"What were 100 bulldozers going to do there?" – Yet IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, who is in overall charge of investigating conduct of war in Gaza, announced that he does not believe there was misconduct

Haaretz’s military correspondent Amos Harel has just published another article supporting claims of grave misconduct during the IDF Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

He wrote, in the article published on Friday, that “GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant’s meticulous planning for Operation Cast Lead was mapped out to the last detail … [But] … The General Staff expected that Israelis would have trouble accepting heavy Israel Defense Forces losses. The army chose to overcome this problem with an aggressive plan that included overwhelming firepower. The forces, it was decided, would advance into the urban areas behind a ‘rolling curtain’ of aerial and artillery fire, backed up by intelligence from unmanned aircraft and the Shin Bet. The lives of our soldiers take precedence, the commanders were told in briefings. Before the operation, Galant and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi painted a bleak picture for the cabinet ministers. ‘Unlike in Lebanon, the civilians in Gaza won’t have many places to escape to’, Ashkenazi warned. ‘When an armored force enters the city, shells will fly, because we’ll have to protect our people’. The politicians promised backing. Two weeks before the incursion, a member of the General Staff, talking to a journalist, predicted that 600-800 Palestinians civilians would be killed in an Israeli operation.

“Presumably, the IDF operated with more restraint than most armies, but the question is whether Israel uses this as a pretext to justify its actions. A large part of the operation was conducted by remote control. ‘The Palestinians are completely transparent to us’, says A., a reservist whose brigade was posted in the Gaza Strip. ‘The Shin Bet has people everywhere. We observe the whole area from the air and usually the Shin Bet coordinator can also tell you who lives in what house’. The Shin Bet defines the enemy and, for the most part, someone who belongs to Hamas’ civilian welfare organizations (the da’awa) is treated the same way as a member of its military wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam. Essentially, a person only needs to be in a ‘problematic’ location, in circumstances that can broadly be seen as suspicious, for him to be ‘incriminated’ and in effect sentenced to death.
… ‘It feels like hunting season has begun’, says A. ‘Sometimes it reminds me of a Play Station [computer] game. You hear cheers in the war room after you see on the screens that the missile hit a target, as if it were a soccer game’. The one who makes the final decision of whether to fire is usually not the brigade commander (who is with the forward forces in the field), but the ‘director’ of combat, stationed at a command center in the rear: the deputy brigade commander, the headquarters’ chiefs or majors who are studying and return to the brigade in times of combat. Another change in operational methods involved reducing reliance on the independent judgment of Israel Air Force personnel, who are located relatively far from the field.

“Soldiers’ testimonies, from graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course at Oranim Academic College in Tivon, and also from the watered-down descriptions supplied by the army’s Bamahaneh weekly magazine, make this crystal clear. There were civilians who were too frightened to flee or who didn’t read the leaflets dropped by the IAF, and remained in their homes. As in every war, prolonged time in the field led to brutish behavior in some of the units. ‘The impact of the long confrontation with the Palestinians cannot be ignored’, says a senior reserve officer, ‘and one should also bear in mind what sort of values inductees have when they come to us these days. Every year, the education system produces a significant number of little racists’.

“There is a discrepancy between the official military response, of denial and horrified disapproval, the testimonies of the Rabin pre-military preparatory course graduates, and the response to those reports by key officers, unwilling to be identified. ‘What did you think would happen?’ a senior officer wondered this week. ‘We sent 10,000 troops into Gaza, more than 200 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 100 bulldozers. What were 100 bulldozers going to do there?

“On Monday, during a visit to an IDF induction center, the chief of staff addressed this matter. His statements (“I do not believe this happened”) raised a few eyebrows in the defense establishment. Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi is also the commander of the investigators in the IDF criminal investigation division (CID), who are coordinating the two investigations that were launched in the wake of the soldiers’ testimonies. Even when we are told time and again that ‘the IDF is the world’s most ethical army’ (copyright: Shaul Mofaz), we are not obliged to answer ‘Amen’ … A complex, morally problematic mission, combined with lots of maneuvering room for field commanders, is liable to culminate in conduct that crosses the red line. This is what happened under then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin during the first intifada (‘break their bones’), and it happened to prime minister Ehud Barak with the outbreak of the second intifada (in the form of millions of shots fired in the West Bank by the IDF, in October 2000). Sometimes, legal intervention can actually help reinstate the norms, but during the second intifada, the last IDF judge advocate general, Maj. Gen. Menachem Finkelstein, annulled the practice of opening an investigation into every killed Palestinian. His successor, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, is launching his first investigations only now, after the publication of the testimonies from the Rabin course graduates. During the two initial, gloomy years of the first intifada, four criminal proceedings shaped the rules of conduct: the Yehuda Meir case, the Golani case, and the Givati Alef and Givati Bet cases. Col. Emanuel Gross, who presided over the court in the Givati Alef case, made it clear to the army that breaking bones was unacceptable, that it was an illegal action ‘with a black flag fluttering above it’. The Golani brigade commander at the time was today’s chief of staff, Lieut. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.

This Amos Harel report is posted on the Haaretz website here.

And, it’s not as nobody knew what would happen. It’s not as if Amos Harel didn’t try to warn us, in a piece that seemed a little bizarre at the time it was published in Haaretz in mid-December, before the Hanukkah holiday, and before Operation Cast Lead (named after a type of dreidel, a Hannuka toy) was launched with air and naval strikes on 27 December.

Then, he wrote: “Israel should not use artillery fire to target rocket-launching militants in the Gaza Strip if the fire is aimed at populated areas, the defense establishment’s legal adviser recently told Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

” ‘Artillery fire is permissible only in relatively open areas’, Ahaz Benari wrote in the legal opinion. ‘Artillery fire at urban areas is problematic, if the assessment is that the chance that the shell will hit the launchers is relatively low, while the risk that many civilians will be hurt is substantial’.

“Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi have previously expressed doubts about an extensive Israel Defense Forces operation in Gaza now. Benari’s opinion appears to be backed by leading military prosecution officials, though Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has yet to express a firm opinion on the matter. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised to hold a cabinet meeting on the issue shortly.

“Benari wrote the legal opinion December 7, after cabinet ministers called for a reexamination of the steps Israel is using to counter Qassam fire. The opinion reviews international law on the matter and finds that while there is no wholesale ban on artillery fire at sites from which rockets were launched, the fire should be aimed at military targets and be able to distinguish between the target and civilians or civilian property.

“The opinion also states that if damage to civilians or their property is expected as a result of the artillery fire, the IDF must make sure the damage is not much greater than the expected military benefit – an expression of the legal principle known as proportionality.

“The IDF developed a detailed procedure for artillery fire in Gaza in 2006, which approves shooting only in open areas and mandates that a distance be kept from buildings. But the IDF halted its use of artillery fire altogether after accidentally killing 18 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza town of Beit Hanun in November 2006, even though the artillery fire was meant to target open areas.

“The legal opinion also addressed the creation of ghost towns in Gaza, involving the eviction of Gazans from their homes in areas Palestinian militants use for launching rockets, as an Israeli response to the rocket fire. Benari said international law allows Israel to warn the residents of the intended IDF artillery response and evacuate a particular area for a short time. But even then, he said, the IDF cannot engage in carpet bombing, which would lead to the intended massive destruction of property that does not constitute a legitimate target. He said Israel must also take into account that some civilians will remain in the area even if they are advised to leave…”

This account — with the pre-war legal advice — is posted here here.

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