Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images

Report: Israeli soldiers instructed to shoot civilians in Gaza

Testimony collected by Israeli NGO shows ‘ethical failure in the IDF’s rules of engagement’ during summer war

Israel inflicted “massive and unprecedented harm” to Palestinian civilians during the 2014 Gaza war with indiscriminate fire and lax rules of engagement, a report said on Monday, citing testimony given anonymously by dozens of Israeli soldiers.

The 237-page report by the Israeli advocacy group Breaking the Silence described how the Israeli military (IDF) left Gaza devastated after it invaded the Palestinian territory last July with the stated aim of halting Hamas rocket fire.

“From the testimonies given by the officers and soldiers, a troubling picture arises of a policy of indiscriminate fire that led to the deaths of innocent civilians,” said Yuli Novak, director of Breaking the Silence. “We learn from the testimonies that there is a broad ethical failure in the IDF’s rules of engagement, and that this failure comes from the top of the chain of command, and is not merely the result of ‘rotten apples.’”

Some 2,256 Palestinians — mostly civilians — were killed during the 51-day conflict, according to U.N. figures. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and five civilians died. The lopsided tolls have fueled foreign criticism of Israel and Palestinian calls for war-crimes suits.

The Israeli military said it tried to prevent non-combatant casualties, and accuses Hamas of inviting these by fighting from within residential areas. Hamas has also been criticized for firing crude rockets towards Israeli civilian areas.

The new report, however, challenges some of the claims made by the Israeli government concerning its conduct during the war.

“The instructions are to shoot right away,” said one staff sergeant about the orders his unit received if they were to encounter any Palestinians in their area of operation. “Whoever you spot — be they armed or unarmed, no matter what. The instructions are very clear. Any person you run into, that you see with your eyes — shoot to kill. It’s an explicit instruction.”

"We were firing purposelessly all day long. Hamas was nowhere to be seen," one tank sergeant was quoted as saying.

The group said its findings cast "grave doubt on the IDF's ethics” and suggested Israel looked to minimize the risk to its troops at the expense of harming civilians.

An infantry sergeant is quoted in the report as saying that once Israel deemed civilians had mostly fled an area of operations "there weren't really any rules of engagement."

“The idea was, if you spot something, shoot,” he said. “If you shoot someone in Gaza it's cool, no big deal.”

Israel questioned the methodology and motivations behind the report. "Unfortunately, as in the past, Breaking the Silence has refused to provide the IDF with any proof of their claims," a military spokeswoman said.

"This pattern ... indicates that contrary to their claims this organization does not act with the intention of correcting any wrongdoings they allegedly uncovered."

Palestinian groups, however, said they weren't at all surprised by Breaking the Silence's findings.

"This report confirms what many Palestinians experienced and believed about the Israeli military's behavior in Gaza," said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. "It was evident at the time that the use, particularly of artillery shells on civilian neighborhoods, was utilized with callous disregard for civilian life."

"The Israeli ‘operation’ in Gaza was not done with the precision of a scalpel but with the brute force of a mallet, intending maximum harm to punish the population on the ground," he added.

Breaking the Silence, which lists the Swiss foreign ministry and the Norwegian embassy among its Western donors, said it collected testimony from more than 60 war veterans and called for an external probe "that can examine conduct at the highest ranks in the security and political establishments."

The IDF has launched several internal investigations into the war and says these should suffice.

Publication of the report coincided with a conference organized by the Shurat Hadin Israel Law Center, which argues that Western democracies pitted against armed groups like Hamas require a “new law of war.”

Keynote speaker Benny Gantz, Israel's armed forces chief during the Gaza war, defended his troops' conduct as legal and predicted bloodier conflicts in the future given the difficulty in distinguishing between Palestinian fighters and civilians.

“Next time, it will be worse, because Israel has to constantly grapple with the moral dilemma, but we need to protect our country,” Gantz said.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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