Israel’s controversial invasion of Gaza deliberately aimed to “cleanse” Palestinian neighbourhoods, former soldiers have alleged, in claims that will reignite the debate over the legality of the three week military campaign.
Israel invaded Gaza at the end of 2008 in a bid to halt rocket attacks from the territory it ceded in 2005. It says it focused on military targets controlled by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, and bitterly countered a 2009 United Nations report that stated civilians had been deliberately targeted.
But in startling interviews with Israeli filmmaker Nurit Kedar, former soldiers have for the first time allowed themselves to be named while blaming their commanders for encouraging a “disproportionate” response to Hamas’s rockets. They said their commanders used to “psych up” soldiers before an operation so they were ready to shoot indiscriminately.
One soldier says he was told to shell every house in a neighbourhood. Richard Goldstone’s report for the UN alleged that war crimes had been committed by both sides, but highlighted the moral and legal severity of the Israel’s attacks.
Israel has said its operational orders during the war emphasised “proportionality” and “humanity”. The importance of minimising harm to civilians was made clear to soldiers, it said at the time. By the end of the 22-day operation some 1,400 Palestinians had been killed and large areas of Gaza razed. Ten Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians also died.
In a report to be shown on Channel 4 News on Monday, Ohad, a 24-year-old tank commander, remembers being told the night before the operation that the entry into Gaza was to be “disproportionate”. Once into Gaza, he said his orders were unambiguous: “The order was very clear that if a car came within 200 metres of me I could simply shoot at it. Shoot a shell at it.”
He added: “We needed to cleanse the neighbourhoods, the buildings, the area. It sounds really terrible to say ‘cleanse’, but those were the orders….I don’t want to make a mistake with the words.”
Shay, a 30-year-old who was in the Elite Combat Unit, says he was disgusted by the behaviour of some conscripts in the Israeli army. He described taking over from the them the house of a wealthy Palestinian family. Conscripts, he said, had already defecated all over the bathroom. Family photos had been scrawled over. Graffiti on the walls read: “Long live Israel.”
Last year, the UN criticised Israel and Hamas for failing adequately to investigate the findings of its report. The Israeli embassy said yesterday: “Over 12,000 rockets and shells rained down on Israeli civilians from Gaza forcing the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] to carry out a military operation. Unlike much of the region, the open society within Israel allows for all allegations such as these to be aired and investigated. Israel has already authorised over 100 separate investigations into the operation, five broader investigations, and close to 50 criminal investigations are also taking place. Our judicial process is renowned across the world for its independence.”
For the full report, watch Channel 4 News at 7pm on Monday.