Israel: What Happens when IDF Soldiers Testimonials are Taken Out of Context

On March 19th, Israeli daily Ha'aretz published a report describing the alleged incidents in a closed-door meeting of Israeli soldiers at a military prep program, where they described multiple accounts of immoral orders and actions taken by the Israeli military during the recent Gaza operation ‘Cast Lead’. Their testimony runs counter to the IDF claim that Israeli troops observed a high level of moral behavior during the operation, but falls in line with stories coming from Palestinians, describing multiple Israeli war crimes in Gaza.

Danny Zamir, the program founder, had invited combat soldiers and officers who graduated the program for a lengthy discussion of their experiences in Gaza. They spoke openly, but also with considerable frustration. The session transcript was published and quickly picked up by multiple media outlets.

Zamir: “I don't intend for us to evaluate the achievements and the diplomatic-political significance of Operation Cast Lead this evening, nor need we deal with the systemic military aspect [of it]. However, discussion is necessary because this was, all told, an exceptional war action in terms of the history of the IDF, which has set new limits for the army's ethical code and that of the State of Israel as a whole.

“This is an action that sowed massive destruction among civilians. It is not certain that it was possible do have done it differently, but ultimately we have emerged from this operation and are not facing real paralysis from the Qassams. It is very possible that we will repeat such an operation on a larger scale in the years to come, because the problem in the Gaza Strip is not simple and it is not at all certain that it has been solved. What we want this evening is to hear from the fighters.”

Amira Hass stresses the importance of these testimonials on the Democracy Now blog:

“the soldiers actually confirm what Palestinians have been telling for the past three months, and journalists who listen to Palestinians and believe Palestinians and know their work of taking affidavits and testimonies from Palestinians have done so during the last three months. This is the main importance.”

The chief army prosecutor, Brigadier General Avichai Mendelblit, announced the criminal investigation after the accounts became public. However, on March 30th he said he would not file charges, claiming crucial components of the soldiers’ descriptions were based on hearsay. Mendelblit was quoted as saying: “the majority of the soldiers’ descriptions were rumors, not told from personal knowledge”.

In his blog, Ori Heitner claims that mainstream media totally missed Danny Zamir's message:

Danny provides a complex message, dealing with a complex reality. The argument was tempestuous, ranging between the two poles of simplicity and extremity.
My critique for Danny is that he did not take the necessary steps to remove those who leveraged his message to slander and hurt the IDF's image – first and foremost Ha'aretz newspaper.

He continues on to publish Zamir's reaction to the Israeli uproar against his claims:

The need to investigate IDF's failures in order to preserve its spirit and ethical code cannot be considered an action “against” IDF. On the contrary, it is an action that comes from a place of responsibility and partnership with the events happening in the military, which is composed of use all.

The claims that this exposure of our soldiers actions will fuel Israel haters, is wholly improper. Those who hate Israel do not need specific descriptions such as theres. However, I have no doubt that a naiive, western civilian who is mulling over Israel's image, will see the acknowledgment and reaction to our failures as evidence to a healthy and very much alive democratic society, dealing with its difficulties.

Danny ends his essay with a final sentence: “Enough critique, enough hatred and lies. Morality is a strength – not a weakness.”

A thorough explanation written by Danny Zamir himself, was recently published in the Jerusalem Post:

It was as if the media were altogether so eager to find reason to criticize the IDF that they pounced on one discussion by nine soldiers who met after returning from the battlefield to share their experiences and subjective feelings with each other, using that one episode to draw conclusions that felt more like an indictment. Dogma replaced balance and led to a dangerous misunderstanding of the depth and complexity of Israeli reality. The individual accounts were never intended to serve as a basis for broad generalizations and summary conclusions by the media; they were published internally, intended for program graduates and their parents as a tool to be used in the process of educating and guiding the next generation.
THE GUIDING principle that directs IDF combat soldiers, both in their planning and conduct in combat, encompasses a balance between two needs: to defend soldiers’ lives and to minimize harm to the civilians behind whom terrorists try to hide. This is expressed in the tension between the necessity of opening fire when the soldiers’ security and battle conditions require, even when there's a danger to civilians (providing advance warning to the extent possible), and the absolute obligation to hold fire and to act with due compassion toward civilians when it appears that they have no evil intent. In addition, basic respect toward civilians’ belongings and their religious and spiritual property is part of this moral code.

IF IT'S possible to learn something from the real Israel – and not that which the media (including Israeli media) makes such efforts to portray – it would be from the uproar of emotions and the frank discussions that have taken place within Israeli society in the wake of the soldiers’ accounts. It is out of their commitment to the moral code that the soldiers spoke and their accounts were submitted; purity of arms requires continuous examination of our actions and intentions.

Tal highlights the fact that as a moral society, Israel must make an effort to dig even into its own dark regions:

Lately we've heard the testimonials on inappropriate actions taken by soldiers. There's no need for me to repeat the claims which include unnecessary killing of men, women and children. If this is true, it is a severe and grave issue, so severe it shakes the whole system.

But first, we need to mention that ever since the testimonies were published, we've heard claims against the validity of their source – meaning: there is a stream of rumors on the soldiers actions. Human rights organizations have called out to create an international committee which would research the claims. They have mentioned that Palestinian testimonials from their research match these Israeli soldiers’ claims.

So where is the truth? Usually the truth lies somewhere in between – and should not wait for anyone to research this for us – but we need to dive deeply into this issue.

This story can wander and disappear in a time when explosive headlines appear every week. This matter can be dealt with on an international level if we will not deal with it on a national level – and dealing nationally does NOT mean giving “discounts” or silencing soldiers. It means that the truth will come out from us and we will not need someone from the outside to come and tell us if our society is broken.

It is reasonable to assume that these testimonials, even if all true, describe the actions of specific military units who did not follow the correct interpretation of the IDF protocol – meaning: even if all are terrorists, shooting a young child

Assume that not all the army behaved in one specific way. Assume that the majority of soldiers did not commit a crime. Assume that those who did commit criminal acts, were doing so under the intensity of war (that which those of you who have never fought will find difficult to understand). But… even if 10 percent of our soldiers who took part in the operation incorrectly interpreted an order and caused excess killing, this issue will be investigated – will rise up and will be examined from soldier to soldier.

Being a moral society means digging into even our own dark regions.

In a blog essay, Herb Keinon writes about the loss of context with regards to people's reactions over the published testimonies:

Obviously, everyone abroad who wants to accuse Israel of war crimes in Gaza will jump at these stories; every anti-Israel NGO will disseminate them as further proof of our evil.

What is lacking is context.

First of all, this type of testimony is legendary in Israel – there is even a phrase to describe it: yorim ve'bochim (shoot and weep). The most famous book of this genre, Siach Lochamim, came out immediately after the Six Day War in 1967, and was translated into English a few years latter under the title The Seventh Day.

The testimonials from the Rabin preparatory course have a similar feel: soldiers talking about their war experiences – what they saw, what they heard, what they felt good about, what they didn't feel good about.

It is important to note that none of the testimony was about what the soldiers did themselves, but rather of what they heard or saw other soldiers do. It is also important that what was reported seems to fall within the realm of aberrations by individuals during war against a cruel enemy hiding behind civilians, not a systematic loss by the army of its moral compass.

The second piece of context is Danny Zamir, the head of the program, who had the soldiers‚ words transcribed and published. A story in Haaretz on Thursday said that in 1990 Zamir, then a parachute company commander in the reserves, was tried and sentenced to prison for refusing to guard a ceremony where “right-wingers” brought Torah scrolls to Joseph's tomb in Nablus.

Zamir, in an interview on Israel Radio on Thursday, said that the soldiers from Operation Cast Lead who spoke at the meeting reflected an atmosphere inside the army of “contempt for, and forcefulness against, the Palestinians.”

In his blog post Tal Galili highlights some of the web-comments (talkbacks) that were submitted in Hebrew after the ynet article covering the IDF soldiers claims that they were given immoral orders:

- the media has spun out of control
– why is this published?
– lies!!!!!! It is appalling to read such lies. The person who said this should present himself and not hide behind a fabricated name
– when will you understand that its either us or them
– why does this need to be published in the papers???!!!
– and their target is only civilians?!
– our sons got back home. That is the most important
– these are homes which had specific intelligence and were filled with terrorists
– I've never seen a country that shoots itself in its feet like Israel
– Leave the IDF already and let us do our work!!
– IDF is the most moral army in the world
– because the story of one soldier we all believe?
– war. This was not a stroll in the park. It's war.
– where is the censorship and the media's discretion

There are numerous voices in the Hebrew blogosphere coming out against Zamir and his students’ testimonials. One of them is highlighted in this blog post:

Not only are these “testimonials” untruthful, but also show that the left (Israeli political left wing) is seeking to bash the IDF's image and take any form of evidence to create an image it has been drawing all these years – a messianic, extreme and murderous army. Zamir expresses this in his essay.

Another perspective against Zamir criticizes his hidden political leftist agenda.

The Australian Jewish News blog posted a long reaction against Danny Zamir:

Whatever the merits of his political opinions, Zamir has a history of using the military as a stage for expressing them.

Ha’aretz, too, is guilty of obfuscation in this case. The newspaper depicted its “scoop” as the revelation of an IDF cover-up, but did not provide any evidence for it.

The entire story is told in language meant to convey large number of soldiers. But the semantics are hiding a simple fact -– the vast majority of the soldiers in the transcripts did not actually testify to anything immoral.

The more Israelis study the story, the more the culprit turns out to be lax reporting on the part of Ha’aretz. The banner headlines about Israeli military brutality turn out to be third-hand testimony filtered through Danny Zamir. Long before the Zamir testimonies broke, I heard from some good friends in the paratroopers a nearly opposite story.

They described walking among booby-trapped buildings, fighting an enemy that survived only by fleeing deep into the civilian areas into which they knew the IDF troops would not follow.

If there is truth to the yet-unproven -– indeed, un-investigated -– allegations that IDF troops committed crimes in Gaza, the soldiers responsible must be tried and severely punished.

But if the testimony, which is far milder than the media circus surrounding it, turns out to be untrue, who will pay the price? The lazy Ha’aretz editors who drag an entire nation’s name through the mud on the strength of a second-hand rumour? The international media that not only didn’t fact check against Ha’aretz, but most of the time did not even tell the Ha’aretz story properly?

Whichever scenario turns out to be the truth, the testimonies have shed light in some dark places.

While writing this post, I've been trying to make sense of the multitude of perspectives around this highly disputed story. As many bloggers suggest, the truth seems to lie somewhere in-between the formal Hamas and IDF claims. Once again, we witness the implications of having fast-paced, worldwide media coverage, that can easily spin stories out of their original context; precisely how a closed door session between school colleagues turns into a world-wide news sensation. I will end the post here, but please feel free to add links and opinions to the comments section of this important story.


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