Still reeling from charges in the international community that Israel used disproportionate force in its 22-day Gaza offensive, Israelis awoke late last week to a stunning new bombshell: its soldiers had reportedly wantonly killed women and children in Gaza.
And this week, just as Israelis were trying to make sense of it all, came news of a new and disturbing phenomenon — the apparent widespread use among Israeli soldiers of T-shirts that appeared to glorify the murder of civilians.
One T-shirt that was apparently created in just the last few days shows a pregnant Arab woman in a rifle’s crosshairs. The caption in Hebrew reads, “Sniper Department.” And in English there are the words, “One shot, two kills.”
Another depicts a child carrying a gun also in the center of a target. The caption reads, “The smaller, the harder.”
Israeli media reported that an Israeli soldier involved in the Gaza offensive alleged that an Israeli sniper killed a woman and her two children when they walked within a no-go area by mistake. And another sharpshooter was reported to have killed an elderly Palestinian woman who also entered a no-go area.
A squad commander was quoted as saying, “What’s great about Gaza — you see a person on a path, he doesn’t have to be armed, you can simply shoot him. … The order was to take down the person, a woman, the minute you see her. There are always warnings, there is always the saying, ‘Maybe he’s a terrorist.’ What I felt was, there was a lot of thirst for blood.”
Israeli authorities said they were taking the allegations seriously and launched an immediate investigation, while analysts offered different explanations for the soldiers’ behavior. Some defended the soldiers, saying that aside from perhaps a few rotten apples, the response of the Israeli military on the whole was a proper answer to the incessant Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli cities. Others said that if there was any wrongdoing, soldiers were simply reacting to Palestinian violence.
Although the T-shirts are first coming to light now, Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow with the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said he believed they are “widespread and have been around a few years.”
“My sense is that this culture — the ‘Animal House’ fraternity mentality — can be excused in a college fraternity but can’t be indulged among young people with weapons,” he said.
Asked about the T-shirts and reports that Israeli soldiers scrawled ugly graffiti on the walls of Palestinian homes in Gaza, Halevi said that these actions are “not because of the corrupting influence of the occupation but the rage that young people feel who grew up in the age of the suicide bombings. These things are a response to terrorism,” he continued. “Many of their friends were killed in suicide bombings and they spent their formative years living in terror.”
As a result, Halevi said, there is a “rage and in some cases a hatred that is emerging” among Israeli soldiers that the military is going to have to deal with.
“A worrying symptom is the phenomenon of the ugly T-shirts,” he added. “In some ways, they worry me more than the isolated and not representative instances of IDF abuse. And I’m worried about the ugly graffiti. Unlike war crimes, these things have become systemic in the army and point to an attitude that the IDF has to deal with much more seriously than in the past.”
A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces was quoted as saying that soldiers privately printed the T-shirts and that their designs “are not in accordance with IDF values and are simply tasteless.”
On Tuesday, in his first comments on the Gaza offensive, Southern Command chief, Gen. Yoav Galant, had nothing but praise for his men.
“A feeling of pride washes over me because we have a moral army that adheres to international law,” he was quoted as saying.
Galant added that 800 terrorists and 300 civilians were killed in the conflict [the IDF later put the figure at 600 terrorists and 309 civilians], a ratio that he said is an “achievement unmatched in the history of this kind of combat. … Commanders had to find a moral balance at a time when every mistake could have brought about the failure of the mission or the death of civilians.”
Nevertheless, Stuart Cohen, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said he believes that the “Israeli army has become more violent over the last 20 years.”
“This can be measured in terms of the casualties it has inflicted on civilians and reductions in investigations by the military,” he said. “In the first intifada, every time a civilian was killed, the judge advocate [of the army] had an investigation.”
But just because the number of civilian Palestinian casualties has increased, Cohen said, “does not mean to say they [Israeli soldiers] are absolutely trigger happy and go in with guns firing.”
Asked about the number of civilian deaths, Cohen said it could be because “the other side has become more violent.”
“In the first intifada, the Palestinians burned tires and threw stones,” he said. “Now, they have become suicide bombers and they fire rockets into Sderot. So soldiers are responding in kind. Also, technology has improved and firepower has improved and Israelis are more capable of killing the other side … without endangering themselves.”
But Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the soldiers’ testimony, which was leaked to Israeli newspapers late last week, and his own conversations with students who fought in Gaza led him to believe that some Orthodox Israeli soldiers believed they were fighting a “holy war” in which they had to reclaim Jewish land from Palestinians.
He cited the statement of one soldier who claimed Israeli military rabbis in Gaza handed out material that “specifically condemns shooting civilians” but also bears the following slogan: “Those who are merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful [the innocent].”
“The army leadership is scared stiff by this leadership, and two or three years ago it considered disbanding the religious elements of the army,” Ezrahi said.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, pointed out that the Israeli military went to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties. He noted that the IDF called 800,000 civilians in Gaza with warnings to leave their homes and that they also dropped leaflets warning of an impending attack.
“They could just carpet bomb if they were indifferent to civilian casualties,” he said.
Ezrahi said that although the military said it is investigating the allegations, he is “skeptical that the Israeli army will officially say there is a problem. But unofficially, I think there will be movement within the leadership of the army to pay more attention to this phenomenon and maybe to apply some restraints.”
But Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University who helped rewrite the military ethics code eight years ago, said although the soldiers’ statements may be true, they would be an aberration.
“We put more restrictions on our soldiers than international law demands and if things happened, it is a clear breaking of military law, not only the ethics code,” he said. “If that happened, it is a crime and you try them and punish them. But I don’t think someone actually targeted two children. Targeting is murder and you don’t do such things.
“The real issue for us is not targeting of the civilian population but to what degree we have to care for civilians even if we don’t target them. If there is a legitimate target and a danger of huge civilian casualties, you have to ask yourself if you should avoid hitting the target. This is one of the issues we face. We are not talking of war crimes.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak also defended his soldiers in response to the allegations, saying, “The IDF is the most moral army in the world.”
But Halevi said such talk makes him “uncomfortable and it is unnecessary.”
“We don’t have to be the best and the most,” he insisted. “We are a people in an impossible situation who are trying to do our best.”