Nine months since the end of major fighting in Gaza, a dispute still rages over how and why so many civilians died – 1,563, according to the United Nations. Israel says it did everything possible to minimize civilian casualties and blames Hamas for deploying its fighters in populated areas. Hamas says that Israel attacked without restraint and even targeted civilians.
Recently the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence entered the debate. The group of former and current Israeli soldiers asked their comrades what they did and saw during last year’s fighting. Its report, “This is How We Fought,” presents 111 testimonies from more than 60 Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers and officers who served in ground, naval and air forces.
The soldiers and officers describe how Hamas fought from populated areas, including by launching rockets toward Israeli cities from near homes and schools. But they also highlight Israeli practices and policies that violated the laws of war and probably contributed to the high number of civilian deaths.
Two issues stand out. First, Israeli forces often assumed that once they had warned civilians to leave an area, the people who stayed behind were legitimate targets. The laws of war encourage armed forces to warn civilians of impending attacks, and the IDF frequently did so by dropping leaflets from aircraft, calling people by phone, and “roof knocking” – firing a small advance missile to warn people to leave. Such warnings can and do save civilian lives but armed forces cannot use them as an excuse to treat everyone who doesn’t flee as a combatant.
One IDF captain, for example, described how his battalion commander explained the rules of engagement. “The IDF distributed flyers informing the residents of the areas that we were to enter, that the IDF was coming in, and that anyone remaining in the area was in effect sentencing themselves to death,” he said.
The second issue is Israel’s extensive use of heavy artillery in populated areas. Israeli forces fired thousands of 155mm high explosive shells during the seven-week operation. In addition to their error radius of 25 meters, the weapon kills people within 150 meters from the point of impact and inflicts wounds up to 300 meters. Using this artillery to attack even a military target in a populated area can have devastating consequences for civilians.
Apparently recognizing the indiscriminate effects of these weapons in populated neighborhoods, the IDF imposed a ban in Gaza in 2006, but resumed such use in the 2009-10 “Cast Lead” operation, with deadly results for civilians. In 2014, the military increased this use still further, soldiers told Breaking the Silence, both to “soften the ground” before advancing ground troops and in response to Hamas rocket fire.
“With regard to artillery, the IDF let go of the restraints it once had,” a lieutenant in the infantry recalled. “Ahead of every ground incursion there was a day of scouting and artillery was fired at the houses that formed the front line.”
One case Human Rights Watch documented shows heavy artillery’s devastating effect. On July 30, four 155mm artillery shells hit a UN-run school in the town of Jabaliya that was serving as a shelter for more than 3,200 people. The attack killed at least 17 people and wounded 99. The IDF said the school was not its intended target, and the military advocate general has opened an investigation.
Israel criticized Breaking the Silence for refusing to give concrete evidence of abuses and said it is “committed to properly investigating” allegations. But the IDF’s track record for punishing unlawful attacks by members of its forces is poor (Hamas’s is worse). The IDF gives even less attention to the senior commanders and officials who put policies in place that expose civilians to unacceptably high risks, such as treating civilians who don’t flee after warnings as combatants and using heavy artillery with wide-area effects in populated areas.
The extent to which these Israeli policies contributed to the high civilian death toll is unknown. But until Israel gets serious about its own investigations, more unnecessary civilian casualties can be expected in the future. Getting to the truth should not be left to soldiers willing to break the silence.
Fred Abrahams is a special adviser at Human Rights Watch.