Bearing Witness

Breaking the Silence

Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers that collects testimonies of soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories during the Second Intifada. Soldiers who serve in the Territories are witness to, and participate in military actions which change them immensely. Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still excused as military necessities, or explained as extreme and unique cases. Our testimonies portray a different and grim picture of questionable orders in many areas regarding Palestinian civilians. These demonstrate the depth of corruption which is spreading in the Israeli military. While this reality which is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders exists in Israel’s back yard, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that which happens in its name. Discharged soldiers who return to civilian life discover the gap between the reality which they encountered in the Territories , and the silence which they encounter at home. In order to become a civilian again, soldiers are forced to ignore their past experiences. Breaking the Silence voices the experiences of those soldiers, in order to force Israeli society to address the reality which it created. 

The end of the month will mark five years since the outbreak of violent confrontation in the Territories, and the IDF still does not believe in writing regulations for opening fire. Maybe the killing of dozens of innocent civilians, in the “Wild West” as a soldier described it, would have been diminished if the soldiers had been given regular open-fire regulations. And if in the past there was an official booklet for open-fire regulations that was passed to every soldier who served in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it has been buried since the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000. The soldiers receive the regulations orally from the commanders in the field, and they vary from sector to sector, unit to unit, commander to commander. This grey area allows for the winking and turning away of eyes, whether from negligence or from contempt for the value of Palestinian life.

The latest reminder of this grey area was received three weeks ago in the Tul Karem refugee camp. Five Palestinians were killed, and the statement of the IDF spokesman dryly noted that “An IDF force came across a number of armed fugitives who belonged to the Islamic Jihad organization.” The commander of the Nahal Brigade, Col. Roni Numa, clarified: “None of those killed was an innocent passer-by. Exchanges of fire took place between the force and the terrorists, fire-bombs and charges were thrown in their direction.” Later it turned out that none of the Palestinians was armed, it is doubtful if any of them was a dangerous fugitive, and in any case there were no “exchanges of fire.”

The following stories exemplify the opaque situation in which the soldiers find themselves.

“My team killed six innocent people, or probably innocent,” says “R”, a commander in an elite paratroopers’ unit. “We would joke about it and give them code names: the baker, the woman, the child, the old man, the drummer. Some of them by mistake, but as I see it, they were simply executed on illegal orders.

“There were many nights on which we received orders that whoever we see on the street between two and four in the morning is sentenced to death. Those were the exact words. We were in Nablus and we started to advance using the ‘worm’ procedure so as not to be exposed. The houses were adjacent and had shared walls. Blow a hole in a wall, pass through a house, blow a hole in a wall, pass through a house. We advanced slowly, until at the end we stopped and came across what is called a ‘controlling house.’

“We set up sniper positions in the windows and waited. One of the marksmen identified a man on the roof. Two roofs from us, a distance of up to seventy metres, at two in the morning, an unarmed man walking on the roof. I saw with my own eyes that the man was not armed. That was also what we reported on the radio. The company commander said ‘take him down.’ Just like that, on the radio, he made a decision and settled on that. You think about that, in the United States there is a death penalty, there are a thousand appeals and convictions and judges. Here a 26-year-old man, my company commander, gave the order from afar to kill him, and the sniper fired and killed him. The company commander defined him as a ‘lookout’.” But what is a ‘lookout’? How does he know what he is? He doesn’t know.

“The next man was the baker. We entered the Old City in Nablus, and as usual the open-fire regulations were that every man walking on the street at night is sentenced to death. The team commander said that it was from the brigade commander. The pretext of course was that there was information from Shabak [the General Security Service, Israel’s internal intelligence agency ]. Really. Shabak knows if Ahmad the baker or Salim the carpenter has to get up to go to work? We did the ‘straw widow’ procedure – enter a house, concentrate the family into one room, then set up sharpshooters’ positions in the windows. In the morning we send out vehicles as bait in the hope of attracting the armed men against us, then we shoot them. The idea is to take down the armed men.

“That night we took over a house in an excellent position, and about four in the morning the sharpshooters’ position identified a man walking with a bag. I saw him on Jami’at al-Kabir Street with the bag in his hand. I went down to report, and the sniper, a friend of mine, was on duty. I reported to the commander who reports to the company commander. The order was ‘take him down.’ And so a man fell, 70 metres from his house.”

Two residents were witnesses to this incident, which happened under the window of As’ad Hanun, age 50, from Nablus. “I woke up to the sound of a shot,” she said a few months ago to members of Btselem. “After the shot I heard yelling from the street, ‘brother, I’m wounded, people, I’m wounded.’ The voice sounded very close and I was afraid to look out. After a few minutes I opened the window. The street was dark and I did not see the wounded man, but I saw the neighbours’ son. I asked him who was wounded, and he answered that it was a young man and he was in front of him. Immediately I went down to try to help. The wounded man was sitting on the ground and wearing a white hat.”

A soldier from the unit, who watched from the house opposite, continues. “Right away the jeep from the command post came, and the company commander got down and carried out a barbaric kill-verification just like that, with grenades, and he even sprayed the body with bullets. It’s a good thing that the IDF spokesman denies that there’s such a procedure. Then they went and checked what he had in the bag. What do you think was there? Bread.”

“I saw an Israeli jeep approaching,” the neighbour also related. “I was afraid they’d shoot so I went back into the alley. In the meantime the street was lit up with flares that the army lit; afterwards I heard about 10-12 consecutive shots. I did not see who was shooting, but I heard the wounded man yelling. After the last shot I heard the sound of an explosion and after that I heard nothing, no shooting and no yelling. It was clear that he was dead because he did not show any sign of life.” The neighbour identified the killed man as ‘Ala al-Din, an employee of the a-Silawi bakery. “In the bag,” she corrects, “were work clothes, not bread.”

“K”, a soldier in the armoured corps, testifies that he received a similar order in the Gaza Strip. “We went out in a tank from the base after mortars were fired at the settlements and we drove on the Tancher Highway until we entered Deir al-Balah. On the radio the battalion commander announced the open-fire orders: every person we see on the street, shoot to kill. Without asking questions. I remember that when we went in, somebody was running there, unarmed, and right away we shot him without any particular reason until he was definitely dead. That is to say, he fell into the bushes and afterwards we emptied a great many bullets into him. In the company we were not excited about killing, but we were happy that there was action. We didn’t think in terms of right or not.”

“A”, a commander in another paratroopers’ unit, served in Jenin and says that he received orders along the lines of “no innocent person has any reason to walk around on the street during the night hours.” As he says, “in every big city there are people who walk on the street, even at three in the morning. So is it right to kill them from a distance?”

The drummer

As dawn approached, one night during the month of Ramadan, a Nablus resident walked the streets with a drum to wake up the occupants before the fast. “No one told us that in the morning in Ramadan there was a custom like that,” says “R”. “We saw him with something in his hand, and like in most of the times an expedited arrest procedure was carried out. That is, we yell ‘stop, stop’ quickly, according to the protocol, right away we shoot in the air, and if he doesn’t stop, we shoot to kill. No shooting at the legs.”

The terrified drummer started to flee and entered an alley, relates “R”, and they entered into pursuit of him until in the end they killed him in one of the alleys. “They did a kill-verification on him according to the procedures they knew, grenades and afterwards a bullet in the head. Only then did it emerge that what he was holding in his hand was a drum. Only afterwards, in the investigation, did we learn that they wake people up that way during Ramadan. OK, so we, the simple soldiers, didn’t know. But even at the Brigade HQ nobody knew? Could be that they should have been more careful, or moderated the open-fire regulations.”

According to the IDF spokesman, the “drummer” was Jihad al-Natur, 24 years old when he died. An officer at the Judge Advocate-General’s office stated in reply that the death of the “drummer” was investigated, “and one of the lessons was that it is also important to know about Ramadan and the drums.”

Live fire at the knees of a child

The unit of “M”, a soldier in the Giv’ati Brigade, was stationed close to the Ganei-Tal settlement. “They call it ‘easy’ when they shoot live bullets at the knees of a child. There is a long line that separates the Jewish settlements from Khan Younis [in the Gaza Strip] and in parts of it there is no fence. In front of Ganei-Tal was a dune, which was a dead zone regarding our ability to observe it. In order that they not penetrate into the settlements, we created a situation in which the Palestinians knew exactly how far they could go from the edge of the neighbourhood.

“The top of the dune was a garbage dump next to which children played every day. When the ball falls, we execute deterrent fire to keep them back, first in the air and then maximum 50 metres from them so they go back. That was the procedure. For a long period it was like cat-and-mouse and it lasted a long time, until one day my assistant company commander decided that he had had enough, that it was not effective, that the children played there too much. He told us, ‘next time, call me.’ He came, and fired from a modified M-16 rifle with a telescopic sight, at the leg of one of the children. A boy who definitely had nothing on him, there wasn’t even a suspicion that he had anything, besides the fact that he had crossed some imaginary line. To shoot a nine- or ten-year-old boy who was playing football and innocently chasing the ball, and make him disabled for his whole life, in my eyes that is more than problematic. The children ran away as long as their breath was in them, and adults came to evacuate the boy who was lying there. They understood the aggressive message. For a few days at least, the children were afraid to cross the line.”

“R”, from the paratroopers, who spoke before about the ““lookout”” and the “baker,” describes – this time testifying to what he heard on the communications system – what happened to the “child.” It happened when the Brigade Commander in Nablus was replaced, and “there was an operation that we jokingly called ‘the Brigade Commander’s horror show.’ At the last stage there were roadblock operations with plastic [barriers] that we called ‘New Jerseys.’ All the time the children, the ones who throw stones, would come and move them. It was a total mess. Then the battalion commander gave everyone an order on the radio: whoever touches a ‘New Jersey,’ shoot him in the legs. Live fire.

“In my Abir [military vehicle], we said right away, ‘is he cracked or what?’ Somebody touches a barrier and you shoot him in the legs? For sure he’s just showing off. But no. That battalion commander was actually a good guy. It was very important to him to set a personal example. At the checkpoint, where I was not personally but there were friends of mine there, the man saw a boy and aimed at his legs, but you know how it is with the commanders, they have so many meetings they don’t have time to calibrate their weapons. He missed the leg and hit the boy in the chest. I was not there, but when we returned from the operation to the base everybody was talking about it. They all said that the battalion commander shot a boy and were talking like he was a ‘murderer of children.’ Was the boy killed? I assume nobody went and checked for a pulse, but very few children survive a bullet in the chest.”

In the unit they give a confused explanation. “The battalion commander did not miss but deliberately shot to kill,” said one of the officers confidently. “We talked to him and he checked the incident personally. His gun was definitely calibrated, and everything was done with the intention to kill. It was a Fatah activist, Hani Qandul, 17. He was supervising a serious disturbance that was endangering the soldiers. So he was shot dead. The orders permit the shooting to death of a chief instigator.”

But Qandul’s ID card reveals that he was only 13 and a half when he died. Was this the dangerous activist that the battalion commander deliberately shot to death? It turns out that Hani Qandul was killed on another occasion; an eyewitness described it to a Btselem investigator, a short time after the incident. “Hani, who was 18, stood 20 metres from us, with his seven-year-old brother. Suddenly I heard shooting (…) I saw Hani fall to the ground.”

If so, the battalion commander killed Qandul in May 2004. And what about the “child” that the soldier “R” speaks of? “We don’t know of a shooting like that or of a child who was killed,” it was reported from the unit. “If there was an order to shoot at the legs, it was the result of intelligence information of intention to endanger the soldiers.” Operation Calm Waters ended with the deaths of five minors.

The Military Prosecutor responds: “Too bad the soldier told you that. If he had reported to us, it would have been possible to comment with more precision. I have not heard specifically about ‘easy.’ ”

Everyone who is standing on a roof

“A”, an officer in a “Kingfisher” [Shaldag] unit, was posted in Rafah during Operation Rainbow in May of last year, and “I had direct access to the brigade commander. I was in Command Group 2 of Pinky (Pinhas Zwartz, commander of the Southern Brigade at the time – S. G.). At the beginning of the operation I commanded a team, and a friend of mine commanded another team, and the mission was to do ‘straw widows’ [to occupy Palestinian homes] and to put snipers on the upper floors of the houses.

“When we entered, we saw that there was really no danger. It was an uncongested built-up area with greenhouses, in front were our tanks and a D-9 [Caterpillar bulldozer] that was destroying houses and greenhouses. We were there more than 24 hours and we didn’t see any armed people, and it was quite boring for everybody, if one can say that. But the whole time, about every hour or two hours, they called us from the command post to ask why we were not shooting. But our feeling of danger was very low. No one shot at us, we were not in a state of anxiety.

“The open-fire regulations were clear enough: every Palestinian on a roof is supposedly a ‘lookout,’ and the snipers shoot him right away. And every civilian on the street who bends towards the ground is suspected of setting explosives and they shoot him. At one point we saw somebody standing on a roof. Just standing, without binoculars. There was no reason to assume that he was on the lookout rather than just going up for a breath of air. I got authorization to shoot – and we hesitated. I agreed to second it. To this day I ask myself why.

“The procedure was that the three snipers shoot together. He got two bullets in the chest and died on the spot. Afterwards we heard ambulances. Hand on heart I had a feeling that it was not OK, but the guys pressured me and I backed down. I failed. That time I did not withstand the pressure from above and from below. There were three snipers who had spent a lot of time training and wanted to put their skills into practice. At the end of the day an officer from the brigade operations branch did a cursory investigation, about two minutes. The question of whether the shooting was justified at all did not come up. Afterwards I and four other officers who saw similar incidents were so surprised, that we decided to write a letter to the corps commander, with a copy to the Chief of Staff, what is really going on.” At the end of Operation Rainbow the IDF spokesman announced that dozens of armed men were killed as well as 14 civilians.

At the Southern Command they know that the order to open fire on every person on a roof is not legal. The matter had been clarified a half year before, when a soldier in the Paratroopers refused a similar order. “I served in Netzarim, in which there are dozens of guard posts,” relates Zafrir Goldberg. “At the briefing they explained the open-fire regulations and I was shocked. I talked to the company commander, and he said that he was sorry, but those were the regulations. I also talked to an officer in the Intelligence Branch and the assistant battalion commander.” The Association for Civil Rights contacted the Judge Advocate-General and warned about a “patently illegal order.” At the beginning of January 2004 the Judge Advocate-General replied: “We have instructed the command elements to ensure that the briefings given to soldiers do not include such an order.”

The reply of the military prosecutor: “International law permits attacking any combatant, including those who are observing and guiding. The question is how to determine whether someone is a lookout and not someone who went up to hang laundry. I do not know the specific incidents, but theoretically it could be that a soldier who shoots does not see the whole picture. The requirement for authorization from a higher level teaches a certain degree of caution. A soldier who identifies an armed terrorist shoots without authorization.”

The do not identify. They shoot

The unit of “K”, a soldier in the Haredi Nahal Brigade, was positioned above Ramallah in order to dominate the al-Bireh neighbourhood. According to him, “In our position it was relatively quiet, occasionally there was shooting in our direction from a Kalashnikov. It was ineffective fire because of the distance and because the shooters were below. But it was clear that according to the regulations we were not to be passive but were supposed to shoot back and ‘return fire to the sources of fire.’ The problem was there was no chance of identifying the sources of fire, and in practice we returned ‘general’ fire, in the direction of the houses.

“At first, whenever there was fire towards our position, we immediately went into the return-fire procedure: we fired wildly towards the neighbourhood. We sent down a rain of MAG [machine-gun] bullets and thousands of M-16 rounds without identifying a source of fire. It was clear to me that it was not logical. I went to the company commander and told him that it was a waste of money. Isn’t it pointless? I didn’t explain to him that there were residents and children living there, because everyone understood that. I only said that it cost a fortune. I suggested that they bring snipers who would try to take them down one by one.

“The first houses were about 600 metres from us. The source of the shooting was further back, 900 metres from us. There was no chance that they would hit us with a Kalashnikov, and for sure there was no chance of hitting them with return fire. After a month and a half the situation changed: when they didn’t shoot at us, we got bored. So the soldiers decided that we wouldn’t wait for them to start. They said something like today it’s our turn to start, and we’ll shoot first.

“We called it ‘initiated’. It was a kind of routine that the whole company knew, that happened dozens of times. Everybody recognized the word ‘initiated’, and the meaning – just start freely spraying bullets towards al-Bireh. Just shooting, and when possible, towards the windows when they were open. Obviously if anybody complained, we would say that the Palestinians fired first. Every day they would empty several ‘bruces’ (wooden ammunition boxes – S. G.) of ammunition. There were times when I saw ambulances go in, but I didn’t know what happened. On at least one occasion I know that we wounded a girl, because I saw an ambulance, and a day later there was a report in the newspaper that the IDF returned fire to sources of fire in al-Bireh, and that there was a girl whose leg we took off.

“The staff knew everything and gave us to understand that there was no problem. For example, when we had to calibrate our weapons, the Company Commander encouraged us to aim at the fluorescent lights of the mosque. I’m sure that the Brigade Commander knew about it as well, because at least once they reported to him, after an officer from another unit visited the position and reported to him. He heard shots, and asked the soldier what he was doing. The soldier said that they had shot at him, and the officer said, ‘hold it, I heard, don’t lie.’ He reported it to the brigade commander, and they talked about it for several days, but nothing happened. That whole period we were in contact with the people from the Pisgot settlement, whom we were guarding, and after a week they told us that the matter was closed, that an officer like him won’t last long in the brigade.”

The IDF spokesman, in an initial reply: “Commanders of the unit were replaced and retired and it is hard to get comments from them.” IDF spokesman in a second reply: “According to the commanders, they were not there at that time.” Lt.-Col. Libman: “There are no open-fire rules ‘just to shoot’. There are regulations that deal with shooting at an unidentified source of fire, which are subordinate to the basic rule that you do not shoot at a place where you endanger a civilian population. The regulation is supposed to be transmitted to the soldiers at briefings and before all actions and it makes clear what is forbidden.”

“M”, from the Giv’ati Brigade, tells of those unwritten procedures, when he served in a position in front of Rafah in May 2004. At the edge of the neighbourhood was an abandoned house from which armed men occasionally opened fire, and the soldiers returned fire, including with a 40 mm grenade-launcher. “The problem is that the way to shoot well with a grenade-launcher is the way they used to do it with mortars in the armoured corps. First you miss, identify where it landed, and adjust and improve accordingly. Every hundred metres of divergence is a few millimetres to move the gun. In a discharge there are about 20 grenades. Every time you shoot to the right of the building, you hit the neighbourhood. That’s also how they calibrate the machine-gun. It’s clear that it’s impossible to hit right away, and of course there were live grenades that fell in the middle of the neighbourhood. I remember times we saw ambulances going in after our shooting. Why did they go in? I don’t believe that somebody in the neighbourhood had a heart attack right then. Logically we simply hit people. That shooting was done regularly and received all the authorizations from above, at least up to the division commander.”

Shooting at the population also happened in Nablus, as related by soldiers from a paratroopers’ unit. “R” recalls a young woman of 24 who was shot in the neck, due to what he describes as his and his friends’ “irresponsible shooting” towards houses, and an old man who took a bullet in the belly, that he himself apparently fired in similar circumstances. He too describes a reality in which they believe in the sentence: “You must return fire to the sources of fire,” even when nobody identifies them. “In practice everybody shoots freely in 360 degrees at [rooftop] water reservoirs and at everybody whom maybe they identify in the windows.”

“To say that we were under pressure is nonsense,” says “R” in reply to the necessary question. “In my opinion most of the shots that I and my friends fired were not because of nervousness and fear, but from the desire to put an X on our guns. Everyone who was a combat soldier knows how much he wants that X on the gun. Without that you’re not a man. I have one in my team with five X’s, and he doesn’t care. They tell you, ‘listen, they’re not naive. What was she standing at the window for?’ or ‘an unfortunate mishap.’ In my opinion it’s just the result of irresponsible shooting. Needless and senseless killing.”

* For more on Breaking the Silence checkout

December 18, 2008 - Posted by | Media | , , , ,

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