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Breaking the Silence on Gaza

A new set of revelations by soldiers who participated in the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) operation in Gaza offers a disturbing picture of the actions carried out in that territory. Testimony regarding their conduct in Gaza by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli soldiers, confirms previous denunciations by human rights organizations and signals that urgent attention must be paid to the economic and medical needs of a repeatedly abused civilian population.

Operation "Cast Lead" was initiated December 27, 2008 and ended January 18, 2009. Over 1400 Palestinians were killed, 900 of them civilians (65%), including 300 hundred children (22%). Extensive areas of Gaza were razed to the ground and thousands of people were left homeless, even months after the operation ended. The economy of Gaza was all but destroyed.

"Much of the destruction was wanton and resulted from direct attacks on civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks that failed to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilian objects. Such attacks violated fundamental provisions of international humanitarian law, notably the prohibition on direct attacks that failed to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilian objects (the principle of distinction), the prohibition on indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, and the prohibition on collective punishment," states Amnesty International in its July 2009 report entitled "Operation ‘Cast Lead': 22 days of death and destruction."

Among the tactics used by the Israeli military was the repeated firing of white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza. White phosphorus ignites and burns when it enters into contact with oxygen up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit (816 degrees Celsius) until nothing is left or there is no longer any oxygen. Severe and persistent skin burns can be produced, and even burns on less than 10% of the body can be fatal because of damage to the liver, kidneys and heart.

The IDF claims it only used white phosphorus as a smokescreen. However, if the IDF intended it as such, it had a readily available non-lethal alternative -smoke shells produced by an Israeli company, concluded Human Rights Watch (HRW). In addition, HRW stated that the IDF had deliberately or recklessly used white phosphorus munitions in violation of the laws of war.

There has been a persistent effort by several actors to deny Palestinians in Gaza their basic humanity and needs. "Gaza is an example of a society that has been deliberately reduced to a state of abject destitution, its once productive population transformed into one of aid-dependent paupers. This context is undeniably one of mass suffering, created largely by Israel but with the active complicity of the international community, especially the US and the European Union, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank," states American political scientist and scholar Sara Roy, writing for The Harvard Crimson.

Israeli forces frequently obstructed access to medical care and basic humanitarian aid for those Palestinians who were wounded and trapped. In addition, states Amnesty International, "Israeli soldiers used civilians -including children- as "human shields, endangering their lives by forcing them to remain in or near houses which they took over and used as military positions."  

Amnesty International reported that hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks carried out using high-precision weapons -air-delivered bombs and missiles, and tank shells. Others, including women and children, were shot at short range even when they were posing no threat to the lives of Israeli soldiers.

An infant aged 6 months, Nancy Sa'di Wakid, was the youngest Palestinian killed in Gaza. She died as a result of inhaled gas from phosphoric bombs dropped by the Israeli army. A poem by Jane Kenyon entitled Sandy Hole is a painful reminder of her untimely death,

The infant's coffin no bigger than a flightbag....
The young father steps backward from the sandy hole,
Eyes wide and dry, his hand over his mouth.
No one dares to come near him, even to touch his sleeve.

"The IDF is one of the world's most moral armies and operates according to the highest moral code," stated at the time Ehud Barak, Israel's Defense Minister. Uri Avnery, a former Israeli soldier and a leading Israeli human rights activist offers an alternative opinion, "Only one conclusion can be drawn from this: from now on, any Israeli decision to start a war in a built-up area is a war crime, and the soldiers who rise up against this crime should be honored. May they be blessed."

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