Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler, was posted to antiwar.com August 01, 2009
JERUSALEM — Six months after Israel’s devastating assault on Hamas, its south-western border with Gaza has not been as quiet in a decade — only two rockets in the past six weeks on Israeli towns. Yet, the plight of Palestinian civilians in Gaza continues to haunt Israel.
The World Health Organization is charging that Gazans have limited access to proper medical supplies because of the continuing Israeli blockade. In a detailed report Thursday on the dire medical situation in the Hamas controlled area, the WHO report notes that equipment now in use is often broken or outdated.
While some medicines are allowed in for humanitarian reasons, import of spare parts or new medical devices into Gaza is limited, WHO says. The UN agency also said well-meant donations are not helping. Equipment like X-ray machines and batteries are particularly difficult to get through the Israeli blockade which was imposed two years ago when Hamas took control of Gaza.
Israeli officials brushed off the criticism. A Foreign Ministry spokesman called the WHO contentions "dubious," and denied there are restrictions on medical equipment reaching Gaza.
In broader terms, Israel argues that it is because of Hamas’s obstinate refusal to agree to a long-term cease-fire and to an exchange of prisoners that Israel feels compelled to keep its siege of Gaza intact: How can you expect us to deal with Hamas as if this was a normal border when they don’t even accept our right to exist, is the standard official Israeli argument.
Until recently, Israeli officials have also blithely dismissed concerns voiced by both Arab and international human rights groups that Israel may have perpetrated war crimes during the 22-day January campaign.
Suddenly, this Israeli aloofness is beginning to change.
Speaking at the induction of a new group of army draftees this week, Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, refrained from attacking the authors of a recent report compiled by the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence, in which soldiers reported numerous abuses carried out by troops during the Gaza campaign.
Ashkenazi said that wherever complaints were not anonymous, they were investigated thoroughly: "We have appointed special commissions to review complaints. It is important to us that our military ethics remain pure," he said.
Alongside this declared new position of the top military command, and in advance of two UN reports on the conduct of Israeli troops during the Gaza offensive, a top-level team of legal experts from the Israeli foreign and justice ministries has compiled an exhaustive defense brief. Israel anticipates that the UN reports will be highly critical, especially in terms of the extent of civilian suffering during the campaign, code-named Operation Cast Lead.
Israel expects to receive drafts of the reports for its review before the end of August, prior to their public release in the middle of September. The fact that the UN General Assembly convenes later in the month augments the Israeli concerns.
One report — expected to be the more critical — is being compiled by an investigative committee chaired by Justice Richard Goldstone who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The second report, based on a UN investigation into Israeli responsibility for the destruction of UN property in Gaza and handed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in May, is now set to be made public.
Israel did cooperate with the team compiling that report. In contrast, it resolutely boycotted the Goldstone Commission, arguing that its mandate was "one-sided," that the results would inevitably be "biased," and that therefore, "any cooperation by Israel would simply legitimize the conclusions and recommendations of the report."
Foreign Ministry officials note specifically that the Goldstone Commission hearings in both Gaza and Geneva were reduced to a platform for accusations against Israel of "war crimes". Most of the witnesses were Palestinians; Noam Shalit, the father of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, was among the few Israelis who testified. They were treated "with contempt," Israeli officials said. "We were shocked at that," one official told IPS.
In respect of the other report, even though a senior Israeli foreign ministry official met last week in Geneva with UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay, he is said to have asserted that the report "had no basis in reality" since it was being "written by Arab UN personnel who were basing themselves on Palestinian newspaper accounts." A similar Israeli reaction was published following the preliminary release of the internal report to Ban Ki- moon when it was found that Israel was culpable for damaging UN property and asked for over 11 million dollars in damages.
In a pre-emptive attempt to counter the UN reports, Israel issued a defense brief on Thursday, saying that the offensive against Hamas was a "proportionate response" to attacks by the Islamist group. "Israel’s resort to force in the Gaza operation was both a necessary and a proportionate response" to more than 12,000 rockets and mortars fired from Gaza between 2000 and 2008, said the ministry’s 160-page document. The document contends that "Israeli commanders and soldiers were guided by International Humanitarian Law."
The document entitled, ‘The Operation in Gaza — Legal and Factual Aspects’, details what is called "Israel’s humanitarian efforts" during the operation despite "Hamas attempts to launch attacks during truces…hijack aid and assistance and hide within and behind medical and international facilities."
The Israeli report says Hamas is to blame for Palestinian civilian casualties by deploying its fighters in residential neighborhoods, and that Israeli forces destroyed buildings only to protect themselves.
The document also gives previously unpublished details of Israeli army investigations into alleged violations of the law during the operation. The brief says that investigators are examining some 100 complaints, and 13 criminal probes have been opened.
A Hamas spokesman described the Israeli report as "ridiculous," and said it did not "merit" a full response. He repeated the Hamas position that Israel has committed war crimes.
Despite their forceful arguments, Israeli legal experts have bluntly told a special government ministerial committee they fear the two UN reports could lead to legal proceedings being initiated against Israel, or to war crimes charges being leveled against individual Israeli public figures in the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, both based in The Hague.
"From the point we’re at now, the road to international courts could be only a short one," said one foreign ministry legal expert.
In recent years, criticism of harsh military actions by Israel in combating the Palestinian Intifadah uprising had made several top Israeli military and security officials refrain from visiting Britain or Spain for fear they would face prosecution there on the basis of complaints launched by Palestinian and human rights activists.
The threat from Britain was quietly dispelled. Recently, the Spanish parliament passed new legislation which, in effect, makes it impossible for a judge to entertain a prosecution charge leveled against Israeli officials.
This article, by Tal Rabinovsky, was posted to ynetnews.com, July 21, 2009.
A week after activist group "Breaking the Silence" published testimonies of IDF soldiers who said they were urged by commanders to shoot first and worry later about sorting out civilians from combatants, the Rabbis for Human Rights organization called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to launch an external investigation into the army's conduct during the recent offensive in Gaza.
"Since February our organization, along with a number of other human rights groups, turned to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz a number of times and asked that he order an investigation (into the Gaza op)," said Rabbis for Human Rights Director Rabbi Arik Asherman on Tuesday.
"We regret that he chose not to do so while claiming that the military probes were sufficient."
The petition was also signed by authors Amos Oz and David Grossman, as well as by former leftist Knesset members Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid and Naomi Chazan.
"There is no doubt that we have a right to defend ourselves, and there is no country in the world that would allow rocket attacks on its civilian population if it had the power to prevent them. We hoped the soldiers' testimonies would stir existential feelings (among Israelis) in the face of the military's denial," Rabbi Asherman said.
According to him, "there is no doubt that some of the soldiers who had testified were afraid to reveal their identity to the army, but 'Breaking the Silence' has already announced that it would ask the witnesses to reveal their identity in case an independent investigation is launched.
"They have all of the names and details; there's no censorship or anything of that nature; it's just a matter of preventing acts of revenge by certain elements," he said.
The following testimony, about the use of white phosphorous by the Israeli army in Gaza, was originally published in the booklet Cast Lead, July 2009. (Click here to download Cast Lead).
Then we went back north, about 500 meters from the fence, and stayed there all night as look-outs. We saw nothing special. The next day we got back to base to get new mission orders and were once again assigned to a force from Battalion *** with whom we went in. We walked with them on the beach and saw all the white phosphorus bombs I've told you about, we saw glazing on the sand. Can you describe it? What did you see?
You're walking along the sand and hear this crunch of something being crushed. We looked down and saw what looked like the shards of thousands of broken glass bottles. What color did it have?
A dirty brown. Did you see remains of this elsewhere nearby?
There was an area of about 200-300 square meters of glazed sand like that. We understood this resulted from white phosphorus, and it was upsetting. Why?
Because in training you learn that white phosphorus is not used, and you're taught that it's not humane. You watch films and see what it does to people who are hit, and you say, "There, we're doing it too." That's not what I expected to see. Until that moment I had thought I belonged to the most humane army in the world, I knew that even in the West Bank, when we go into a neighborhood, we do it quietly so that people won't see us, but also in order not to disturb them, no less. We're not… Even when Molotov cocktails were thrown at us in the West Bank, we wouldn't shoot, the rules are very explicit. If your own life is at risk, you shoot. But under no other circumstances. Practically speaking, how often are you really in a life-threatening situation in the West Bank? Until that moment I had never fired a shot except at cardboard targets, just at the shooting range and maneuvers, and I also understood why. An IDF soldier does not shoot for the sake of shooting nor does he apply excessive force beyond the call of the mission he is to perform. We saw the planes flying out and you see from which building the rocket is launched against Israel and you see the four houses surrounding that building collapsing as soon as the airforce bombs. I don't know if it was white phosphorus or not, and I don't really care that much, but whole neighborhoods were simply razed because four houses in the area served to launch Qassam rockets. I don't know what else can be done, but it does seem somewhat unfair. What, the proportions?
Yes. It's disproportionate. When you went in, the airforce was still in action and the heavy equipment – not rifles, but artillery, armor and auxiliary fire. You were watching what was being fired there, and how the tanks and mortars were used?
From what I saw in our missions, tanks were often sent in, platoons from Battalion ***, to secure close cover, stand together with several tanks on a range, the tanks waited for something to move in order to return fire effectively. I didn't go in with the heavy equipment, we were attached to special units who did not work with the heavy equipment. What do you mean by "waiting for something to move"? What were your rules of engagement? What were you told at the briefings?
"Anything looks suspicious to you, open fire." What is suspicious? Arms and intent are both valid there, too?
Yes. You have to detect weapons, verify that person is not one of ours. If he has something on him, that is grounds enough to… No intent, even without intent.
They were assuming that anyone present in a bombed-zone, carrying a Kalashnikov, is no weapons collector. You go into Al Atatra, and you see buildings, houses?
Ruins. I entered Al Atatra after seeing aerial photos and didn't identify anything, and my photographic memory is not that bad. I remembered that 200 meters further on down the track there should be a junction, with two large houses at the corners, and there wasn't. I remembered there was supposed to be a square with a Hamas memorial monument, and there wasn't. There was rubble, broken blocks. How did destruction affect your ability to communicate, to navigate?
It got to the point where we would try to report to field intelligence about a figure sticking out its head or a rocket being launched, and the girl (at field intelligence) would ask, "Is it near this or that house"? We'd look at the aerial photo and say, "Yes, but the house is no longer there." "Wait, is it facing a square?" "No more square." She would ask us if this was the third or fourth junction, and we'd tell her the houses are all crushed over the junction and you don't see a single junction. It got to the point where we could hardly see our way. Later I went in to the lookout war-room and asked how things worked, and the girl-soldiers there, the lookouts, resented the fact that they had no way to direct the planes, because all of their reference points were razed. So they would direct them in general terms or rely solely on coordinates. They found their reference points on aerial photos shared by the pilots and the war-room, and very approximated, which also annoys me. What is this, approximation? It's highly possible that now the pilot will bomb the wrong house. Were you told of this approximation, or is this your own take on things?
It was my own take on things. She tells him, "Take some 800 meters east of the sea and so and so meters at such and such an azimuth from this or that line," and you say, "Wait, if he does not use the compass and other instruments in his cockpit for these measurements, then possibly he'll miss targets, it's not so far-fetched. This is not the 'smart bomb' we had been working on so hard. Could be he's using such a bomb, but aiming at the wrong target."
Several months have passed since the end of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and many israelis are still not aware of what really happened there. For lack of basic facts, we are forced to accept unconditionally the positions of the official bodies, which assure us that in spite of any doubts, the idF’s conduct was faultless and public accountability is uncalled for. this publication includes the testimonies of around thirty combatants who took part in the operation in early 2009. the testimonies that appear here were gathered over the past few months from soldiers who served in all sectors of the operation. the majority of the soldiers who spoke with us are still serving in their regular military units and turned to us in deep distress at the moral deterioration of the idF. although this publication does not claim to provide a broad, comprehensive review of all the soldiers and the units who carried out the operation, these narratives are enough to bring into question the credibility of the official IDF versions.
There are many significant gaps between the testimonies we gathered. These testimonies describe use of the ‘neighbor procedure’ and of white phosphorus ammunition in densely inhabited neighborhoods, massive destruction of buildings unrelated to any direct threat to israeli forces, and permissive rules of engagement that led to the killing of innocents. We also hear from the soldiers about the general atmosphere that accompanied the fighting, and of harsh statements made by junior and senior officers that attest to the ongoing moral deterioration of the society and the army. during the operation, the military rabbinate made its own contribution to these expressions when it introduced controversial religious and political interpretation under the auspices of the idF and with its blessing. Although certain features characteriz introducyed this operation as a whole, significant differences can be found among the various geographic areas and units. such variation is also addressed in this publication.
In the past few months, the idF spokesperson has gone to great lengths to prove that if there were any moral problems with the war at all, they were merely on the level of the ‘delinquent soldier,’ rather than a widespread, systemic issue. the stories of this publication prove that we are not dealing with the failures of individual soldiers, and attest instead to failures in the application of values primarily on a systemic level. the idF’s depiction of such phenomena as ‘rotten apple’ soldiers is a tactic used to place the responsibility solely on individual soldiers on the ground and to evade taking responsibility for the system’s serious value and command failures. the testimonies of the soldiers in this collection expose that the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians of the Gaza strip were a direct result of idF policy, and especially of the rules of engagement, and a cultivation of the notion among soldiers that the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions.
This collection of testimonies offers a brief glance at Operation Cast Lead, and what occurred during the operation at the hands of the idF on behalf of israeli society. We believe that the existence of a moral society clearly requires a profound, honest discussion, of which the voice of soldiers on the ground is aninseparable part.
That this voice was missing from public discourse around the fighting in Gaza obliged us to hasten publication of these testimonies them. Because of time pressure and the complex process of verifying the testimonies, we are not able to publish here all the materials in our possession. the testimonies in this book are categorized by subject and appear in the exact language of the soldier speaking. Military terminology is explained in parentheses.
Those who break their silence in this publication describe in their testimonies how actions defined as anomalous yesterday become the norms of tomorrow, and how the emissaries of israeli society continue, along with entire the military system, to slide together down the moral slippery slope. this is an urgent call to israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank our many volunteers and supporters who enabled the publication of this booklet on such short notice. Without their extensive assistance and support, this publication would not have reached your hands.