The first-person accounts paint a horrid picture of the inner workings of the Israeli army, dealing a blow to its narrative of being a 'morally upright' force.
Several ex-Israeli soldiers have come out in public to expose the crimes perpetrated by the Israeli military. In a society where silence about apartheid violence is the norm, speaking out is a quick path to stigma and ostracization.
Veteran-founded organizations like Breaking the Silence (BtS) provide a platform for former Israeli soldiers to speak anonymously about the crimes they were part of or witness to.
The infamous NGO has gathered multiple testimonies from Palestinians and Israelis alike, detailing grim and excessive violence against civilians, indiscriminate bombardment, and apartheid violence.
Breaking the Silence first attracted public attention after publishing interviews with Israeli soldiers who participated in the 2014 war on Gaza that left 2,104 Palestinians dead, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women.
One testimony provided by an Israeli infantry lieutenant who participated in the invasion of North Gaza in 2014, described the artillery tactic of ‘retaining tension’. He describes it as maintaining a constant bombardment to keep Palestinians unsure of when the Israeli advance would occur, noting its euphemism in the Israeli defence force: ‘softening targets’.
“What this means in practice is that shells are being fired all the time. Even if we aren’t actually going to enter: shells, shells, shells. A suspicious structure, an open area, a field, a place where a tunnel shaft could be – fire, fire, fire,” he reveals.
He was witness to the ‘softening of targets’ for five days, and describes impatience at the highest levels of command leading to relaxed rules of engagement permitting the use of imprecise mortars and ‘reasonable damage to civilians or to their surroundings’.
In a recent interview with Anadolu Agency, Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli Air Force Pilot who was discharged in 2003, calls Israel’s government and military leadership “war criminals.”
"I realized during the second Intifada what Israeli Air Force and Israeli military are doing is war crime, terrorizing the population of millions of Palestinians and when I realized that, I decided to not just leave but to organize other pilots that will publicly refuse to take part in this crime," says Shapira.
In another leaked testimony by Breaking the Silence, one First Sergeant attached to an armoured corps during the Israeli invasion of Gaza relates how tank drivers would run over cars because they couldn’t fire.
“He doesn’t have any weapon, he doesn’t get to experience the fun in its entirety, he just drives forward, backward, right, left. And they had this sort of crazy urge to run over a car.”
He describes one incident where a tank driver ran over a car, and was let down by how anti-climatic the experience was. The driver got out and checked, only to find that he had run over half a car, going on to steal a pair of sunglasses from the wreck.
In one incident reported by an Israeli Major as far back as 2002, the ex-soldier describes a bomb clearing technician tasked to disarm pipe bombs asking permission to use children as human shields.
The bomb disposal technician said to him, “Okay, have a look inside the houses here, find a few kids, call them out to come and collect all the pipe bombs, put them all in a heap, we'll blow them up and go.”
After being refused the technician quipped, “Why did you come here to me today? For three weeks now, that's what we do, everybody agrees to do it, why are you suddenly hardheaded?”
The Major notes that as a soldier bearing a weapon, civilians aren’t being asked but ordered to do this.
Another testimony provided by a Captain who participated in the 2014 assault on Gaza describes an incident where a Palestinian was spotted in a house from a distance. After confirming that no Israeli forces were in the area, they attacked without confirming whether it was a civilian residence and without being fired upon.
“Our sharpshooters fired, and two minutes later we directed the battalion commander in the tank. They missed with the first shell. I don’t know where it hit, it went over the house. They hit with the second and third shells,” he says.
The Captain describes undefined rules of engagement.
“It was obvious that if it wasn’t our forces there, we needed to shoot. Two minutes later we moved on to the next house and forgot all about it,” he adds.
A First Sergeant serving with Israeli paratroopers in Nablus, describes his experience acting on orders and breaking into Palestinian homes repeatedly.
“You enter their house and [if] you have to break a window, you break a window, [if] you have to get on the table, you get on the table, [if] you have to make a mess of their house, you’ll do it, and if you don’t have time and have to leave immediately, you’ll leave without tidying up,” he says.
A First Sergeant attached to the Israeli defence force’s engineering corps who took part in the 2014 ground invasion of Gaza relates indiscriminate shelling of civilian homes, even though they met no resistance.
“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,” he says.
The picture painted by these former Israeli soldiers who have taken a stand against Israel’s military establishment and apartheid policies suggests a breakdown in the legality of orders, often justified in the name of Israel’s national security.
While Israeli society seems to turn a blind eye to what is being done in its name, soldiers are expected to forget and ignore crimes against civilians and Palestinians after they return to civilian life.
On April 13, an Israeli soldier set fire to himself due to extreme psychological distress after participating in the 2014 war on Gaza.
Speaking out is punished. In March 2020, a group that monitors NGO’s called Ad Kan submitted a legal petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice against Breaking the Silence for “collecting sensitive military intelligence that, if made public, could put national security at risk.” The petition was made on behalf of a number of senior IDF commanders and generals.
For Palestinian legal agencies trying to indict Israeli war criminals, national security is often used as a pretext to avoid disclosing military records.