Belfast Telegraph

Avner Gvaryahu: As an ex-soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, I've seen how shockingly we treat Palestinians

There are moral red lines. Why do we keep crossing them?

A Palestinian walks on the rubble from a damaged house following an overnight Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 15
A Palestinian walks on the rubble from a damaged house following an overnight Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 15
Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 15, 2014
A Thai-Muslim girl waves a small Palestinian flag as her parents attend a rally outside the Israeli embassy in Bangkok, Thailand Tuesday, July 15, 2014. Several hundreds of activists took part in the rally to show solidarity for Palestine against Israel's attacks on Gaza. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)
Israeli soldiers work on their tanks near the Israel Gaza Border, early Tuesday, July 15, 2014. The Israeli Cabinet has accepted an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire to end a week of conflict with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip that has killed 185 Palestinians and exposed millions of Israelis to Hamas rocket fire. No Israelis have been killed as a result of Hamas rocket launches. A senior Hamas official says the Palestinian militant group rejects an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire with Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli soldiers wait atop their military vehicle near the Israel Gaza Border, early Tuesday, July 15, 2014. The Israeli Cabinet has accepted an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire to end a week of conflict with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip that has killed 185 Palestinians and exposed millions of Israelis to Hamas rocket fire. No Israelis have been killed as a result of Hamas rocket launches. A senior Hamas official says the Palestinian militant group rejects an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire with Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A Palestinian talks on a mobile phone as he walks on the rubble of a damaged house following an overnight Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 15, 2014 (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A Palestinian looks at the damage to a house following an overnight Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 15, 2014. Egypt presented a cease-fire plan Monday to end a week of heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip that has left at least 185 people dead, and both sides said they were seriously considering the proposal. The late-night offer by Egypt marked the first sign of a breakthrough in international efforts to end the conflict. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

BY AVNER GVARYAHU

I only knew Gaza from the stories. It was the military zone for which the Givate Brigade was responsible, but we all knew the stories about how they managed to kill several militants in one ambush. Honestly, we were a bit jealous.

I was drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) at the end of the Second Intifada into a special operations unit of the paratrooper brigade. From the start of my service I knew that Nablus and Jenin would be the areas for which we were responsible. Child’s play, seemingly, compared to the stories that came out of Gaza – but my child’s play.

I’ll never forget the first time that I was shot at, the first Palestinian corpse I ever saw, and the fear and adrenaline during my first military operation.

My first mission involved the seizure of a Palestinian home. I had never before had the opportunity to be inside a Palestinian home, and my squad was surprised for a moment by the fact that within the home lived an entire family – spanning three generations. We woke everyone up, and took over the house.

We put everyone in one room - women, men, children, and the elderly. One of the guys was stationed at the door to ensure that they didn’t get out. In the meantime, we took care of our business.

I remember asking myself: what do they think about all of this? What would I do if soldiers broke into my home? But I immediately repressed these questions and carried on with the mission. As time passed, fear turned into boredom, adrenaline stabilized, and my doubts about the extent of the operational logic and its justification would return to gnaw at me.

But the next day there were already new operations. This was our daily routine, and as a result, the next time I didn’t really think about how the family whose home we entered felt.

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Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City
Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City

My personal red moral line blurred very quickly. Every time I would tell myself – this is still okay. But it’s in the nature of red lines to move along an imaginary scale.

I wasn’t bothered when we destroyed entire homes during search operations, and when my squad accidentally shot an innocent woman, and we quickly buried the incident and moved on. Today I know that my ability to distinguish whether a particular action crosses the line, didn’t really exist back then.

What happened to me is happening to the IDF and to Israeli society at large. During Operation Cast Lead I had been a civilian active with Breaking the Silence for over a year, but I was still shocked by the incidents I heard had occurred there.

I remember a friend who had taken part in Cast Lead. He returned shaken by the fact that homes of “Hamas members” were deemed legitimate targets for bombing without any relation to the risk they posed to our soldiers in the field. That was the first time he had encountered such orders during his military service. This is what he testified:

"In the morning we identified four men, aged 25 - 40, with keffiyehs, standing outside the house talking. It was suspect. We reported it to intelligence, specifying the house they were about to enter.

Intelligence passed this on to the Shabak (Israeli Security Agency) who reported that this was known as a Hamas activist’s house. This is automatically acted upon. I don’t remember what we used - whether it was a helicopter or something else, but the house was bombed while these guys were inside.

A woman ran out of the house holding a child, and escaped southward. That is to say, there had been innocent people inside."

The same red line that was crossed during Operation Cast Lead has become the starting line for Operation Protective Edge. Homes of “Hamas members” were added to the IDF’s long list of potential targets in the Gaza Strip.

The politicians that send us to perform these tasks don’t even pretend to promise hope for a better future. Just further use of force and violence. Our doubts about logic and justice don’t even interest us anymore, as our red moral lines are constantly moving in the face of our reality - much like mine during my military service.

150 killed in Gaza in the first six days of the operation, the vast majority of whom were civilians, and a quarter of whom were children. Millions of Israeli and Palestinian people live in existential fear that a rocket or a missile will fall on their heads. The end of one bout of violence merely sets an alarm for the next.

The red line at which we stopped during Operation Cast Lead (2009), is the same line from which we commenced Operation Pillar of Defense (2011). The point at which we stopped during Pillar of Defense is the same place from which we’ve started Protective Edge. What will our next red line be? And when will we cross that one too? Only we can answer that question. It depends on us, and what we allow others to do in our name.

Avner Gvaryahu served in the IDF as a sergeant in special forces from November 2004-November, 2007

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