In January 2009, Israeli forces launched ‘Operation Cast Lead’. The aerial bombardment and ground based invasion of the Gaza strip during that followed claimed over 1000 civilian casaulties. Some time later, members of IDF gave testimonies regarding what was done in Gaza. The words used in this account are taken from those testimonies. Several soldier’s recollections have been drawn together and presented as one account. The only paraphrasing or editing that occurs is for ease of reading. For more details, see: http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/testimonies/publications
One day prior to our entry into Gaza, a mobile unit arrived from the military rabbinate unit. There were a few of them, one was a major with a nice long beard and side curls. They approached me and said they belonged to “Jewish Awareness for a Winning IDF” they came to talk with the soldiers and give out material; The Book of Psalms and some brochures.
“We have four enemies”, the major with the long beard and side curls began, “Iran, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and the Arab citizens of Israel. Be courageous in battle and exercise no pity because God protects you, everything you do is sanctified; this is a holy war. This is the war of the ‘sons of the light’ against the ‘sons of darkness’”. What a load of rubbish. Some guys were buying it though. But it was making me feel sick so I walked off.
The next day the colonel gave our whole battalion a talk. He was revving us up before going into battle, installing an operational zeal amongst us. “This action will enable Israel to live in safety by stopping missile attacks; it will also topple the terrorist regime and help get things back to order. You should expect massive attacks as soon as you enter the strip so do not hesitate to shoot; this is war. This is not like the West Bank, there will be no civilians in the area, we warned them we are coming and they have left for the cities. Everyone you encounter is a terrorist”.
“We cannot surprise them with our timing; they know when we are coming. We cannot surprise them with our location; they know exactly where we’re coming in. What we do have is fire power”. We got the gist in urban warfare anyone is your enemy, no innocents. It would be simple urban warfare in everyway. Civilians become irrelevant as soon as you enter combat.
“Be confident we have already exercised insane firepower by air and sea and this will continue as and when you need it on the ground. If there is any doubt there is no doubt, we do not intend to lose a single soldier, shoot anyone you see; above all other goals this is primary. Don’t let morality become an issue. That will come up later, for now the rules of engagement are to shoot. You don’t need confirmation for anything you want, if you’re afraid, if you see something, if you like, just shoot. Unfortunately we’re a democracy, so we can’t demolish Gaza to the extent that we’d really like but remember my best Arabic translator is my grenade launcher”.
It was a bit dramatic but I liked him. Of course he didn’t leave any time for questions.
Looking for a fight
We were expecting constant and enormous threats; anti-tank fire, light arms fire, explosives, kidnappings and mortars. Any of these scenarios were definitely possible but I guess either we were being lied to or it’s a miracle that we had no significant casualties. Alerts came all the time, not just on the way in, but the whole time we were there. The sense of threat was built into us; we were frightened. Alerts like, ‘woman suicide bomber on her way to you’, ‘sniper in your area’, or ‘an anti-tank missile crew nearby’; none of them ever materialised. In actual fact there was no reason for our fear.
For the first week there were no confrontations at all and we were disappointed so let off steam by shooting at whatever. There was hardly any encounter with the civilian population; the city was a ghost town. In my own company plenty of people fired just for the hell of it, at houses and water tanks, they loved targeting water tanks. Nearly none of us ran into the enemy. I know of two direct encounters during the whole operation. The battalion commander kept encounters minimal if he thought a house looked suspect he’d give orders to blow it away.
During the second week we did see some terrorists but always far off in the distance. Well we couldn’t confirm they were armed. A mobile phone was reason enough to shoot but from our distance it could have been a gun, a camera, or a hairdryer. But in one instance we saw some Qassam rockets launched from a house so we simply razed the whole neighborhood, we did this a few times so as not to put anybody at risk. I don’t know what else could be done, it seems a bit unfair. There was so much of this going on, it got to the point where we tried to report things and we couldn’t confirm locations with intel because everything had been destroyed. I went to visit the girls at intel and they resented the fact that all their reference points had been razed, so they directed attacks in general terms; even if coordinates were exact it could easily be the wrong coordinates.
Sometime towards the end of the second week we started to get closer to people. We would occupy a certain area and cleanse it taking up positions, going into the neighborhood at night to take over houses and target sites to demolish. We were told to enter every house with live fire. In one house we found a family, after searching the whole family we told the women to walk away. We did not abuse them. But it hurts when the mothers, with old women and little children look at you and say “I have nowhere to go”; there’s nothing you can do.
We gave the men a job; got them sledgehammers and told them to take down a wall to the next house. Then they led us into the house, when they do this type of work we call them Johnnies. The commander tells us we should use Johnnies when we need to, I understand there might be booby-traps and they stayed despite the fliers telling them to leave so what do they expect? We used them to check other houses too, in one there were three armed men. We had helicopters fire anti-tank missiles at the house and sent the Johnnie in again, he said they weren’t hurt, so the helicopters went in again. Two were dead and one was alive so we sent in a D-9 bulldozer, it totally demolished the house over them. Sometimes we use the Johnnies as human shields too, placing our guns over their shoulder, the commanders said to, so we had no choice. Of course we were told not to mention it at the debriefing.
I can tell you one story about when I was on look out one night. This guy has popped up within 500 meters of us and by rights I can just shoot him. He continues walking closer and I can see he is an old man with a white shirt, long beard and a torch in his hand. We inform the commander about the detection and that he is unarmed. The company commander turns up and says, ‘all snipers to the roof’. It takes them a while and the old man is getting closer. At a distance of 100 meters we know he’s not holding anything, maybe he has a belt on or is spying for Hamas. We ask for permission to lay down deterrent fire, the commander refuses and says the snipers will be ready soon. The old man is nearing 50 meters and its getting touchy because at the kind of distance a belt could take us all out; some guys were yelling on the radio telling us to take him down. At 25 meters there’s sudden burst of fire making us all jump. The old man gives such a scream I’ll never forget. Everyone is shooting and shooting and the guy is screaming. The commander comes downstairs gleaming, ‘he’s an opener for tonight’. We asked him why we weren’t allowed to lay down deterrent fire and he says, ‘its night time and this is a terrorist’.
Things that went on ranged from simple smashing of mirrors and crockery to using food and beds in people’s homes. The deputy commander wrote, ‘death to Arabs’ on the wall of the person’s home we were using. Some of the guys were really out of order, taking a shit and throwing it around people’s homes and when some of the D-9 drivers were told to take out a house they took a route where they could take out more buildings. Sure some people should go to jail for what they did but what can I say? They’re my pals, there’s no other way; I have to be friends with them, I live with them. They enjoyed killing with such hatred and when battalion commanders tell you, ‘go on, fire’, who’s to stop them? Vulgarity and violence is a way of life for these youngsters and they were told there would be plenty of terrorists to kill but there weren’t.
About half an hour before the ceasefire we were instructed to fire at anything suspect and we used every weapon possible. I spent two years in Gaza before and this operation was on a totally different level, I’ve never known such fire power. The ground was constantly shaking from blasts. We heard explosions all day long and night was filled with flashes, it was an intensity I’ve never experienced before. There was no intention of remaining in the Gaza Strip the question was in what state we would leave it in. Everything was geared to enable us better observational conditions and control; this was the principal behind all that razing, we wanted to leave the area sterile as far as possible.
All that destruction really bothered me, and all that fire at innocents.
But listen, I do not feel some sense of heroic elation; it was sickening and unglamorous and boring and stupid. People suffered and I don’t think I did anything significant. You just can’t contain all the suffering that went on there but I’m not saying the operation was unjustified, it wasn’t. It taught me that even I can see such things and accept them and not be haunted by nightmares. I wanted to restore peace and quiet to Southern Israel but it’s impossible to conceive the extent of suffering we inflicted on Gaza…