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“Whoever you see there, you kill”: Israeli soldiers describe horrors of 2014 Gaza war

An Israeli soldier during the Gaza war.
An Israeli soldier during the Gaza war.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Breaking the Silence, a left-wing Israeli NGO that works with Israeli soldiers, has released a report based on interviews with more than 60 veterans of the 2014 Gaza conflict, in which Israeli forces invaded the Palestinian territory to fight militant groups such as Hamas.

The testimonies are disturbing. According to the group, it found that Israeli policy and conduct in the war "led to massive and unprecedented harm to the population and the civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip."

Soldiers told of briefings where they were instructed to fire on anyone in a combat zone. They were given unclear and expansive rules of engagement that seemed to legitimize killing anyone they wanted. A policy of "minimum risk" to Israeli soldiers meant using imprecise weapons, such as artillery and airstrikes, in populated areas.

The testimony is anonymous and thus impossible to independently verify, though the group says it conducted a "meticulous investigative process to ensure their veracity." What follows are seven passages from Israeli soldiers interviewed from the report. They portray the Gaza conflict, and the Israeli military's conduct there, in a highly disturbing light.

1) "Therefore whoever you see there, you kill"

First Sergeant, Armored Corps:

When we first entered [the Gaza Strip] there was this ethos about Hamas - we were certain that the moment we went in our tanks would all be up in lames. But after 48 hours during which no one shoots at you and they're like ghosts, unseen, their presence unfelt — except once in a while the sound of one shot fired over the course of an entire day — you come to realize the situation is under control.

And that's when my difficulty there started, because the formal rules of engagement — I don't know if for all soldiers — were, "Anything still there is as good as dead. Anything you see moving in the neighborhoods you're in is not supposed to be there. The [Palestinian] civilians know they are not supposed to be there. Therefore whoever you see there, you kill."...

The working assumption states — and I want to stress that this is a quote of sorts: that anyone located in an IDF area, in areas the IDF took over — is not [considered] a civilian. That is the working assumption.

2) "They went in just to destroy stuff. Just to purposelessly destroy stuff."

Lieutenant, Infantry:

The forces went into the *** area, (an area at the edge of Rafah where certain IDF forces were stationed) and destroyed everything still left there. Literally not a single house was left standing...

This incursion happened the night before there was a ceasefire. The entrance happened at midnight, and everyone knew that at eight the next morning it will be over, apparently. And because they knew that, there was pressure to go in and finish the job very, very quickly. And also, because of that, they went in just to destroy stuff. Just to purposelessly destroy stuff, to finish the job, until they were told to stop.

3) "Listen, we did just destroy at least a whole neighborhood in there"

First Sergeant, Nahal:

Any neighborhood you go to, when you arrive it has already been ‘sterilized,' that is to say, you have lookout posts telling you it's empty, and specific places in it have already been bombed. These tactics were effective - fact is, not once did we run into a single terrorist up close. Also, when you get close to a building you ‘soften' it up, which usually involves tank fire, and if not tanks then portable rockets - shoulder-fired rockets and grenade launchers, things that blow up inside the houses...

It's not a happy feeling [when you're done] — but it does feel good, mostly thanks to the fact that no one in my battalion was hurt in a serious way. ‘Happy' isn't the word, because listen, we did just destroy at least a whole neighborhood in there.

4) "Running over a car is sort of the wet dream of every guy in a tank crew"

First Sergeant, Armored Corps:

Running over a car is sort of the wet dream of every guy in a tank crew, of every tank driver, more or less. Me, myself, I got to do it. On some of the first nights we carried out attacks on a few houses for which we had intelligence, and really we then discovered that we had destroyed two anti-tank missile launchers.

On the way back, just a few dozen meters after we turned, we turned around and saw a car on the side of the road — already half destroyed, nothing we hadn't seen before. I asked my commander if I could run over it and he approved, and he told me, "Just remember that you're going to have to clean it off the caterpillar tracks later." And on the last day we indeed had a lot to clean up.

5) "You're talking about a situation in which all the houses are classified as some type of hostile location"

Major, Infantry:

There is one part [of the operation] that includes an ‘accompanying screen' - the firing of artillery shells before the forces arrive. You notify the [Palestinian] residents, throw leaflets - whoever fled, fled - and then you fire. I'm talking about a pretty massive use of fire. The artillery, its purpose is to allow our forces to enter without being hurt. Any place that has been identified by intelligence or is an open area, gets hit with artillery.

But if you check to see how many open areas exist in Gaza, there aren't so many. We're talking now about artillery, but the air force attacked endlessly. There's targeted fire, but what kind of collateral damage is caused by such targeted fire? The air force knows how to take down one house that's inside a neighborhood, but that doesn't mean all the houses around it don't get damaged. It's not like the houses in the [Gaza] Strip are all new and protected with bomb shelters. In the end, these houses get damaged again and again and again, until they collapse.

According to intelligence reports and military communications, you're talking about a situation in which all the houses are classified as some type of hostile location. Are all the houses really hostile locations? I don't know. Is it really possible to isolate one house inside a neighborhood that's just blocks upon blocks? I don't know. I do know that the practical result was flattened areas where houses had once stood.

6) "They were fired at — so of course, they must have been terrorists"

Rank unspecified, Infantry:

It was during daytime, around 11:00 AM, or noon. The lookouts couldn't see well so the commander sent a drone up to look from above, and the drone implicated them. It saw them with phones, talking, walking. They directed ire there, on those girls, and they were killed. After they were implicated, I had a feeling it was bullshit...

The commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies]. They check the bodies, and it was two women, over age 30. The bodies of two women, and they were unarmed. He came back and we moved on, and they were listed as terrorists. They were fired at - so of course, they must have been terrorists.

7) "I saw a cyclist, just happily pedaling along. I said OK, that guy I'm taking down."

First Sergeant, Armored Corps:

After three weeks in the tank, we went up to the post and saw this route and a sort of competition got going. "You're a gunner, let's see if you're a real man, let's see if you manage to hit a moving car." So I picked a car - a taxi - and tried to fire a shell, but didn't manage to hit it. Two more cars came by, and I tried with another shell or two, and didn't hit. The commander said, "OK, enough, you're using up all my shells, cut it out."

So we moved to a heavy machine gun. We didn't manage to hit cars after a few times with that, either, until suddenly I saw a cyclist, just happily pedaling along. I said OK, that guy I'm taking down. I calibrated the range, and didn't hit - it hit a bit ahead of him and then suddenly he starts pedaling like crazy, because he was being shot at, and the whole tank crew is cracking up, "Wow, look how fast he is."

After that I spoke about it with some other gunners and it turns out there was a sort of competition between all sorts of guys, "Let's see if this gunner hits a car, or if that gunner hits a car."

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