JERUSALEM — Israeli combat soldiers have acknowledged that they forced Palestinian civilians to serve as human shields, needlessly killed unarmed Gazans and improperly used white phosphorus shells to burn down buildings as part of Israel‘s three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip last winter.
In filmed testimony and written statements released Wednesday, more than two dozen soldiers told an Israeli army veterans‘ group that military commanders led the fighters into what one described as a “moral Twilight Zone” where almost every Palestinian was seen as a threat.
I have several thoughts about this report. Among other things, the 26 Israeli soldiers who testified for this report strike me as, in a way, representing some of the best values of Israel — or of humanity. I don’t know if I had been in their boots whether I would have had the guts to come forth. But they did.
It is very easy for people to rationalize away crimes done to people we do not consider part of our group — especially in time of war. Some of us are better than that, but most of us are not. I’m not even sure it’s a matter of choice. Maybe most of us are genetically programed to rationalize away crimes done to members of our “out group”, and only a few of us are not.
I have a friend — a veteran — who is very blunt about it. Right before the US invaded Iraq, he told me “Very few people will get killed in this one”. I objected by saying, “Maybe very few of our troops will get killed, but this will cost the lives of thousands of civilians”. “They don’t count”, he said, “They’re Iraqi civilians”. I think his attitude is nearly universal among humans. He could have been almost anyone in any country talking about how much — or little — he valued the lives of people who were not in his group.
So I think the 26 Israeli soldiers who came forth for this report represent something quite rare.
As for the crimes committed by the Israeli Defense Forces, I wonder what people expected? Did they expect the war to be morally sane? For at least the past 100 years, war has meant that civilians are brutalized and killed in greater numbers than combatants. This is now the established reality of war everywhere it breaks out — in sheer numbers, the real victims are not the soldiers, but the civilians. In effect — in practice — we now go to war against civilians. And that is everywhere. Not just the Gaza Strip. And that is everyone’s army — not just the Israeli.