Gaza war: ‘Soldiers stopped caring about people, it became a video game’

A Palestinian stands in front of ruined houses, which witnesses said were destroyed by Israeli shelling during a 50-day war last summer, on a stormy day in the east of Gaza City February 10, 2015. (Reuters/Mohammed Salem)
“Stopped caring about people’s life,” is no excuse for what IDF soldiers did in Gaza, but it is still the government policy blamed for civilian deaths, former IDGF soldier and researcher at Breaking the Silence Nadav Bigelman, told RT’s In the Now.

NGO Breaking the Silence has interviewed more than 60 Israeli Defense Force soldiers and released a report which includes IDF soldiers' testimonies about last summer's Gaza war. According to some of these testimonies Israeli Forces violated international law which led to huge civilian casualties.

RT:Some soldiers say they lost a sense of morality during the operation in Gaza. What do they mean by that?

Nadav Bigelman: Maybe just a few words about Breaking the Silence. We are an NGO of veteran soldiers who all served in the occupied territories – Gaza and the West Bank. I also served there for a few years in the West Bank as a combat soldier. Last summer after the war in Gaza, soldiers started coming to us and telling us these stories about what happened, about the rules of engagement and the orders of how you open fire towards people, civilians, towards everyone there. And soldiers were starting to tell us “Listen this is something we have never been exposed to.” The orders they got were very simple - there are no such things as civilians in Gaza while you are fighting there. Maybe just a small example: soldiers from the armored battalions told us that they were given direct orders by officers saying “If you see any person around you in 300-500 meters where you are going to be placed – you are allowed to shoot them and to kill them.” Of course this is something very surprising because this is something we didn’t know. And what we can say now - after we published this book, testimonies of over 60 soldiers and officers from different units is that the army, the IDF changed the ethical code of how we fight these wars. We saw it in 2009 in the operation Cast Lead, we saw what happened last July, the offensive in Gaza. Things have become much more serious. Soldiers were given these orders “Listen you are going to a war.” That means firing thousands of artillery shells, firing hundreds of shells by tanks towards any direction they wanted to.

READ MORE: Israeli soldiers ‘deliberately fired’ at civilians during Gaza war – NGO

RT:Last week on In the Now we had an Israeli politician who argued that Israel does everything it can to prevent civilian casualties. Does this report undermine that statement?

NB: This is one of the main things that we are trying to claim by publishing these testimonies. Israel and the IDF did tell in some of the places before the bombardment that “We are going to bomb you, you have to run away,” and tried to throw papers from the sky telling people this was going to be a warzone. But still one of the main things that happened during this fighting was the use of artillery and this artillery – we need to understand that - by definition is not something you can aim directly towards a specific location. And when you fire thousands of them – and we saw pictures of that last summer - you destroy hundreds of houses… You can’t aim at a specific place you want so you fire a bunch of shells that means it could fall in different places…During the warI was told that the IDF were trying to do everything not to harm civilians. But then I started to see more soldiers and officers and I have been exposed to a completely different story…

RT:One of the interviewed soldiers said that killing Palestinian was considered no big deal or even “cool”. How would you comment on this especially considering that you yourself were trained to fight in the IDF?

NB: It’s very important to clarify; I think the army didn’t go to this war in an attempt or a will to kill civilians. Absolutely not. This is now what we are trying to claim. One of the main issues that come from the testimony is that soldiers said that after two-three-four weeks of fighting they stopped caring about people’s life, it became – and I’m using words a soldier told us – “like a video-game.” Maybe from that point of view we can understand a bit why soldiers acted the way they did. Of course it’s not an excuse to what they did. But again the issue here is not what the soldiers on the ground did but what was the policy and the rules of engagement. And those were decided by the hiring officers and pretty much the government.

Reuters/Mohammed Salem

“Commanders lied to IDF soldiers that there were no civilians”

Avihay Stoller, a former IDF soldier from activist group Breaking the Silence, also suggests that IDF soldiers didn’t go to the Gaza Strip to kill civilians.

“…I must clarify and state that most of the soldiers that came forward didn’t come claiming they wanted to kill civilians. Basically their commanders lied to them that there were no civilians, there were only militants… That’s why they were so shocked when they came out and realized how what they were told was different from what was actually happening…”

“…I was a soldier myself. I served during the Second Intifada in the West Bank; it was not a peaceful time either. Nevertheless, we had very clear rules of engagement which stated that unless a suspect is carrying arms and endangering you – you are not allowed to shoot. And I thought those were the rules of engagement for every soldier who served in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank for many years. Now once we approached the soldiers that participated in the last operation and asked what their rules of engagement were they told us a very different story. They basically told us the complete opposite; that the guiding principle in this operation was once they enter the Strip if they see any person or any suspicious building or anything of that sort they need to shoot immediately…”

READ MORE: ICC prosecutor rejects Israel’s fears of bias in war crimes investigation

Though the IDF says Breaking the Silence has failed to provide any proof of the claims stated in the report the numbers speak for themselves – “more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed in the last operation, 500 of them were children, so I think that the proof is already there for everyone to see.”

‘Soldiers’ safety put above civilians’

Security analyst and former UK army officer Charles Shoebridge argues that unfortunately in many cases warfare is conducted exactly in the way it was in the Gaza Strip last summer.

“The safety of the Israeli soldiers in this case was put well above - in terms of priority - the dangers that might be posed to any civilians in the area. Of course these civilians can involve children, women and so on. The fact is though that this was not for Israel a war of national survival, it was supposed to be a counter-terrorist operation.”

“Let’s not forget the overwhelming majority according to the UN of the 2200 Palestinians who died in those seven weeks were assessed to be civilians. The largest number of those were not killed in close combat with the Israeli Army - they were killed by air strikes, artillery and other heavy weapon fire at a distance at which a target couldn’t possibly be said to be posing a threat to those soldiers who fired.”


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.