Israeli Gaza soldiers’ testimonies spark controversy

Israeli soldiers who fought in the 2008 Gaza War say gross crimes were committed against civilians as a result of Israel’s lax military discipline. The government denies the claims, but public anger is still growing.

A group of Israeli combat soldiers claim Palestinians were used as human shields, and that excessive firepower caused needless death and destruction.

Jeff Gafni is a soldier who always keeps his weapon with him. He is Israel’s oldest combat fighter and at 66 has served in seven wars. Just six months ago he stood alongside his youngest son on the Gaza battlefield. He concedes that while his army doesn’t always get it right, he knows better than most what’s really going on behind the scenes. That’s why the recent criticism by a group of soldiers about what happened in Gaza makes him angry.

“There is a saying in Hebrew and Aramaic and the saying goes – one coin in a tin box makes a lot of noise, lots of coins don’t make the same sound. How many people came out with those kind of stories? A handful, two handfuls, no more,” says Jeff Gafni.

However, the scant handful of stories is making waves. A group of Israeli soldiers has gone on record claiming their army fired phosphorous shells in populated areas, destroyed homes unnecessarily and carried out random shootings.

The testimonies of 54 combat soldiers who fought in Gaza were made public. In one of them a 21-year-old soldier said he should not have been forced to do those kinds of things to other people. Unfortunately, they’re too afraid to be named.

Maja Yechieli Wind is not. She refused to be drafted into the army last year. Out of 20,000 teenagers who put on the Israeli uniform for the first time she was one of ten who said no. She spent two months in detention and 42 days in a military prison. The Gaza War strengthened her resolve.

"I was furious at the Israeli response, I saw a lot of apathy, a lot of people who didn’t seem to understand that these were people we were talking about, thousands of innocent people dying and I was outraged by that. I said this is my one chance and this is the only one platform I will ever get to make a statement, and you wouldn’t be talking to me today if I wasn't part of this movement,” says Maja Yechieli Wind.

It is not so clear-cut that what the Israeli army did in Gaza was all bad. Internet campaigner Shlomo Blass spent weeks putting together an online quiz that tests the blurry line of what is and what is not okay on the battlefield. Ironically, many human rights activists – as well as soldiers – got it wrong.

“The point of the quiz was to show people that they don’t know. People who take the quiz and are sure that in the battlefield when you’re fighting terrorists, this is for sure this is permitted or this is not permitted, and they find out they’re not necessarily right and very few people succeeded in answering all twelve questions correctly,” says Shlomo Blass.

A growing number of Israeli soldiers feel they’re getting so much bad press, that they’ve set up their own organization to get their views across. They say they’re the real voice of what happened in Gaza – so much more than the 54 soldiers who spoke out.

“I saw the testimonies, and as a soldier who has been in the last operation in Gaza, I can tell you for sure a lot of the testimonies are misleading, and some of them, maybe they have some truth, but they are focusing on a little problem and they are making it out of context of the larger problem,” says Gil Levkovitz from soldierspeakout.com

Increasingly, the problem is not just what goes on in the battlefield, as the war now has also moved into the public arena.