Army Faces Criticism After Foray in Gaza


By Ofer Shelah

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

TEL AVIV — Looking back on Operation Days of Repentance, the massive incursion into northern Gaza that ended with a troop pullback last weekend, Israel field commanders called the 17-day foray a resounding operational success. New and advanced techniques for fighting terrorists were shown off, and an efficient, newly unified system of command was implemented. There was virtually no interference from the international community, and the forces enjoyed almost wall-to-wall support inside Israel itself.

And yet, as the tanks and armored personnel carriers made their way back to their old lines, the prevalent feeling in the ranks was not of achievement but frustration. The stated goal of the operation was to end the firing of Qassam rockets on Israeli towns, yet the rockets continued to fall throughout the operation. And if the show of force was meant to pressure Palestinians into demanding a more responsible leadership in advance of Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza next year, that hope was set back when fighting broke out this week — the fiercest in memory — between rival Palestinian security forces under Musa Arafat and Muhammad Dahlan.

The chaos left many Israelis feeling as though nothing had been accomplished. “We’ll definitely be back here soon,” one soldier told Israel Radio as the troops pulled out.

In a way, the operation’s score-sheet is indicative of the complex situation in which the Israeli military finds itself after four years of war. It has developed new means of fighting under very difficult circumstances. Its use of intelligence, aerial forces and advanced technology in a so-called asymmetrical situation — facing a nonmilitary foe that uses civilian population for cover — is the most advanced the world ever has known. “I can honestly say no one in the world is doing what we’re doing in this situation,” a ranking air force officer told the Forward.

But the toll exacted by continuous fighting among civilians — both in deaths of Palestinians and in damage to Israel’s image — seemed to rise with each new day and each new disclosure about what the Israeli forces did in Gaza, intentionally or as collateral damage. One hundred and ten Palestinians were killed in the fighting, nearly half of them civilians by most estimates. The operation was launched in response to a September 29 rocket attack that killed two Israeli children in the Negev town of Sderot.

The fighting has given rise to a host of embarrassing revelations. Once of the most damaging was a report issued this week at a Jerusalem press conference by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Titled “Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip,” the report said that 298 Palestinian homes had been destroyed just in the month of May in Rafah, during Operation Rainbow in the Cloud. Since 2000, the report said, Israeli activities have left more than 16,000 Gaza Palestinians homeless, many with no discernable military justification. International law permits home demolitions only in the case of immediate military necessity. The evidence in Gaza, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth told the Forward, seems to point toward a deliberate policy, which “may eventually destroy a third of Rafah.”

Criticism also has been voiced from within. Four officers of the elite Shaldag unit, the special operations unit of the Israel Air Force, recently sent a stinging letter to the military chief of staff and the commander of the air force, decrying home demolitions and unnecessary targeting of civilians. The letter, reported this week in Maariv, condemned the military’s easing of the rules of engagement, the “quick trigger finger” shown in house demolitions and other acts that they saw as violations of the army’s code of ethics.

The four, all active duty unit commanders, indicated that they did not intend to refuse to serve in the territories, as previous groups of protesting air force pilots and elite unit fighters have done. However, they described the acts they had seen as a serious danger to the army’s moral stature. The four were not expected to face disciplinary action, and some senior officers told the press that the four had “done the right thing” in voicing their complaints.

In some recent incidents, the army’s response to criticism has prompted even more alarm than the initial charges themselves. Such was the case of a company commander in the Givati infantry brigade who was accused by his troops early this month of performing a “kill assertion” — firing at a presumed dead body to make sure that the person is indeed dead — on an unarmed 13-year-old Palestinian girl. The officer, some soldiers claimed, fired more than 20 rounds into the girl’s corpse, even though it was obvious that she presented no danger to his troops.

After the initial debriefing and an investigation by the chief of Southern Command, General Dan Harel, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon issued a baffling statement. Among other things, he said he found the officer’s version of events, according to which he failed to determine who was firing on him, and therefore responded by firing a burst “into the ground” which hit the girl — to be credible. This raised widespread skepticism in the public and the press, since the soldiers’ charges had been reported widely. No such behavior had ever been reported before in any Israeli combat unit.

The credibility of the army, always a sensitive issue for Israelis, has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks because of the troops’ expected role in the evacuation of settlers from Gaza, if and when Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan is carried out. Growing numbers of rabbis of increasing stature have called on soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements. The latest was a former chief rabbi, Abraham Shapira, who now heads the prestigious Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. The statements have prompted a furor among politicians and soldiers. Ya’alon, the chief of staff, declared in a speech in Ashkelon this week that refusal to obey military orders was “a danger to Zionism.”

Meanwhile, mounting pressure on Sharon raised questions as to his ability to implement the disengagement, currently the only plan on the table for Gaza’s future. A majority within the ruling Likud party favors submitting Sharon’s plan to a national referendum, which Sharon refuses to do. Dissenters forced him this week to accept a party task force to “study” the referendum idea, though it probably will not report back until after the plan comes before the Knesset on October 25. Still, the ability of the anti-disengagement rebels to impose the task force on Sharon was a humiliation that showed his growing isolation. His narrow victory in two no-confidence votes in the Knesset this week — one of them a 54-54 draw — only highlighted his vulnerability.

With the army stronger than ever and yet ever more frustrated, with the world community disengaged and more and more Israelis questioning their army’s tactics, Sharon enters the most crucial month of his reign. Few expected the wily old fox to lose, but nobody could offer a clear idea of how he would win.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.