Editor's Note: Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers that publicly discusses their experiences serving in the Occupied Territories, recently released a new report about last summer's Gaza campaign.
Last summer, I watched the confrontation between Israel and Hamas on TV, like someone seeing the same movie twice. The last time, it was 2009 and the operation’s name was "Cast Lead." Then, too, pillars of smoke rose from Gaza as IDF ground forces entered. When that operation ended, testimonies of soldiers who served there were published. They described a new reality within the IDF regarding its operation of weaponry.
The rules of engagement were so flexible that they no longer required identification of means, intentions, and capabilities. There was no distinction between armed and civilian entities. Although "Protective Edge" began five and a half years later, it was a direct continuation of this policy as indicated in the following testimony from a soldier who served in the operation: “The briefing on rules of engagement was [to open fire at], ‘Anything you think you should [open fire at]…Anyone you spot that you can be positive is not the IDF.’ The only emphasis regarding rules of engagement was to make sure you weren’t firing at IDF forces, but other than that, ‘Any person you see.’ From the very start they told us, ‘Shoot to kill.’ As far as the IDF was concerned, there wasn’t supposed to be any civilian population there.”
During my military service, I was taught by the IDF’s education corps to uphold the ethical code in the units to which I was assigned. Before I knew anything about the rules of engagement, I had already learned the IDF’s 10 humanistic values by heart.
Purity of Arms, which obligates a soldier to maintain humanism during combat, was the value that especially impressed me. The IDF Code of Ethics reads: “IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.”
At 18, I had never been to Hebron, which is where I was posted at the end of my basic training. I didn’t know any Palestinians personally or the reality of military control in the territories. From the courses at the base where I was trained, I believed, innocently, that the values enshrined in the IDF Code of Ethics were what determined the soldiers’ operations in the field. My process of disillusionment began when I was stationed in Hebron and concluded after I was exposed to soldier testimonies from "Cast Lead."
I never had illusions regarding “sterile combat.” Military operations inside areas populated by innocent people cannot end without some harm to civilians. But if for the IDF, doing “all in one’s power to avoid causing harm to people who are not combatants,” means throwing leaflets from the air (as was the sweeping trend based on the testimonies), the Purity of Arms article can be erased from the Code of Ethics. The assumption that whoever remains in the area is necessarily implicated undoubtedly minimizes the soldier’s dilemma when he confronts the population on the other side. But what are the consequences? And what does this say about us?
As opposed to other places in the world where you can live an entire lifetime without meeting soldiers, the Israeli army is a microcosm of our society. Soldiers are our brothers, sisters and children. The IDF is the face of the Israeli people, and its values are our values. For years we have been hearing from commanders and politicians that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. But its policy of massive fire killed hundreds of innocent Palestinians last summer and destroyed entire neighborhoods. Humanistic words, public declarations and official documents like the Code of Ethics are meaningless when you hear the soldiers’ testimonies and see the results in the field. If the IDF has changed its policy on rules of engagement, we citizens have the right and the obligation to know.
The truth must be said even if it hurts. An army that used statistical weapons like mortars and artillery cannons inside Gaza cannot say it did everything in its power to avoid harming civilians. An army that ordered soldiers to, “shoot everyone there,” since leaflets were thrown from the air, cannot say that it did everything in its power to avoid the killing of innocents.
Some are satisfied with declaring their intentions and can sleep at night even as our moral compass shows that we have lost our way. Everyone who cares about our path and who refuses to accept tired declarations like, “We had no choice,” as an excuse for the loss of values, must rise up and protest. It is our moral duty to redraw the red lines of the army that operates in our name, and in doing so, uphold the character and values of Israeli society.
Dana Golan, now a lieutenant in the reserves, served as an Education Officer in the Border Police in Hebron, and is the former Executive Director of Breaking the Silence.