How Hamas Destroys Its People, as Seen Through the Eyes of IDF Soldiers

~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Yocheved Schwartz ~

From the Blog

Since the beginning of the Gaza War, Israelis have insisted that Hamas uses its own civilians as “human shields.” Hamas denies it, and certain international voices take their side. Now some of those who saw it with their own eyes are speaking out.

It’s been nearly two months since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, and while it seems the hostilities are tentatively over, what has become clear is that despite claims of victory, the civilians of Gaza have paid the heaviest price. What has also become clear is that no matter how many times Israeli officials blame the high civilian death toll on Hamas, that claim continues to fall on deaf ears.

Coming from politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu or Naftali Bennett, the words “human shield” sound more like an Israeli public relations slogan than a tragic truth of guerilla warfare. The world has heard the claim that Hamas hides behind its civilians so many times that today the accusation holds very little weight.

Perhaps it’s hard to believe that Hamas, a group claiming to fight for Palestinian freedom, would use Palestinian civilians to protect themselves. Or perhaps it’s simply difficult to imagine that any human being would deliberately put innocent people in danger for the sake of winning a media war. Or perhaps it’s merely a lack of evidence, an absence of stories that tell people what the words “human shield” really mean.

Only in the past few weeks have reports began to emerge from journalists who have left the Gaza Strip and now feel safe enough to report on Hamas’s tactic of launching rockets from hospitals, schools, and other civilian infrastructure.

According to a new report published by the IDF, Hamas launched more than 1,600 rockets from civilian sites.

Yet we still haven’t really heard any substantive, first-hand, on-the-ground stories of Hamas using Palestinian civilians as tools of war. Spoken of even less are the Israeli military’s efforts to limit civilian casualties.

Notably, the people we haven’t heard from throughout this information war are the soldiers themselves, the young men who were on the ground in Gaza, fighting the actual war. They, better than anyone else, can speak of their experience fighting against Hamas and the unconventional warfare they faced.

Below is a collection of personal stories gathered from soldiers who saw with their own eyes Palestinian civilians being used as strategic elements of Hamas’ fight against Israel. In some cases, only first names have been used in order to protect identities, as some were still in the midst of the operation when interviewed.

While they all served in different units, and fought different battles, some from the sky and some from the ground, all of them spoke of their painstaking efforts to protect the lives of Palestinian civilians at the risk of their own lives. Each soldier interviewed for this story had his own personal account, sometimes several accounts, of trying to avoid civilian casualties in the face of Hamas efforts to exploit them. And all of the soldiers shared the same frustration that despite all of their painstaking efforts, the world continues to view Israel’s war in Gaza as a war against humanity, when in their eyes, it is very much a war against a terrorist organization that has taken its own people hostage.

Sgt. Jonny S. is a tall, gentle, soft-spoken 24-year-old originally from Maryland. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 2011, he moved to Israel, and began serving in the Givati Brigade in 2013. Jonny had just finished his yearlong training course weeks before being sent into Gaza in July. He returned from Gaza on August 4, days after one of the most difficult days of the war for Israel, and for him personally. Jonny was interviewed on August 12 at the Benji Home for Lone Soldiers in Raanana, where he stays during breaks from the army.

In the beginning we were in neighborhoods in Southern Gaza that had all been evacuated a week before. A lot of the houses we searched were booby trapped with explosives. A lot of houses you would go in and find an Israeli soldier uniform, along with Hamas uniforms.

You’d go into the house—just a normal house—and see pictures of a family, a wardrobe in a couple’s room, a children’s room. You’d see children’s toys in one room, and in the next room you’d find an AK-47. So there were no lines between who’s a civilian and who’s a terrorist.

We also found a number of tunnel entrances in the area, in the middle of a neighborhood. I don’t even think everyone in the neighborhood knows there’s a tunnel in their neighborhood. The entrance would be in a building, covered by a sofa or a closet. It would just be in a house, someone’s kitchen—a tunnel that led into Israel.

The whole time we barely saw any terrorists. They stayed deeper in the cities where it’s denser, and where the civilians hadn’t been evacuated.

There was one point when there was a 24-hour humanitarian ceasefire and during that time civilians came back to their neighborhoods. So at one point we were in a house of a known Hamas affiliate and the owners actually came back to the house. It was eight of them—a dad and seven boys. They weren’t all his children. Some were his nephews. But one of his sons was a Hamas affiliate. He was in his early twenties.

When they came back to the house we talked to them and the man said “I don’t know what all my sons are up to. I didn’t know he was affiliated with Hamas.” And I remember him saying, “When I left my house, I locked the doors because I knew that after people left their houses Hamas would go in and booby trap them. So I did that on purpose, so my house wouldn’t be a trap that would explode.”

And his house had stayed locked.

The father was actually really nice. He used to work in Israel before the border became contentious. He had a beautiful, gorgeous house, with three stories and lots of rooms. And he said, “The way I was able to pay for this house was because of the years I worked in Israel.”

Sgt. Jonny S. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

Sgt. Jonny S. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

He said Hamas has ruined their lives here, and that it was great having a good relationship with Israel because it helped him economically. He said that since Hamas came into power, he’d lost the ability to work in Israel, and was just living off of what he had made in Israel.

I remember he was joking with my company commander, saying that the best hummus is in Israel, in Petach Tikva. And then he recommended a shakshouka place. It was really funny to hear their conversation. And this was right after we arrested his son. He was a really friendly, nice guy. I think unfortunately he was stuck in the middle of the conflict.

This was before the big event that happened in Rafah…

Another time during a ceasefire we were in a house and a 16-year-old boy came into the neighborhood that was supposed to be fully evacuated. So my company commander went out to talk to him, because you know, you don’t know who’s a Hamas affiliate and who’s not. So he talked to him and said, “We know there’s a tunnel in the area, do you know where it is?” And the boy was clearly innocent. You could tell right away. He said “no, we don’t have food, so I just came to the neighborhood to try to find food for my family.”

We had like 30 people in the house and we were supposed to have food rations for 24 hours. So the company commander sent his radio control operator upstairs to gather all of our food for the next 24 hours. It was like olives, tuna, beans, nothing that delicious, you know, corn and stuff. And he put it all in a big box. On his way out, I was on guard duty with a guy named Hadar. We had just opened up a pack of gummy worms we had gotten as a donation from Israel, and we put that in there as well.

And it was nice, the company commander sent the boy off with the cardboard box. It was nice. We didn’t have food for the next 12 hours; we just had some bread, but he told us were going to get new rations in 12 hours and you don’t know when this kid is going to get food again.

I really respect him for that. He had a really good heart. This is the same commander who had the conversation with the father about shakshouka. His name was Benaya Sarel.

It was an hour after the ceasefire, and I think they purposely put a man that looked like a civilian, just a normal man, to kind of entice us to come out to go talk to him, and then waiting down below were a bunch of explosives and a suicide bomber.

On Friday morning [August 1] we went outside and there was a man who was watching from a window. We didn’t know at the time that he was with Hamas. He was about a 40-year-old guy, wearing a blue t-shirt. He didn’t have a gun on him, or not that we saw at least. He had his hands over a windowsill, looking out from the window of a 2-story building. It was an hour after the ceasefire had taken effect. It had gone into effect at 8 AM that morning and it was a little after 9 AM.

So it was the company commander that I keep talking about, Benaya Sarel, Hadar Goldin, and Liel Gidoni, the radio operator who went upstairs to get the food for the kid the other day. It was six of us: those three, me and two others.

So we see this guy who looks like a civilian, with his hands leaning on the windowsill. He wasn’t supposed to be there. This area was supposed to be evacuated. Benaya said he wanted to go talk to him, to see if he could get any information from him. So those three went in one direction to talk to him, and I went the other way with the other two guys.

Benaya didn’t feel any imminent danger, or else he wouldn’t have done that. He just didn’t want the guy to run away and get scared. So the three of them walked towards him, and from my point I heard shots ring out and an explosion. And this was supposed to be during a ceasefire.

By the time we got there, it had ended. What had happened was that a suicide bomber had come out of a tunnel on the first level of the building where that man was, and had killed all three of them. And I guess the man up above and whoever else was in there, I think it was a few of them, they had dragged Hadar’s body down the tunnel that was on the first floor.

I think the whole thing was a trap. It was an hour after the ceasefire, and I think they purposely put a man that looked like a civilian, just a normal man, to kind of entice us to come out to go talk to him, and then waiting down below were a bunch of explosives and a suicide bomber.

When we heard the shots, we ran back to get to them but it had already ended. When we got there, we saw two dead bodies: Benaya and Liel. They had died immediately from the explosives and the suicide bomber. The suicide bomber was dressed in an Israeli uniform.

And that ended up being the tunnel we were looking for all along.

Our assistant company commander went into the tunnel after to get Hadar’s body back, not knowing if Hadar was alive or not. And from what he said, it was a very elaborate tunnel. He said you could stand two people, and he’s taller than me, about a meter and 80 or 85 [centimeters—approximately six feet]. He said you could stand tall; you didn’t need to crouch at all. And there was room for two people to walk side by side. And he said there were twists and turns and everything. There was a ridiculous amount of weapons there; it was like a weapons storage center. There were bags of ready-made kits with a gun in there, a vest, and gun magazines. So the terrorists could just grab it and just go out and make an attack.

So he went down there and he said he saw that they had dragged Hadar’s body. He saw a trail of blood and just kind of followed it for a while. He realized that it went on for a long time so he came back out.

Benaya used to say that the worst kind of event is when you can’t fight back, when you can’t react. That’s exactly what that was. The worst part was that we got there and there was nothing for us to do. All we could do was put them on stretchers and send them back to Israel.

Benaya was an amazing commander. People really respected him. There wasn’t a person that didn’t look up to him. But there’s no commander in the army who would have shot that guy in the window who didn’t have a gun on him. When I first saw him, I was looking through the zoom on my gun and my red dot was on him but I wasn’t going to shoot him, because he didn’t have a gun. Even though he wasn’t supposed to be there. I think that’s just part of the IDF’s moral compass. That’s not the way we fight.

During guard duty I would sit with Hadar and he would tell me that he’s engaged, getting married in 2 months. He said he wanted to be a doctor after the army. I remember we were sitting on guard duty and he drew a picture of me, it was a goofy picture of a soldier. It was funny. He was just a nice guy.

[Benaya Sarel was also engaged, and his wedding was scheduled to take place on August 21.]

Air Force Capt. Omri, 28, is a pilot in the 100th Squadron, an intelligence unit that, in his words, deals with “anything involving cameras in the sky.” Omri was interviewed over the phone during a brief break from his ongoing work in Gaza.

A large percentage of what we’ve been doing is accompanying attacks. So if we’re talking about aerial strikes in the Gaza Strip, any bomb dropped in Gaza had some form of visual intelligence letting them know if we can see any people walking around the area. So if we were about to attack some place which might be near civilian infrastructure—which is most of what we were forced to do since Hamas places themselves within the civilian population—we had cameras in the area to make sure we could minimize civilian causalities as much as possible.

We were sent in during the first week of the ground operation. The ground forces were supposed to be moving into Shejaiya. The civilians were told to vacate by Monday at 12 noon. So when we were sent in, I was supposed to fly in just after 12, and we were told that civilians wouldn’t be there because they were all told to leave. And then we went and we saw civilians everywhere—in houses, on the streets. Only in hindsight did we realize that Hamas had told civilians to stay in their houses.

Israel was trying to keep them as far away from the fighting as possible. Yet Hamas kept calling them back to the battlefield because as far as Hamas is concerned, these images of civilians being hurt, of civilian areas being attacked, are the kinds of images they’re looking for. That’s the use they’re making of their own civilians. To gain world support rather than protecting their own civilians and keeping them out of danger.

In one of these attacks we weren’t sure what was going on inside the house, so a small bomb was dropped on the rooftop, and we kept our camera on the building. A minute later, we saw quite a few people leaving the house, but some of them went up onto the roof either to inspect what happened, or because we could see them on the roof. So in that case we called off the attack.

That was a building where we knew on one of the lower levels was an ammunition factory. And yet you have two or three floors above that where families are living. So they were told that an attack was taking place, a small bomb was dropped on the roof, yet people preferred to climb up on the roof and wait there.

Since he serves in the Israeli Air Force, Omri's face cannot be shown. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

Since he serves in the Israeli Air Force, Capt. Omri’s face cannot be shown. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

Whenever we accompany these kinds of attacks, afterwards we look for secondary explosions. A smaller explosion after the major explosion could be an ammunition stash or a rocket launcher. So we accompanied several of these attacks and one of them was on a hospital in Rafah, Al-Wafa hospital. It was said to be holding ammunition.

The IDF said it was about to attack the hospital, so all the civilians left. We accompanied this attack and saw quite a few of these second explosions. Turned out there was ammunition kept in the hospital.

It’s one thing to say, “Well, there’s no place to fight from Gaza because it’s so small, you have no place to keep your weapons unless it’s a civilian area.” To put your weapons inside a civilian hospital is one step beyond. It’s not just putting yourself in a civilian area. It’s a place that civilians most need in a time of war, and they were depending on the fact that Israel won’t attack the hospital.

Al-Shifa Hospital is also known to hold ammunition. We know of rockets being launched right outside the hospital. I myself have seen Hamas terrorists using ambulances as means of transport. So we know that Shifa—even though it’s a hospital—is in fact a military target per se, because it’s being used by Hamas’s military organization. But we also understand that Shifa is still a major hospital that tends to so many Palestinian civilians. That’s not a price we’re willing to pay. We’re not willing to attack a place like that. But on the other hand, to ensure our civilians’ safety, we are sometimes forced to attack these places.

When we’re sent into one of these missions, it’s very clear what we need to do. Our mission is to protect Palestinian civilians’ lives. Our mission is to call off as many attacks as possible because we can see civilians in the area. So in fact, we’re sent out to counter Israel’s attempts to carry out attacks on the Gaza strip. It’s strange when you think about it.

So if you’re sent out on a flight to find civilians and make sure attacks aren’t taking place where civilians are, whenever you succeed, you have a feeling of success. I never think, “Well, what are we enabling them to do?” It’s usually only once we’ve landed that we hear attacks have been launched into Israel, and then you look at yourself and say, “Look at how many opportunities have been missed to stop these attacks.” But to protect one innocent life is not worth losing another innocent life. Israeli civilians and Palestinian civilians are innocent.

To put your weapons inside a civilian hospital is one step beyond. It’s not just putting yourself in a civilian area. It’s a place that civilians most need in a time of war, and they were depending on the fact that Israel won’t attack the hospital.

Israel is putting technology, personnel, money, time, and effort into having these squadrons fly over Gaza and act as an objective third party, sort of criticizing every action Israel is doing in this campaign. Making sure every attack is up to our moral standards. So whenever we see something that doesn’t fit with what Israel has decided as a course of action, the standards we live up to, then we call off these attacks.

Dozens of attacks were called off because civilians were next to the target, like a rocket launcher, or a weapons stockpile.

I remember a flight where we were given coordinates for a rocket launcher buried underground that was about to be attacked. It was just in an open field, nothing going on there. And when we searched the area, nobody was walking around, so we approved the attack. Then while the fighter planes were getting ready to fly in, we saw two people walking down a path near the target.

We called off the attack because we couldn’t tell if they were armed or not. And those two people walked right up to the rocket launcher, messed around with something on the ground, and walked away. Everything indicated that they were operating the rocket launcher because there was nothing else they could possibly be doing there. Then we followed them and they walked to a crater that had been left where another launcher had been attacked by an air strike.

Everything indicated that they had been Hamas terrorists, and that they had set off timers for the rocket to launch. Yet we still called off the attack. Thankfully we did end up being able to shoot the launcher before the rocket was launched into Israel. They had walked away and were far enough from the launcher that they weren’t hurt. We were still told not to follow them because we couldn’t tell whether or not they were armed, whether or not they were terrorists or civilians.

There was never an attack I was involved in where I saw civilians and we still allowed the attack to take place. Many attacks Israel was accused of, for instance the attack on Al-Shifa hospital, Israel published footage showing these weren’t Israeli strikes that were responsible for those attacks. We’re guessing they were Hamas rockets that ignited themselves or went off in the wrong direction. And we know of instances where Hamas rockets failed to go over the border and landed in the Gaza Strip.

But just like in any war, especially when you’re fighting in an area like the Gaza Strip, and Gaza is the most densely populated area on Earth at the moment, there’s no way of conducting a campaign like that in a 100% sterile way. Especially when the other side is putting so much effort into keeping civilians inside the war zone.

Sgt. Gedaliah F., a 20-year-old from Raanana, is a sniper in the Nachal Brigade. He went into Gaza on the first day of the ground operation, and was taking a break from the war on an army base in central Israel during this interview. He sat calmly at a picnic table, speaking quietly, the sound of Pink Floyd played in the background, accompanied by friends from his unit who were strumming their guitars.

I’m a sniper in my unit and we were shot at from a school about 250 meters away. I couldn’t see into the school because the windows were tinted. And it just puts you in this very hard position. You don’t want to shoot at a school. What if there are kids there? You can’t just shoot if you don’t see what you’re shooting at. It’s a school. But on the other hand, you’re being shot at by an enemy sniper. It really hits two ends of the spectrum and you really don’t know what to do. And it was like that throughout the entire war.

We were in Beit Hanoun. I’m almost 100 percent sure that it was an UNRWA school. People in my unit remember it having a UN flag. If I had to guess, it was. It was a big beautiful white building with blue frames in the middle of a village of grey buildings with no rooftops. [After this interview, the IDF confirmed that this incident took place at an UNRWA school.]

There were tons of buildings that were higher than that school. He clearly chose that spot not because it was higher up. He knew the consequences of us shooting there and he tried to use that against us.

We had another case where we were holding a position and they [Hamas] sent a 15- or 16-year-old mentally disabled girl who started walking towards us. And we started yelling for her to go away, but she slowly came towards us. It put us in a very Lone Survivor sort of position because she may be mentally disabled, she may not be. She may turn around and go tell them where we are. She may come towards us and just explode.

She ended up coming close to us, and we went down to speak to her, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t interact. She was either mentally handicapped or had seen something and was in incredible shock. She turned around and ran back to where she came from. That scared everybody. Then she ended up coming back and kind of walked past us.

So we just let her go.

Sgt. Gedaliah F. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

Sgt. Gedaliah F. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

Later on the next evening, there was an anti-tank missile group—four Hamas militants who had gone around and snuck behind us, in the direction that the girl had kept walking in. They created a circle around us to try and attack us from behind. We ended up spotting them and dealing with them, but we had no doubt that the girl came, saw us, and obviously we wanted to see what’s going on, so we went down to talk to her. If they were watching us, they saw us coming down and talking to the girl. They saw our movements. That could have easily given away our position. I have no doubt the girl was sent to us to then tell them something.

Capt. Dor is a 26-year-old Air Force pilot from Tel Aviv who serves in the 106th Squadron. He began his service eight years ago, so this was not his first time in Gaza. This interview was conducted over the phone.

For me on a personal level, it was very hard bombing at night when you’re waiting for clearance to strike and you see rockets coming out of Gaza. At night you see them very clearly. They light up the sky. And you realize that now in Tel Aviv and Ashdod and Sderot, people are running to bomb shelters. It’s almost surreal to see these rockets close up, lighting up the sky in front of you, just as your friends and family are running to bomb shelters.

I have a girlfriend who lives with me in Tel Aviv and I know that when I’m in the air at four in the morning watching a rocket go from Gaza into Israel, my girlfriend is getting out of bed and has a minute to run to the bomb shelter.

And you know that this rocket launcher is your target but you can’t attack because you have to wait for clearance to make sure that there are no civilians in the area where the rocket is being launched.

Only once you know your target is clear, and there are no civilians nearby, then that is the time to strike.

I saw several occasions where people ran to the roof of a building that was warned of a strike, or people staying in the house, and that’s the biggest of all the dilemmas we’re facing.

It’s not a question of when something like that happened. Every strike mission I went on had those dilemmas. I can’t recall one strike that I didn’t encounter those exact dilemmas.

Many times as a pilot you’re very close to releasing a bomb, and sometimes five seconds or three seconds to launch, you abort the mission because there are civilians in the vicinity and you’re not willing to take those risks.

Sometimes the civilians aren’t exactly in the target but they’re close enough that you feel that if you attack the target they could get hurt. So sometimes you come back for landing with all your bombs, because you’re waiting two hours and still the target wasn’t clear.

About 20 to 30 percent of the targets I was assigned to were aborted for that reason.

Capt. Dor, in his jet. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

Capt. Dor, in his jet. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

I saw targets in schoolyards, in parks next to swings, and you realize that Hamas takes the most innocent place, next to a swing, and builds a rocket launcher. In his mind, the air force won’t attack it. In his mind there’s more of a chance there will be children nearby. And for Hamas, for children to be killed is a great success. It hurts to think it, but for them it’s a great success. They manage to bring the Israelis to harm by accident innocent children. And we do everything in our power to avoid it, which is a paradox. You do everything in your power to make the Gaza civilians safe, and Hamas does everything in its power to keep civilians in danger.

The excuse that Gaza is very populated, that they don’t have a place to put their rockets, that is no excuse. It’s almost a crime to say that. Those rockets are being aimed at civilian towns in Israel. Those rockets aren’t a defense system. They’re meant to harm civilians, and it’s very unfair that Hamas is trying to get Israel to bomb exactly in those places.

If Hamas truly wanted to avoid civilian casualties, it could have fired from open territory. There is open territory in Gaza. They just don’t want to do it because they would have no benefit. They would have no civilian casualties and that’s one of their biggest rewards.

Even if you open Google Maps or any satellite image you can see that the Gaza Strip isn’t built up from Rafah to the end of Gaza. Gaza as a city is very dense, but there are many open territories.

But this is not the argument. The argument is how do you deal with a terror organization where this is its whole purpose?

I’ve been serving in the Air Force for eight years. My first experience in Gaza was Pillar of Defense. I saw the exact same tactics being used. And as a terror organization they’re learning. This conflict, they did more to ensure that civilians stay in their houses. So we had to figure out better ways. They learned, “OK, Israel does this and this to vacate civilians, so we’ll do this and this to make sure they stay.”

When you’re fighting an organization whose rockets are more valuable than its civilians, then you’re fighting exactly the opposite of what you believe in. When as a country you spend most of your money to protect your citizens and the other side takes its civilians to guard its missiles, then it is very, very hard.

Like Dor, 27-year-old Ari Krauss saw Hamas using civilians as tools of war long before Operation Protective Edge. Originally from New York, Krauss served in the Golani Brigade from 2010 through 2012. His experience actually occurred during what he called “peace time,” during the summer of 2012, right before Operation Pillar of Defense.

I was stationed in the Nachal Oz base on the Gaza border. Every area of the fence has its own battalion responsible for that area and the Nachal Oz area was what we were responsible for.

We patrolled the fence and were responsible for any attack on that area. In general that meant stopping people from placing bombs on the fence, and stopping people from getting too close to the border. There was a 300-meter buffer zone between the fence and the first row of houses in Gaza.

One day we were told by intelligence that a Hamas or Islamic Jihad operative would be placing an IED on the fence. It was an area of the fence where if an IDF or civilian vehicle were to drive by, it would kill them. So our goal was to stop them from placing the bomb.

We were supposed to patrol as normal. We weren’t supposed to indicate that anything unusual was going on. They weren’t supposed to know that we knew. We had one tank with us, and snipers from the sniper unit.

The general outline of events was that the tank was supposed to fire and hit the terrorist. The tank fired and for whatever reason missed. It didn’t hit the target.

The person obviously realized we were shooting at him, because the tank gun is really, really loud. There were a bunch of farmers on the Gaza side, tending to the area, doing their daily routine. So that person took cover in the area where the farmers were, and managed to grab onto one of them. It looked like a woman, someone in a dark robe. He managed to hold on to the woman, and he held her so that she was between him and us, until he could retreat behind a building in a safer area.

He was grasping her with physical force. I remember seeing her try to struggle. I’m sure she herself did not want to be between the IDF and someone we were shooting at.

He was standing behind her, moving with her in front of him, until he got out of our line of site and could get away.

It was very, very clear that what was going through his mind was that if I have a civilian between me and the IDF, there’s a much smaller chance that they’ll even attempt to shoot me.

Ari Krauss. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

Ari Krauss. Photo: Yardena Schwartz / The Tower

I know a bunch of civilians were injured—I think it was another attempt by the tank. I’m not 100% sure. But we had a whole review in the battalion about why this happened, why the tank missed.

The ultimate takeaway from the briefing was that as a result of the militant using that civilian as a human shield, we were not authorized by the area commander to fire for fear of hitting a civilian, or hitting more civilians. So we didn’t shoot at him.

It’s frustrating because it’s like watching someone cheat at a game and get away with it over and over and over again, and then having the international community blame you for the consequences of their actions.

That’s really the ultimate sense of frustration because someone who came to put a bomb on a fence, which is clearly dangerous to our wellbeing, was then able to get away by taking cover with civilians who were subsequently injured and then the fault was placed on us.

It was just very disturbing to see, because coming from the IDF, where literally every day, from the area commander down to the major who’s in charge of my company specifically, down to our lieutenant who is our direct commanding officer, they constantly told us that our mission specifically was to protect the civilians within our area of responsibility to the point of the detriment of ourselves.

The idea was that the number one goal of an Israeli soldier is to protect Israeli civilians. Which is in stark contrast to what we saw that day on the other side of the fence.

These are of course mere snapshots, but these personal vignettes paint a much more vivid picture of the human shield tactics we read and hear so much about than any IDF report or government statement ever could.

Surely none of these stories makes the overwhelming images of death and destruction in Gaza any less tragic. If anything, these accounts from the ground make the number of civilian casualties even more depressing.

Hearing how much these soldiers struggled to protect Palestinian civilians is astonishing; yet knowing how many civilians died despite those efforts is equally astonishing. None of them denied that the Israeli military, like any military in the world, does make mistakes, and they all expressed sadness for the loss of innocent life. Yet their anger and frustration at the reasons behind those casualties seemed to overpower their sadness or sympathy. They may have told different stories from different points of view, but their one unifying message was that they, Israeli soldiers, cared much more about the lives of Palestinian civilians than Hamas ever has and ever will. For every step they took to avoid civilian deaths, they said, Hamas took two steps in the other direction.

As one of the soldiers put it, “If we really wanted to kill Palestinian civilians, we would have done a much better job of it.” Indeed, he pointed out, contrary to many claims to the contrary, the numbers do back up these soldiers’ stories. According to figures from the Gaza Health Ministry, which is after all run by Hamas, the majority of Palestinians killed in this war were military-aged men between 20 and 30 years old.

Hearing these soldiers’ personal testimonies, we might be reminded of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who famously said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”

That was in 1972, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly. The imagination doesn’t need to be stretched too far to picture that same quote being uttered in that same venue, by a different Israeli Prime Minister, more than 40 years later, after yet another war.

Banner Photo: Moustafa Ashkar / Flash 90