A major in Israel's infantry, who fought in the Northern Gaza Strip during Israel's assault in the summer of 2014, talks of devastation. He talks of endless barrages, buildings collapsing, city streets being razed by bulldozers, entire neighborhoods erased.
Then he says, You want to hear a joke? You're reading his words in a report, so you have no choice but to nod as he explains, This is a joke that was popular in the army during the war:
The punchline only makes sense if you know that in Hebrew, the word for houses (בתים) is the same word for verses.
Why do Palestinians only sing the chorus? Because they have no verses left.
The solider tells you this anonymously because he must. You don't know his name—only that he is "01"—nor do you know the names of the over 100 Israeli soldiers who recently gave testimony to Breaking the Silence, an organization which normally works with soldiers who wish to reveal the ugly truths of Israel's occupation.
Now, in a report released this month entitled, "This is How We Fought in Gaza," Israeli soldiers, their identities hidden, have given the world a window into what life fighting in Gaza often looked like.
The overriding theme is destruction. Pure, unrelenting destruction motivated by fear, by the justifiable desire to minimize military casualties at almost any cost.
No House Was to Be Left Standing
The U.N. has estimated that 89,000 homes were damaged during the summer of 2014, many of them severely, and that 7,000 were completely demolished, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. (Today, nine months later, not a single demolished house has been rebuilt.)
When you read the Breaking the Silence testimonies, it becomes clear how such devastation occurred. It wasn't just buildings collapsing under the weight of laser-guided missiles. It was unrelenting razing on the ground.
Soldier after soldier described the same operational process: after an area was taken by the IDF and 'sterilized'—a process which often involved encouraging civilians to flee with leaflets coupled with heavy, targeted air strikes—individual houses were sequentially shelled by tanks, cleared by soldiers firing everywhere inside, and finally demolished by Caterpillar D9 bulldozers.
This last part, the intentional razing of family homes on the ground, is what shocked me the most, the extent of which I had never fully comprehended.
Witness the three testimonies below, which are representative of dozens captured by Breaking the Silence:
Nobody Is a Civilian
Aside from the destruction, another major theme which emerged from this report is the looseness of the IDF's rules of engagement in Gaza. Many soldiers testified that they were told to shoot anything which moved, with no consideration given to whether civilians might be present, which some felt was a clear violation of the military's rules of ethics.
Now, it should be stated that the IDF made real efforts, from 'roof knocking' to dropping leaflets, to clear areas of civilians before invading. This process of 'sterilizing' an area had an operational effect: nobody who remained in a 'sterilized' area was considered by commanding officers as civilians. Indeed, soldiers repeatedly remarked that how to deal with civilians was never mentioned, for the overriding assumption was that anyone left behind, anyone who chose to stay behind, was a combatant.
This shoot first, ask questions later engagement strategy was to protect Israeli soldiers in urban environments. However, the practical and tragic problem, of course, was that many civilians had nowhere to flee, were unable to evacuate, or simply chose to stay in their homes rather than expose themselves to an open, uncertain march.
A few soldiers recalled encountering families while clearing a house 'wet' (with live fire), and many more remarked on how they would often shoot anything which moved in houses, regardless of being able to identify who, or what, they were shooting.
The following excerpts (from soldiers 02, 03, 08, and 22) reveal this clearly:
However, this report is not an act of journalism. It is a moment of activism by (mostly) Israeli Jews who want their country to be better, who demand that Israelis face the unjust in order to create a just society.
That propagandists are attacking these soldiers' words is not surprising. After all, their job is to protect the state and its leaders by shielding it from critique. However, when the state in question is a Jewish one, such propaganda-led shielding often turns into a dishonest game of spot-the-anti-Semite.
You critique Israel's conduct in Gaza? You're critiquing the Jewish people.
However, I reject this conflation of Israel and all Jews—itself an anti-Semitic trope. And as a Jew who desires a better, just Israel free of occupation and oppression, I reject the notion that my concern for Palestinians in Gaza is anti-Semitic.
On the contrary. It makes me Jewish.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, recently published by Oneworld Publications.