Conal Urquhart in Tel Aviv
Tuesday September 6, 2005
The Guardian
Whistleblowers’ testimony shows desire for revenge on Palestinians
>>From a distance of 70 metres and through the sight of his machine
gun, Assaf could tell that the Palestinian man was aged between 20
and 30, unarmed and trying to get away from an Israeli tank. But
the details didn’t matter much, because Assaf’s orders were to
“fire at anything that moved”. Assaf, a soldier in the Israeli army,
pressed the trigger, firing scores of bullets as the body fell to the
ground. “He ran and I started shooting for a few seconds. He fell. I
was a machine. I fire. I leave and that’s that. We never spoke about
it afterwards.”
It was the summer of 2002, and Assaf and his armoured unit had been
ordered to enter the Gaza town of Dir al Balah following the firing
of mortars into nearby Jewish settlements. His orders were, he told
the Guardian, “‘Every person you see on the street, kill him’. And we
would just do it.” It was not the first time that Assaf had killed
an innocent person in Gaza while following orders, but after his
discharge he began to think about the things he did.
“The reason why I am telling you this is that I want the army to think
about what they are asking us to do, shooting unarmed people. I don’t
think it’s legal.”
Assaf is not alone. In recent months dozens of soldiers, including
the son of an an Israeli general, all recently discharged, have come
forward to share their stories of how they were ordered in briefings
to shoot to kill unarmed people without fear of reprimand.
The soldiers were brought into contact with the Guardian with the
assistance of Breaking the Silence, a pressure group of former
soldiers who want the Israeli public to confront the reality of
army activities. The group insisted on anonymity of its witnesses to
protect the soldiers from persecution and prosecution.
Although those speaking out are a tiny proportion, their testimonies
reflect a widespread culture of impunity, according to Sarit Michaeli
of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
“During the first intifada, there were printed rules of engagement. In
the second there are none and what rules exist are kept secret. This
leaves a wide scope for interpretation for officers and soldiers,”
she said.
According to B’Tselem, 3,269 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli
security forces in almost five years. About 1,700 are believed to
have been civilians and 654 minors.
According to the army, over the same period it has investigated 131
cases of soldiers misusing firearms, resulting in 18 indictments and
seven convictions. As a result of the testimonies received by the
Guardian and Breaking the Silence, army prosecutors are looking at
a further 17 cases of alleged criminal activity.
The death toll, the testimony of the soldiers and the small number
of convictions appear to contradict the Israeli army’s stated
aims. “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,” the Israeli Defence Forces website says.
The doctrine of the IDF clearly places the rule of law above military
expediency. “IDF soldiers will be meticulous in giving only lawful
orders and shall refrain from obeying blatantly illegal orders.”
Despite his qualms about legality, Assaf says he would carry out the
same orders again when he returns to reserve duty.
Another soldier, Moshe, told the Guardian he and his colleagues came
under pressure to obey illegal shoot-to-kill orders. As part of his
sergeant’s training course, he and his fellow trainees were ordered
to set up ambushes in Jenin in May 2003. He said there was “pressure
to get kills”.
Before the operation, the soldiers were briefed that they were on
the lookout for armed men. But their targets also included children
and teenagers who habitually climbed on armoured personnel carriers
as they lumbered through the narrow streets. On a few occasions,
machine guns had been stolen from APCs.
“We were expressly told that we were just waiting for someone to climb
on an APC, and ordered to shoot to kill,” said Moshe. “After a day
or two, a 12-year-old climbed on one of the APCs. There were a lot of
guesses about his age. First they said he was eight, later that he was
12. In any case, he climbed on an APC, and one of our sharpshooters
killed him. The neighbouring company also had an incident with a kid
or teenager who was killed.”
The statistics collected by the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring
Group show that on May 14, Diya Gawadreh, 13, was killed by a live
bullet. Kamal Amjad Nawahda, 13, was shot by Israeli soldiers on May
22. He died on May 27.
After Moshe returned to his paratroop unit, he said there were several
incidents when children and teenagers were killed after bullets
aimed at their legs hit their chests. The attitude was, he said,
“so kids got killed. For a soldier it means nothing. An officer can
get a 100 or 200 shekel [£12.50-£25] fine for such a thing.”
A common theme in the soldiers’ testimony was the desire to avenge
Israeli casualties and inflict collective punishment on Palestinians.
May 2004 was a bad month for the Israeli army in Gaza. Four soldiers
were blown to pieces when their explosive-laden APC hit a roadside
bomb in Gaza City. As the army took over, another seven soldiers were
killed in a similar incident in Rafah, at the other end of Gaza. In
response the army launched an operation “to secure the neighbourhood
along the Philadelphi Road [the border between Gaza and Egypt] and
to make sure they are clean from terrorists,” said Major General Dan
Harel, the local commander.
Thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes, and around 50
died, of whom between a quarter and a half were civilians. According
to Rafi, an officer in the Shaldag, an elite unit connected to the
air force, the whole mission was about revenge. “The commanders said
kill as many people as possible,” he said.
He and his men were ordered to shoot anyone who appeared to be touching
the ground, as if they might be placing a roadside bomb, or anyone
seen on a roof or a balcony, as if they might be observing Israeli
forces for military reasons, regardless of whether they were armed.
Asma Moghayyer, 16, and her brother Ahmed, 13, were shot as they
went to collect clothes from a rooftop washing line. The Israeli army
insisted the children had been blown up by a roadside bomb. However,
journalists visiting the morgue saw only single bullet wounds to
the head.
The truth, said Rafi, was that they were shot by an Israeli soldier
following clear orders to shoot anyone on a roof regardless of their
role in the conflict.
Rafi says that his overriding impression of the operation was
“chaos” and the “indiscriminate use of force”. “Gaza was considered
a playground for sharpshooters.”
Eli, a staff sergeant in the paratroopers, was sent on an arrest
mission to Askar refugee camp in Nablus on November 27 2002, during
Ramadan. He saw another squad of troops notice a man on the street
in the early morning. “They shouted, ‘Wakef’ [stop in Arabic]. The
man started running away; they started shooting at him, chasing him.
“They also saw this object he was carrying and feared it was a
bomb. [They] shot him and verified the kill – threw a grenade at him,
and then shot him once more in the head,” he recounted.
The man, 24-year-old Jihad Mohammed al-Natour, was carrying a drum
with which to wake the camp before dawn so that they could eat before
beginning their fast. It is a traditional role. The drummer is known
as the musaharati. “No one bothered telling us and for that the guy
died,” Eli told Breaking the Silence.
The wave of suicide bombings that began in 2001 made many soldiers
feel that their families and country were under serious attack and
helped create a culture where army crimes were not questioned.
In testimony to the group, Avi recounted how a soldier in his unit was
allowed to get away with the murder of an innocent Palestinian. A staff
sergeant in the paratroopers, Avi was serving in Hebron on October
13 2000 when he heard one of his men firing from the lookout position
above him. “We knew the man was crazy … out of his mind,” he said.
The soldier denied shooting, but was contradicted by a film made
by an intelligence unit. “You see a live video recording of someone
shooting towards the square – towards someone who was just unloading
some stuff from his vehicle. A twentysomething-year-old … The man
is being hit in the back. A day later we were told he died.”
The man was Mansur Taha Ahmed, 21, a coffee merchant, who left a
wife and three children. Avi said: “We keep our dirty laundry inside,
so the company commander decided to silence this event. He made the
cassette vanish and the soldier had to do 35 days of chores
… after which he came back to the company.”
All the soldiers, with the exception of Assaf, were shocked by
their experiences but uncertain of how to act. “The belief in the
ethics of the Israeli army is so fundamental to Israeli society,”
said Rafi. “People do not want to hear the reality.”
Colonel Liron Libman, the chief military prosecutor, said testimonies
brought to light by Breaking the Silence had resulted in 17
investigations, some of which were still going on. Investigation of
the testimonies, he said, revealed that some were exaggerated and some
relied on hearsay. However, the incidents described to the Guardian
and Breaking the Silence by the soldiers match deaths recorded by
human rights groups and in the media.
Col Libman said his department was independent of the army and
that a criminal investigation could be triggered by media reports,
non-governmental organisations, Palestinian sources and complaints from
within the army. “However, because of the nature of the situation,
which we describe as armed conflict short of war, it is not possible
to investigate the death of every Palestinian civilian.”