The Israeli army has dismissed as “hearsay” the testimonies of soldiers who served in Gaza during the recent 22-day military offensive and who gave chilling accounts of the conduct of some of the troops.
The soldiers – speaking at a conference for graduates of a pre-army service training college on 13 February – have described lax rules of engagement, which seemingly allowed troops to open fire at unarmed civilians posing no threat to their lives, and an atmosphere of impunity where disregard for fundamental principles of international law was too often tolerated and even encouraged.
“That’s what is supposedly cool in Gaza… You see some guy on a road, walking along a path. They don’t have to be carrying weapons, you don’t have to identify that they have anything, you can just shoot them,” said one soldier.
The army’s so-called “investigation” was unusually speedy – in stark contrast to the foot-dragging on so many other cases which have been pending for years – and its conclusions predictably dismissive of even the most remote possibility of abuse of power and international law breaches by some of the troops.
However, what they have described sounds familiar to Amnesty International’s researchers who arrived in Gaza towards the end of the conflict and spent three weeks investigating case after case of unwarranted attacks on defenceless civilians, many of them children.
The information raises the question of why soldiers fired two tank shells into the bedroom of Dr Abu al-‘Eish’s daughters in the afternoon of 16 January, killing three of his daughers and one of his nieces, as well as seriously injuring a fourth daughter and another niece. There were no militants in the house, only civilians, most of them children.
Israeli TV reported a commander briefing ground troops before entering Gaza on the new rules of engagement: “I want aggressiveness – if there’s someone suspicious on the upper floor of a house, we’ll shell it… let the mistakes be over their lives, not ours.”
In one of the Palestinian houses which had been used and trashed by Israeli troops, a note left behind by an Israeli platoon commander contained various operational instructions. One said: “Rules of Engagement: Fire also upon rescue”. Could this explain why so many ambulances came under fire and why so many wounded bled to death because ambulances were prevented from reaching them?
In their testimonies the soldiers also tell of wanton destruction of Palestinian property One soldier recalls taking over a Palestinian home for use as a military post.
“There was an order one day that we had to clean out the whole house, all the equipment and furniture. So we just threw it all out of the window to make room and tidy up. The whole house came flying through the window – fridge, plates…”
Amnesty International’s researchers inspected tens of houses which had been taken over and used as military positions by Israeli soldiers. On the walls soldiers had scribbled military instructions as well as racist and threatening graffiti, such as “Death to the Arabs”, “We came to annihilate you” or “Next time it will hurt more”. Even though the houses had functioning toilets, soldiers had defecated in cardboard boxes and plastic bags and left them lying in rooms. Wardrobes and cupboards had been emptied on the floor and contents stepped on and otherwise soiled.
“The utter devastation we came upon in house after house was not the result of legitimate searches – it was pure and unwarranted vandalism,” said Donatella Rovera, who headed Amnesty International’s research mission in Gaza and southern Israel..
The process which led the Israeli army to dismiss the soldiers’ testimonies – a process in which the army investigates itself – does not fulfil the requirements of independence and impartiality.
Amnesty International has been calling on the UN Security Council to set up an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes and other violations of international law by all parties to the conflict in Gaza and southern Israel. A group of 16 of the world’s leading war crimes investigators and judges recently joined AI in urging the UN to launch a full investigation into alleged gross violations of the laws of war committed by both sides.
So far the UN Security Council’s most influential members – notably the US and EU countries – have displayed a remarkable lack of political will to hold the perpetrators accountable.
“Long-term peace and security cannot be found in the Middle East unless accountability is established for crimes under international law and the cycle of impunity for serious violations perpetrated by all parties has come to an end,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan.