Thursday, July 16, 2009

Soldiers' Testimony About "Cast Lead"

An Israeli NGO called "Breaking the Silence" has published a report including the testimonies of several soldiers who served in the recent war against Hamas describing some of the less than savory things that happened in Gaza. The report (full text here) describes, amongst other things, the rules of engagement, home demolition, the controversial use of white phospherous and the involvement of the IDF chaplains.

The report is being held up by its publishers as evidence of immorality in the conduct of the war and amongst the higher echelons of the IDF, not the individual soldier. The Al Jazeera reporter in the clip here, smugly turns to the report as removing any uncertainty that Israel violated the laws of war. The report has also, however, come under sharp criticism. For example, one of the soldiers offered testimony that Israeli soldiers used Palestinians to enter homes that may may have been booby trapped in order to protect the IDF. That soldier, however, was not actually in Gaza at he time the event he describes occurred. An official IDF spokesperson said that:
"...a considerable portion of the testimony is based on rumors and secondhand
accounts. Most of the incidents relate to anonymous testimony lacking in
identifying details, and accordingly it is not possible to check the allegations
on an individual basis in a way that would enable an investigation, confirmation
or refutation

The Israeli defense minister, Barak, has encouraged soldiers with such stories to come forward and file formal, proper complaints to allow the incidents they alleged to be properly investigated.

Others in Israel have been saying that these reports should not be rejected so quickly and out of hand. Columnists like Derfner in the Jerusalem Post argue that it's the IDF that has something to hide and that the soldiers are telling the truth. A similar point is made on YNet by a reservist Lt. and member of Breaking the Silence who writes that:
"Should we accept the recklessness characterizing Cast Lead as legitimate
warfare, it will be an admission that we chose to belittle the notion of
education for values and that we chose to renounce our way."

The report produced by Breaking the Silence is over 100 pages and I've only had time to read about 45% of it. A few things stand out. Firstly, none of the soldiers' names are revealed, neither are their units or ranks. Now, this alone does not make what they're saying untrue but it certainly damages credibility. Imagine attempting to prove anything alleged in this report in a courtroom and saying to the judge: "My lord, trust me, these things are true, I know 30 guys who told me, but I'm not going to tell you who they are, where they saw these things, how they cane prove anything or even what unit they were in. Just trust me, okay, please, my Lord?" One would be laughed out of the courtroom with the swiftness of a startled gazelle fleeing from a hyena.

A second point: reading these testimonies, many of the soldiers acknowledge that they had not seen many of the things they were talking about. They say they were told of certain things, that some people were discussing things, but in very few cases did they actually observe the events they describe. This again, does not mean the events described did not happen, but it does shake the credibility of the claims. Thinking again in the context of a courtroom, this is the definition of hearsay. The rules of testimony only allow a witness to testify to conversations having taken place, not to the truth of the statements.

Thirdly, in almost all of the cases I did read, the soldiers acknowledged that they were fighting a war, that the rules in a war are not the same as the rules when policing a city. They acknowledged that they were under orders to protect themselves, to open fire if they felt their lives to be in danger and that there was danger all around them. For example, in discussing how homes were demolished because they were suspected to contain tunnels, the soldier in question did acknowledge that many of the homes did have tunnels to be sued for smuggling, kidnapping and ambushes and that many of these homes were indeed booby trapped. There are reported incidents of innocents being accidentally killed, but not indiscriminately, rather because the soldier felt threatened.

It seems that many of these soldiers witnessed or heard about terrible things that profoundly upset them, as they profoundly upset me when I read about the report. People dying, suffering, homes destroyed, killing the enemy and accidentally civilians uninvolved in fighting must have a horrible psychological effect on a person. One that thankfully I know nothing of first hand and that I will hopefully never know. The point is that these testimonies, which may or may not be accurate and remain unverifiable speak, mostly, of the types of things one could expect to happen in a war and these soldiers likely spoke out about these things that would probably disturb most people. I don't think there are motives here to expose or allege war crimes and I don't think many of the incidents I've read about are war crimes. I think that these soldiers were upset, as I was, to hear graphic accounts of the horror of warfare and wanted to speak out about it. I do not think there's much more to it than that.

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