonies collected

The common thread in the almost 30 testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties, whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

Writing the report’s introduction, the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard says: “All the witnesses agreed that they received a particular order repeatedly, in a way that did not leave much room for doubt, to do everything, everything, so that they – the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers – would not be harmed.

“The soldiers tell in their testimonies how this unwritten message, which came from brigade, battalion, and company commanders in morale-building conversations before entering Gaza, translated into zero patience for the life of enemy civilians.”

Israeli troops return from Gaza 19.1.09

Israel denies its soldiers broke the laws of war

The lawyer adds: “Violations of the laws of war are liable to be war crimes.”

Here are just a few quotes which give a flavour of the soldiers’ testimony. The accumulation of detail is convincing and, in the eyes of Israel’s critics, damning.

“Things are happening in his battalion of which he (the commander) has no idea. There are people who deserve to go to jail…

“When your company commander and battalion commander tell you, ‘Go on, fire!’ the soldiers will not hold back. They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands…

“Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.”

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich dismissed the testimonies as anonymous hearsay, designed to embarrass the army rather than lead to serious investigations.

She questioned why Breaking the Silence had not handed over its findings earlier, before the media were informed.

“We are investigating many of the requests from NGOs and other groups,” she said. “But when you have a report that is based on hearsay, with no facts whatsoever, we can’t do anything with it.”

In the past, says the Israeli military, some allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza have turned out to be second or third-hand accounts, the result of soldiers recycling rumours in the battalion rather than describing what they themselves witnessed.

Credible record

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record of getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the Army.

The group is funded by the British, Dutch and Spanish governments, as well as the EU.

It says the testimony is anonymous because of orders to Israeli soldiers not to speak out publicly.

Some of the collected testimony is highly specific.

In the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo, the Israeli military police have now opened an investigation, lending at least some credibility to the soldier who said the “neighbour policy” was in widespread use.

The military maintains it went to extraordinary lengths to ensure civilians were not harmed in Gaza.

The soldiers’ testimony does describe in detail how leaflets were distributed in areas they were about to enter – warning people to leave.

But it is what happened after that, says Breaking the Silence, which calls into question the morality of the Israeli army’s actions.

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Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israeli soldiers deployed on the Israel-Gaza border 28 Decmeber 2008

Soldier testimonies appear to contradict official Israeli statements

A group of soldiers who took part in Israel’s assault in Gaza say widespread abuses were committed against civilians under “permissive” rules of engagement.

The troops said they had been urged to fire on any building or person that seemed suspicious and said Palestinians were sometimes used as human shields.

Breaking the Silence, a campaign group made up of Israeli soldiers, gathered anonymous accounts from 26 soldiers.

Israel denies breaking the laws of war and dismissed the report as hearsay.

The report says testimonies show “the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians” was a result of Israeli military policy, articulated by the rules of engagement, and encouraged by a belief “the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions”.

One soldier is quoted saying: “The soldiers were made to understand that their lives were the most important, and that there was no way our soldiers would get killed for the sake of leaving civilians the benefit of the doubt.”

Paul Wood
From Paul Wood,Courtesy
BBC Middle East correspondent:

Until now, Israel always had a ready answer to allegations of war crimes in Gaza. Claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda. Now the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

The common thread in the testimonies is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

The Israeli military says past allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza were the result of soldiers recycling rumours.

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record in getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the army.

Another says: “People were not instructed to shoot at everyone they see, but they were told that from a certain distance when they approach a house, no matter who it is – even an old woman – take them down.”

Many of the testimonies are in line with claims made by human rights organisations that Israeli military action in Gaza was indiscriminate and disproportionate.

Amnesty International has accused both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in charge in Gaza, of committing war crimes during the 22-day conflict which ended on 18 January.

Israeli officials insist troops went to great lengths to protect civilians, that Hamas endangered non-combatants by firing from civilian areas and that homes and buildings were destroyed only when there was a specific military need to do so.

‘Ill discipline’

Other allegations in the testimonies of the 14 conscripts and 12 reserve soldiers include:

• Civilians were used as human shields, entering buildings ahead of soldiers

You can’t identify too much at night and anything that moves you engage in order not to take risks. It was not defined this way officially, but it was obvious
Anonymous Israeli soldier

• Large swathes of homes and buildings were demolished as a precaution or to secure clear lines of fire for the future.

• Some of the troops had a generally aggressive, ill-disciplined attitude

• There was incidents of vandalism of property of Palestinians

• Soldiers fired at water tanks because they were bored, at a time of severe water shortages for Gazans

• White phosphorus was used in civilian areas in a way some soldiers saw as gratuitous and reckless

• Many of the soldiers said there had been very little direct engagement with Palestinian militants.

The report says Israeli troops and the people who justify their actions are “slid[ing] together down the moral slippery slope”.

“This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions,” Breaking the Silence says.

Israel said the purpose of Operation Cast Lead had been to end rocket fire from Gaza aimed at its southern towns.

Palestinian rights groups say about 1,400 Palestinians died during the operation. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict, including 10 soldiers serving in Gaza.

According to the UN, the campaign damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, 39 mosques and two churches.

Investigations

Reacting to the report, Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich said:

“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] regrets the fact that another human rights organisation has come out with a report based on anonymous and general testimony – without investigating their credibility.”

She dismissed the document as “hearsay and word of mouth”.

“The IDF expects every soldier to turn to the appropriate authorities with any allegation,” Lt Col Leibovich added. “This is even more important where the harm is to non-combatants. The IDF has uncompromising ethical values which continue to guide us in every mission.”

There have been several investigations into the conduct of Israel’s operation in Gaza, and both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the territory, have faced accusations of war crimes.

An internal investigations by the Israeli military said troops fought lawfully, although errors did take place, such as the deaths of 21 people in a house that had been wrongly targeted.

A fact-finding team commissioned by the Arab League concluded there was enough evidence to prosecute the Israeli military for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that “the Israeli political leadership was also responsible for such crimes”.

It also said Palestinian militants were guilty of war crimes in their use of indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians.

August 8, 2008

Georgia surrounds rebel capital

Georgia surrounds rebel capital

Georgia says its troops have surrounded the capital of separatist South Ossetia as Russia warns further aggression would lead to retaliation from Moscow.

Fighting around Tskhinvali resumed overnight, breaking a ceasefire deal, and bombardments are continuing.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakasvili has called on reservists to sign up for duty and accused Russia of sending fighter jets to bomb Georgian towns.

At least 15 civilians are said to have died as well as several Russian troops.

Residents of Tskhinvali are reported to be sheltering in basements as massive explosions rock the city. Both sides blame each other for breaking the ceasefire.

This is very sad and very disturbing and, of course, this will provoke actions in response
Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister

A spokesman for the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia told Interfax news agency that Georgian shells directly hit barracks in Tskhinvali, killing several peacekeepers.

Irina Gagloyeva, a South Ossetian official in Tskhinvali, described the scene in the beseiged city overnight after the Georgian military action started.

“Virtually all the people of the city are in shelters, myself included. It started at midnight, and has barely stopped for a minute,” she told the BBC. “Can you hear? That’s rockets. All my windows have blown out. Thirty-five thousand residents of our capital have become the hostages of Georgian fascism.”

Russian fighters

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said Georgia had simply run out of patience with attacks by separatist militias in recent days and had had to move in to restore peace in South Ossetia.

SOUTH OSSETIA
Map of South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000
Capital: Tskhinvali
Major languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian
Major religion: Orthodox Christianity
Currency: Russian rouble, Georgian lari

Georgia accuses Russia of arming the separatists who have been trying to break away since the civil war in the 1990s. Moscow denies the claim.

Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to respond to the crisis, but members failed to agree on a Russian statement calling on both sides to renounce the use of force.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has convened his national security council and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised a response to what he called Georgian aggression.

The BBC’s James Rodgers in Moscow says Russia has always said it supports the territorial integrity of Georgia but has also said it would defend its citizens. Many South Ossetians hold Russian passports.

Hundreds of fighters from Russia and Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia are reportedly heading to aid the separatist troops.

Mr Saakashvili’s claims of Russian jets bombarding Georgian targets have not been independently confirmed.

Georgia says its aim is to finish “a criminal regime” and restore order.

Georgia’s Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told reporters on Friday the military operations would continue until there was “a durable peace”.

“As soon as a durable peace takes hold we need to move forward with dialogue and peaceful negotiations,” he told reporters.

Appeal for talks

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity told Interfax news agency his forces were still in control of the city, but Georgia claims to have Tskhinvali surrounded.

The Russian envoy to the UN, Vitaliy Churkin, described Georgia’s actions as “treacherous”.

“The situation in the conflict zone has reached a dramatic line,” he told the emergency session, according to Russian Vesti TV news.

“Civilians, old people and children are under massive artillery shelling from Grad rocket systems, guns and large-calibre mortars.”

Despite failing to agree a text, many council members did call on the parties to pull back.

China, where the Olympic Games opens on Friday, called for worldwide truce during the sporting event.

A White House spokesman said “all sides should bring an immediate end to the violence and engage in direct talks to resolve this matter peacefully”.


Are you in South Ossetia or elsewhere in Georgia? Have you been caught up in events? Send us your comments

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