“This is an action that sowed massive destruction among civilians. It is not certain that it was possible do have done it differently, but ultimately we have emerged from this operation and are not facing real paralysis from the Qassams. It is very possible that we will repeat such an operation on a larger scale in the years to come, because the problem in the Gaza Strip is not simple and it is not at all certain that it has been solved. What we want this evening is to hear from the fighters.”
Aviv: “I am squad commander of a company that is still in training, from the Givati Brigade. We went into a neighborhood in the southern part of Gaza City. Altogether, this is a special experience. In the course of the training, you wait for the day you will go into Gaza, and in the end it isn’t really like they say it is. It’s more like, you come, you take over a house, you kick the tenants out and you move in. We stayed in a house for something like a week.
“Toward the end of the operation there was a plan to go into a very densely populated area inside Gaza City itself. In the briefings they started to talk to us about orders for opening fire inside the city, because as you know they used a huge amount of firepower and killed a huge number of people along the way, so that we wouldn’t get hurt and they wouldn’t fire on us.
“At first the specified action was to go into a house. We were supposed to go in with an armored personnel carrier called an Achzarit [literally, Cruel] to burst through the lower door, to start shooting inside and then … I call this murder … in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified – we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?
“From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled. I didn’t really understand: On the one hand they don’t really have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand they’re telling us they hadn’t fled so it’s their fault … This also scared me a bit. I tried to exert some influence, insofar as is possible from within my subordinate position, to change this. In the end the specification involved going into a house, operating megaphones and telling [the tenants]: ‘Come on, everyone get out, you have five minutes, leave the house, anyone who doesn’t get out gets killed.’
“I went to our soldiers and said, ‘The order has changed. We go into the house, they have five minutes to escape, we check each person who goes out individually to see that he has no weapons, and then we start going into the house floor by floor to clean it out … This means going into the house, opening fire at everything that moves , throwing a grenade, all those things. And then there was a very annoying moment. One of my soldiers came to me and asked, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘What isn’t clear? We don’t want to kill innocent civilians.’ He goes, ‘Yeah? Anyone who’s in there is a terrorist, that’s a known fact.’ I said, ‘Do you think the people there will really run away? No one will run away.’ He says, ‘That’s clear,’ and then his buddies join in: ‘We need to murder any person who’s in there. Yeah, any person who’s in Gaza is a terrorist,’ and all the other things that they stuff our heads with, in the media.
“And then I try to explain to the guy that not everyone who is in there is a terrorist, and that after he kills, say, three children and four mothers, we’ll go upstairs and kill another 20 or so people. And in the end it turns out that [there are] eight floors times five apartments on a floor – something like a minimum of 40 or 50 families that you murder. I tried to explain why we had to let them leave, and only then go into the houses. It didn’t really help. This is really frustrating, to see that they understand that inside Gaza you are allowed to do anything you want, to break down doors of houses for no reason other than it’s cool.
“You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won’t say anything. To write ‘death to the Arabs’ on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing in understanding how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It’s what I’ll remember the most.”
“One of our officers, a company commander, saw someone coming on some road, a woman, an old woman. She was walking along pretty far away, but close enough so you could take out someone you saw there. If she were suspicious, not suspicious – I don’t know. In the end, he sent people up to the roof, to take her out with their weapons. From the description of this story, I simply felt it was murder in cold blood.”
Zamir: “I don’t understand. Why did he shoot her?”
Aviv: “That’s what is so nice, supposedly, about Gaza: You see a person on a road, walking along a path. He doesn’t have to be with a weapon, you don’t have to identify him with anything and you can just shoot him. With us it was an old woman, on whom I didn’t see any weapon. The order was to take the person out, that woman, the moment you see her.”
Zvi: “Aviv’s descriptions are accurate, but it’s possible to understand where this is coming from. And that woman, you don’t know whether she’s … She wasn’t supposed to be there, because there were announcements and there were bombings. Logic says she shouldn’t be there. The way you describe it, as murder in cold blood, that isn’t right. It’s known that they have lookouts and that sort of thing.”
Gilad: “Even before we went in, the battalion commander made it clear to everyone that a very important lesson from the Second Lebanon War was the way the IDF goes in – with a lot of fire. The intention was to protect soldiers’ lives by means of firepower. In the operation the IDF’s losses really were light and the price was that a lot of Palestinians got killed.”
Ram: “I serve in an operations company in the Givati Brigade. After we’d gone into the first houses, there was a house with a family inside. Entry was relatively calm. We didn’t open fire, we just yelled at everyone to come down. We put them in a room and then left the house and entered it from a different lot. A few days after we went in, there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sharpshooters’ position on the roof. The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One mother and her two children didn’t understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go, and it was was okay and he should hold his fire and he … he did what he was supposed to, like he was following his orders.”
Question from the audience: “At what range was this?”
Ram: “Between 100 and 200 meters, something like that. They had also came out of the house that he was on the roof of, they had advanced a bit and suddenly he saw then, people moving around in an area where they were forbidden to move around. I don’t think he felt too bad about it, because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way.”
Yuval Friedman (chief instructor at the Rabin program): “Wasn’t there a standing order to request permission to open fire?”
Ram: “No. It exists, beyond a certain line. The idea is that you are afraid that they are going to escape from you. If a terrorist is approaching and he is too close, he could blow up the house or something like that.”
Zamir: “After a killing like that, by mistake, do they do some sort of investigation in the IDF? Do they look into how they could have corrected it?”
Ram: “They haven’t come from the Military Police’s investigative unit yet. There hasn’t been any … For all incidents, there are individual investigations and general examinations, of all of the conduct of the war. But they haven’t focused on this specifically.”
Moshe: “The attitude is very simple: It isn’t pleasant to say so, but no one cares at all. We aren’t investigating this. This is what happens during fighting and this is what happens during routine security.”
Ram: “What I do remember in particular at the beginning is the feeling of almost a religious mission. My sergeant is a student at a hesder yeshiva [a program that combines religious study and military service]. Before we went in, he assembled the whole platoon and led the prayer for those going into battle. A brigade rabbi was there, who afterward came into Gaza and went around patting us on the shoulder and encouraging us, and praying with people. And also when we were inside they sent in those booklets, full of Psalms, a ton of Psalms. I think that at least in the house I was in for a week, we could have filled a room with the Psalms they sent us, and other booklets like that.
“There was a huge gap between what the Education Corps sent out and what the IDF rabbinate sent out. The Education Corps published a pamphlet for commanders – something about the history of Israel’s fighting in Gaza from 1948 to the present. The rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles, and … their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war. From my position as a commander and ‘explainer,’ I attempted to talk about the politics – the streams in Palestinian society, about how not everyone who is in Gaza is Hamas, and not every inhabitant wants to vanquish us. I wanted to explain to the soldiers that this war is not a war for the sanctification of the holy name, but rather one to stop the Qassams.”