One of the central rationalizations for the permissibility of “collateral damage” in warfare is that the enemy uses “human shields” – that militants are deliberately hiding among civilian populations so as to force the attacker to kill innocents if they decide to attack. I’ve argued for some time that collateral damage should be disavowed as a military doctrine, because the immorality of killing an innocent outweighs the morality of killing the guilty.
Still, despite this moral burden, there at least exists an ends-justifies-means argument for collateral damage. I personally reject such an argument, but it does exist and there will probably always be honest disagreement (much like the abortion issue) over it between people of genuine principle. There is no such debate about human shields, however – those who employ that tactic are utterly bereft of any claim to higher purpose. It is an unmitigated evil act.
For a state like Israel, which lays explicit claim to the Jewish heritage as part of its reason for existence, the standard policy of collateral damage is morally damaging enough. But what if the IDF itself actually used human shields?
A human rights group founded by Israeli veterans has collected what it says are damning testimonies from soldiers who took part in the offensive in January against Hamas fighters in Gaza. BBC correspondent Paul Wood looks at the anonymous claims presented by Breaking the Silence.
Standing by the ruins of his home in Gaza, Majdi Abed Rabbo explained how Israeli troops had used him as a human shield. “The Israeli soldiers handcuffed me and pointed the gun at my neck,” he said. “They controlled every step.” In this manner, Mr Abed Rabbo said, he was forced to go in ahead of Israeli soldiers as they cleared houses containing Palestinian gunmen. This same incident was described by one of the Israeli soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.
“A Palestinian neighbour is brought in,” he says. “It was procedure. The soldier places his gun barrel on the civilian’s shoulder.” If true, that was a clear breach of the international laws of war – which say soldiers have a duty of care to non-combatants – and of Israeli law. The Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the so-called “neighbour policy”, of using Palestinians to shield advancing troops, in 2005. Until now, the Israeli army always had a ready answer to allegations that war crimes were committed during its offensive in Gaza. Such claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda. Now, though, the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.
The common thread in the almost 30 testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties, whatever the cost in Palestinian lives. Writing the report’s introduction, the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard says: “All the witnesses agreed that they received a particular order repeatedly, in a way that did not leave much room for doubt, to do everything, everything, so that they – the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers – would not be harmed. “The soldiers tell in their testimonies how this unwritten message, which came from brigade, battalion, and company commanders in morale-building conversations before entering Gaza, translated into zero patience for the life of enemy civilians.”
Here are just a few quotes which give a flavour of the soldiers’ testimony. The accumulation of detail is convincing and, in the eyes of Israel’s critics, damning. “Things are happening in his battalion of which he (the commander) has no idea. There are people who deserve to go to jail… “When your company commander and battalion commander tell you, ‘Go on, fire!’ the soldiers will not hold back. They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands… “Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.”
McClatchy has more details about other human shield techniques described in the soldiers’ testimony:
Each Palestinian forced to work with the Israeli military was given the same nickname: Johnnie.
The story was confirmed by four other Israeli soldiers who seized control of the Gaza neighborhood, but declined to speak on the record, Shaul said.
The testimony matches with that of nine Palestinian men who told McClatchy last winter that Israeli soldiers forced them into battle zones during the offensive in their northern Gaza Strip neighborhood.
One Palestinian, Castro Abed Rabbo, said Israeli soldiers ordered him to enter buildings to search for militants and booby traps before they sent in a specially trained dog with high-tech detection gear.
Two other Palestinian men told McClatchy that Israeli soldiers used them as human shields by forcing them to kneel in a field during a firefight as they exchanged fire with Gaza fighters.
“I was down on my knees and they fanned out in a ‘V’ behind me,” Sami Rashid Mohammed , a Fatah -leaning former Palestinian Authority police officer, said in an unpublished interview in February. “It wasn’t more than 10 or 15 minutes of shooting, but it was so scary.”
One of the Israeli soldiers interviewed described the offensive was necessary.
“We did what we had to do,” he said. “The actual doing was a bit thoughtless. We were allowed to do anything we wanted. Who’s to tell us not to?”
One Israeli reservist said a brigade commander gave them stark orders as they were preparing for combat.
“He said something along the line of ‘Don’t let morality become an issue; that will come later,’” the soldier said. “He had this strange language: ‘Leave the nightmares and horrors that will come up for later – now just shoot.”
“You felt like a child playing around with a magnifying glass, burning up ants,” another Israeli soldier said. “A 20-year-old kid should not be doing such things to people. . . . the guys were running a ‘Wild West’ scene: draw, cock, kill.”
The Torah says, “a good deed performed with the help of an evil deed is also an evil deed.” This is damaging enough of a critique by itself when applied to the IDF’s collateral damage policy. But there’s not even the fig leaf of a good deed to mask the ugliness of using human shields. In Gaza, it seems, Israel has truly shed its righteousness.
Related: Richard Silverstein is highlighting and offering commentary on a few of the soldiers’ testimonies, including some of the video interviews. He also has made the actual Breaking the Silence report available for download (PDF). Finally, we have been covering Gaza-related news at Talk Islam in depth as well.