Norman Finkelstein: The Whole Point of OPE Was to Leave “Families Under the Rubble.”
The ghastly truth of what unfolded in Gaza is captured, not in Amnesty’s effective whitewash but, instead, in the Breaking the Silence collection of testimonies of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who served in Gaza during OPE (see Table 4).
TABLE 4 Property/Home Destruction in Gaza during OPE: A Selection of IDF Testimonies
1* [Did you see any “before and after” aerial photos?]**
Sure. Neighborhoods erased. You know what joke was being told in the army at the time? The joke says that Palestinians only sing the chorus because they have no verses [houses] left. [in Hebrew, the word for verses is the same as the word for house]
5 During the talk [while in training] he [high ranking armored battalion commander] showed us the urban combat facility and said, “Everything you see here—picture it as though someone came through now and destroyed everything. There are almost no buildings left standing.” The inclination is to avoid risks—rather to destroy everything we come across.
14 I got the impression that every house we passed on our way got hit by a shell—and houses farther away too. It was methodical. There was no threat.
15 While we were stationed there, the armored forces would fire at the surrounding houses all the time. I don’t know what exactly their order was, but it seemed like every house was considered a threat, and so every house needed to be hit by at least one shell….
[After you left, were there still any houses left standing?]
20 [What were you shooting at?]
[Randomly chosen houses?]
[How much fire were you using?]
There was constant talk about how much we fired, how much we hit, who missed. There were people who fired 20 shells per day. It’s simple: Whoever feels like shooting more—shoots more. Most guys shot more. Dozens of shells [per day], throughout the operation. Multiply that by 11 tanks in the company.
21 I don’t know how they pulled it off, the D9*** operators didn’t rest for a second. Nonstop, as if they were playing in a sandbox. Driving back and forth, back and forth, razing another house, another street. And at some point there was no trace left of that street…. Day and night, 24/7, they went back and forth, gathering up mounds, making embankments, flattening house after house.
28 There was no threat and it was quiet, and then suddenly there’s this command on the two-way radio: “Guys, everyone form a row, facing the neighborhood of al-Bureij”…. I remember it, all the tanks were standing in a row, and I personally asked my commander: “Where are we firing at?” He told me: “Pick wherever you feel like it.” And later, during talks with the other guys—each one basically chose his own target, and the commander called it on the two-way radio, “Good morning al-Bureij.” “We are carrying out, a ‘Good morning al-Bureij,’ guys” that was the quote…. And everyone fired shells wherever they wanted to, obviously. Nobody had opened fire at us—not before, not after, not during.
30 Everything “wet” [using live fire]. From the moment we went in, we were firing MATADOR and LAW [portable anti-tank] rockets on every house we entered before “opening” them up, everything “wet,” grenades, the whole thing. War.
[Every room you go into you open “wet”?]
Everything. When I got to a house, it was already half destroyed. Lots and lots of bullet holes inside it, everything inside a total mess.
[The two hours of artillery fire before—what were they shooting at?]
At scattered areas near the houses. All those agricultural areas near the houses. Before a tank makes any movement it fires, every time. Those guys were trigger happy, totally crazy. Those were their orders, I’m certain of it, there’s no chance anybody would just go around shooting like that. [The brigade’s] conception was, “We’ll fire without worrying about it, and then we’ll see what happens.”
[The fire was directed at places deemed suspicious?]
No, not necessarily. The tank fires at places that you know you will need to enter, it fires at those houses.
[Only at the houses you’re going to enter?]
No, at the surrounding houses too. There are also agricultural fields there, the D9 rips them all up. And tin sheds. It takes down whatever’s in its way, it topples greenhouses. Lots of houses were flattened in “Bar’s Bar” [the nickname given to a housing compound in which the forces were positioned]. Empty houses that bothered us. Bothered us even just to look at.
33 The very day we left Gaza, all the houses we had stayed in were blown up by combat engineers.
34 We [armored corps] were given a number of targets…. It’s not like any normal city, where you’ll see a building next to another building and there’s a space between them. It looks like one fused layer.
[And at that point were you being fired at?]
No fire was directed toward us, but these were deemed “suspicious spots”—which means a very lax policy of opening fire [was being employed]. That can mean anything that looks threatening to us…. Every tank commander knew, and even the simple soldiers knew, that if something turns out to be not OK, they can say they saw something suspicious.
37 One of the high ranking commanders, he really liked the D9s. He was a real proponent of flattening things. He put them to good use. Let’s just say that after every time he was somewhere, all the infrastructure around the buildings was totally destroyed, almost every house had gotten a shell through it. He was very much in favor of that.
42 The forces…destroyed everything still left there. Literally not a single house was left standing.… “We are entering the area in order to destroy the entire tunneling infrastructure that still remains there.” If you think about it, that really means every house in the area.
[You said that according to the intelligence the IDF had, no tunnels were left there.]
Right. What they mean is, this is the area in which the brigade moves around, if it’s still standing, it needs to be taken down…. This incursion happened the night before there was a ceasefire.… [T]hey went in just to destroy stuff. Just to purposelessly destroy stuff, to finish the job, until they were told to stop.
46 There was one afternoon that the company commander gathered us all together, and we were told that we were about to go on an offensive operation, to “provoke” the neighborhood that dominated us, which was al-Bureij…. Because up until then, we hadn’t really had any real engagement with them…. [W]hen it started getting dark my tank led the way, we were in a sort of convoy, and there was this little house. And then suddenly we see an entire neighborhood opening up before us, lots of houses, it’s all crowded and the moment we got to that little house, the order came to attack. Each [tank] aimed at whichever direction it chose.... And that’s how it was, really—every tank just firing wherever it wanted to. And during the offensive, no one shot at us—not before it, not during it, and not after it. I remember that when we started withdrawing with the tanks, I looked toward the neighborhood, and I could simply see an entire neighborhood up in flames, like in the movies. Columns of smoke everywhere, the neighborhood in pieces, houses on the ground, and like, people were living there, but nobody had fired at us yet. We were firing purposelessly.
51 A week or two after we entered the Gaza Strip and we were all firing a lot when there wasn’t any need for it—just for the sake of firing—a member of our company was killed.… The company commander came over to us and told us that one guy was killed due to such-and-such, and he said, “Guys, get ready, get in your tanks, and we’ll fire a barrage in memory of our comrade.”… [T]here was a sort of building far away near the coastline, around 4.5 kilometers from us…. It wasn’t a threat to us, it had nothing to do with anybody, it wasn’t part of the operation, it was out by the sea, far away from anything and from any potential threat—but that building was painted orange, and that orange drove my eyes crazy the entire time.… So I told my platoon commander: “I want to fire at that orange house,” and he told me: “Cool, whatever you feel like,” and we fired….
[Did your guys discuss it later?]
The bit about shelling purposelessly? No, because when you look at the bigger picture, that’s something we were doing all the time. We were firing purposelessly all day long. Hamas was nowhere to be seen.
52 [Is the tank’s M16 being used the whole time?]
The more the merrier. What weapons? The tank, endless ammunition, and a crazy amount of firepower. Constantly. If not via the cannon, then via the tank’s heavy machine gun.
[Where is it shooting at?]
At everything, basically. At suspicious houses. What’s a “suspicious spot?” Everything is a suspicious spot. This is Gaza, you’re firing at everything.
54 Any house that infantry guys enter—a tank precedes them. That was really the formulation: any force that enters a house—first, at least one tank shell is fired at it before the force even goes in. Immediately after the engagement we set up in this orchard, we blasted shells at the surrounding houses. Even my commander, because he was hyped up to fire his personal weapon, took the entire team out just to shoot at the house, which was already obviously empty. So many shells were fired at it, and it was clearly empty. “Well, fire,” he told us. It was meaningless. It was just for kicks—the sort of fun you have at a shooting range.
63 [The commander] tells you, “Listen, this is the first line—I can’t take any risks on the first line of houses, use artillery on those.”
[Did he have any intelligence on those houses?]
No, no, he has no intelligence.
67 [Combat engineering forces] blew up a lot of houses…. There are all kinds of considerations about why to blow up a house. One of them, for example, is when you want to defend some other house. If there’s a house blocking your field of vision, [and you want to] expose the area so that it’s easier to defend…. Sometimes we blew up a house when we suspected there was an explosive device in it, but I think ultimately we blew up pretty much the entire neighborhood.
71 On the day the fellow from our company was killed, the commanders came up to us and told us what happened. Then they decided to fire an “honor barrage” and fire three shells.…
[A barrage of what?]
A barrage of shells. They fired the way it’s done in funerals, but with shellfire and at houses. Not into the air. They just chose [a house]—the tank commander said, “Just pick the farthest one, so it does the most damage.” Revenge of sorts. So we fired at one of the houses.
74 I remember one time that explosives were detonated in order to clear passage routes. They told us, “Take cover, it’s about to be used 100-150 meters away.” Then an explosion—I’ve never heard anything like it. Lamps crashing, it was insane—a crazy mushroom of fire, really crazy. Then we went down into the street and the houses we were supposed to take over no longer existed. Gone.
83 There was a humanitarian ceasefire that went into effect at 6:00 AM. I remember they told us at 5:15 AM, “Look, we’re going to put on a show.”… It was amazing. Fire, nonstop shelling of the “Sevivon” neighborhood [east of Beit Hanoun]…. Nonstop. Just nonstop. The entire Beit Hanoun compound—in ruins…. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing.
110 [A] very senior officer from the army strike coordination center comes in running and says, “Listen up, the brigade commander was killed and a soldier was kidnapped, it’s a mess, we need to help them.”… One of the most senior officials in the IDF, he just marked off houses on an aerial photo of Shuja’iyya, to be taken down. He simply looked at the map and saw commanding points and commanding houses and [picked targets] in a way that was in some sense sort of random—so that there would be no way that if you’re a Hamas militant…there wasn’t some house that just got taken down near you right now. It’s not like in every building that was struck in Shuja’iyya there was some Hamas militant or somebody firing at our forces.
[So why was it attacked?]
In order to keep their heads down and allow our forces to get out of there, to use firepower—that’s how the military works.
[I’m trying to understand: it was random, or as part of a target list prepared in advance?]
It wasn’t prepared in advance at all. In the inquiry later on it was described as a mistake.
* Testimonies are numbered in the collection.
** Bracketed, italicized interpolations by Breaking the Silence.
*** Armored bulldozers.
In its introduction to Families under the Rubble, Amnesty exhorts Israel to “learn the lessons of this and previous conflicts and change its military doctrine and tactics for fighting in densely populated areas such as Gaza so as to ensure strict compliance with international humanitarian law.” But Israel has already learnt the lessons of fighting in Gaza, its military doctrine has incorporated these lessons, and the IDF brilliantly executed them. It requires exceptional mental discipline not to notice that ensuring “strict compliance with international law” has not been an Israeli concern, let alone a priority. Indeed, the whole point of OPE was to leave “families under the rubble.”