What Breaking the Silence Report Says About Gaza War — and Doesn’t
“Three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty,” Carl von Clausewitz wrote in On War.
Von Clausewitz was addressing the unpredictability and uncertainty of even the best-planned military campaigns. Military and political leaders cannot see far and thus need to be cognizant of how easily they might fail.
Breaking the Silence is an organization that was founded by veteran Israeli combatants in 2004 with the express purpose of dispelling a different sort of war fog – not the sort that results from a disconnect between commanders and soldiers in the field, but rather the willful blindness of citizens who would rather not know what really happens in war.
Israelis, like the citizens of other democratic countries, do not only want their armies to win. They want to be able to claim that their armies act justly. As such, they often prefer not to know what really happens on the battlefield. If you need your war to be moral, better not to know about the blood, the destruction, the children caught in the crossfire.
The organization has shown Israelis exactly what is being done in their name by getting soldiers to talk, primarily about how their actions have affected Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In particular, it has highlighted how providing security for Jewish settlers in the West Bank requires IDF soldiers to impose themselves on the lives, work and homes of Palestinians, and how some soldiers morph into petty tyrants while doing so.
In its most recent report, Breaking the Silence does something different — it points its spotlight at the haze of a full-scale military operation, last summer’s Protective Edge incursion into the Gaza Strip and tries to draw from its testimonies bigger lessons about an Israeli army functioning wildly without a clear code of ethics. But rather than clear-sighted, the result of this exercise is confused.
The reason is that Breaking the Silence’s signature activity, that of collecting and publishing testimonies from soldiers, is a good way of dispelling the fog of the occupation for Israeli citizens but not a good way of addressing the tough questions of morality and the practice of just war that this operation, like any conflict between a state and a non-state actor, raises.
It’s easy enough to shock when writing about war because war is shocking. But to understand whether an army is acting morally and in accord with the international law of war, discovering that the army did awful things is of little use.
In particular, two questions need to be answered. First, could the army have achieved its immediate legitimate military goals (in this case, first and foremost the end of the missile barrage on Israeli civilian communities) in a way that would have been less costly to enemy civilian life and property than the means that it chose to use? Second, did the army take the necessary steps to ensure that its tactical orders, such as its rules of engagement, were clearly passed down the chain of command to the ranks and enforced by its officers?
The Israeli tank gunner who reports that he took pot shots with artillery shells at a taxi and a bicycle simply for the fun of it should be court-martialed. Even more culpable are the commanders of his unit who allowed such a game to proceed and who failed to keep up unit morale and to allow a situation in which, as the same soldier reports, “the good and the bad get a bit mixed up, and your morals get a bit lost.…”
But the case of a soldier who reports the orders he received from a commander is different. “Anything you see in the neighborhoods you’re in, anything within a reasonable distance, say between zero and 200 meters — is dead on the spot. No authorization needed,” the commander told his men. “Because he isn’t supposed to be there. Nobody, no sane civilian who isn’t a terrorist, has any business being within 200 meters of a tank.”
That Israeli soldiers were ordered to shoot to kill at prima facie civilians without any effort to ascertain whether they were hostile is disturbing. But in a war in which 0–200 meters is well within the range of an anti-tank missile and an explosives-laced suicide bomber, and in which a large part of the enemy army does not wear uniforms, such an order is not unfathomable. Here we simply can’t judge without a lot more information about the context in which the order was given, to what extent it was consistent with the orders promulgated by the high command, and the specific dangers faced by that particular unit in its particular location.
The introduction to the report frames one of the central issues presented by Protective Edge — an Israeli fire policy aimed at, above all, protecting IDF soldiers, even at the cost of a greater loss of Palestinian civilian lives. This policy of valuing the lives of one’s own soldiers over the lives of enemy civilians is arguably a violation of the customary laws of war as understood by most international organizations and just war theorists. But it’s no less true that the customary laws of war as understood in this way seem to offer Israel no adequate way of defending itself against the missile threat it faces from Gaza and Southern Lebanon precisely because the enemy has blurred the clear line between civilian and combatant.
For Breaking the Silence, the two cases cited above both represent an army functioning without any ethical compass. But they are actually quite different. The first represents a failure of discipline — the soldier taking the potshots was violating his own army’s policy. In the second case, however, the soldier was acting on IDF policy. That policy may have been right or wrong, good or bad, but the soldier himself did not have the ability to make that judgment.
Breaking the Silence is to be praised for dispersing the fog and for enabling, even forcing Israelis to see what they would rather not see — the horrible destruction that Protective Edge caused. That is important to face up to even if the operation was fully justified in its goals and upright in its tactics. But the authors and readers of the report would be mistaken to conclude that the report proves that Israel pursued a criminal military policy in this operation. That requires more than these testimonies. As von Clausewitz says, “A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.”
Haim Watzman is the author of Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel and writes the Necessary Stories column in The Jerusalem Report. His website is http://southjerusalem.com._