Last week, a report by an Israeli group called Breaking the Silence made headlines in the U.S., Britain, and most of Europe, becoming one of the week’s biggest international stories. The subject was the Gaza war of 2014. The headline in theWashington Post was representative:
New report details how Israeli soldiers killed civilians in Gaza: “There were no rules.”
This report is worth dwelling on because there will be more rounds of fighting in Gaza, and more reports like this one, and more reporting of this kind—and because, for all observers of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it is important to understand the sources of information that shape our thinking.
Let’s look first at the report itself. Breaking the Silence, usually identified as an organization of Israeli veterans, says its goal is to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.” In recent years, expanding that mandate to Israeli warfare in general, it has released numerous reports. For this one, which was published in both Hebrew and English, the group’s staff interviewed “over 60” soldiers. There are no dates or names. In most cases we are given a rank and the section of the army (“infantry,” “armored corps”) to which the soldier belongs; in a few cases there is no identification at all.
The soldiers’ accounts, presented in short excerpts, are interesting, offering a gritty, personal, and frequently awful look at the kind of combat that has become common in this century, and at its toll on combatants and civilians. A reader of the English report notices that in some places the translators and editors could have been more knowledgeable or careful: there is confusion between mortars and artillery (in the Israeli military, these are considered different classes of weapons and are employed by different units), and between a platoon and a division, and one editor believes that an M16 rifle is a weapon mounted on a tank.
More seriously, having promised to reveal the secret of the civilian death toll in Gaza in the form of systematic Israeli misdeeds, and having selected, with that purpose in mind, the most incriminating segments from much longer interviews, the report fails to deliver. Perhaps that is why, instead of letting readers examine the interviews and decide for themselves, the activist-editors of Breaking the Silence felt compelled to add a heated introduction announcing that their report “exposes” the true face of the Gaza operation—namely, its “disturbing” and “unprecedented” violence directed at civilians by the Israeli military. This is probably also why each testimony opens with a headline like “If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal,”or “Those guys were trigger-happy, totally crazy.”
The editors seem to want readers to believe there were “no rules” in Gaza, and that the IDF acted without taking civilian life into consideration. In fact the interviews themselves show the army taking numerous steps to avoid harm to civilians. The soldiers regularly mention warning leaflets, “roof-knocking” rockets, phone calls, warning shells, warning shots, lists of protected sites like UN facilities, and drones vetting targets for civilians before an airstrike. All of the action we encounter in the report is happening in areas where the army had already warned Gazan civilians (and, of course, Hamas guerrillas) that soldiers were about to arrive. Indeed, what is truly striking is that the soldiers simply take all of these steps for granted, as if they were obviously part of warfare, when in fact many are unique to Israeli military practice.
Read the rest of Friedman’s essay, here.