JERUSALEM -- Rabbis affiliated with the Israeli army urged troops heading into Gaza to reclaim what they said was God-given land and "get rid of the gentiles" - effectively turning the 22-day Israeli intervention into a religious war, according to the testimony of a soldier who fought in Gaza.
Literature passed out to soldiers by the army's rabbinate "had a clear message - we are the people of Israel, we came by a miracle to the land of Israel, God returned us to the land, now we need to struggle to get rid of the gentiles that are interfering with our conquest of the land," the soldier told a forum of Gaza veterans in mid-February, just weeks after the conflict ended.
A transcript of the testimony given at an Israeli military academy at the Oranim college on Feb. 13 was obtained on Friday by McClatchy and also published in Haaretz, one of Israel's leading dailies. The soldier, identified as "Ram," a pseudonym to protect his identity, gave a scathing description of the atmosphere as the Israeli army went to war.
"The general atmosphere among people I spoke to was . . . the lives of Palestinians are . . . let's say far, far less important from the lives of our soldiers," Ram said. The religious literature gave "the feeling of almost a religious mission," he said.
Jonathan Peled, the Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington, said that Israel "absolutely" had no intention of expelling Palestinians from Gaza and has no territorial or other claims there. While he hadn't seen the religious literature mentioned by the soldier, he said the Israeli army "is a secular army and is not run by any religious institution but by army commanders answering to the democratically elected government of the State of Israel."
Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, the Israeli army's chief prosecutor, on Thursday announced the first criminal investigation into the killing of Palestinian civilians during Israel's military incursion. He issued the order after the Haaretz and Maariv newspapers published an account from the Oranim forum of how an Israeli sharpshooter killed a Palestinian woman and her two children when they inadvertently took a wrong turn after being released from detention in their own home.
There are growing questions about the Israeli Defense Force's commitment to prosecute war crimes and burgeoning criticism of the operation itself. According to Haaretz, the army first learned on Feb. 23 of the Oranim forum allegations and obtained a full transcript on March 5. The army told McClatchy on Thursday it had received the transcript that day, but on Friday a representative said it had received the document "a few days ago."
The Israeli Embassy in Washington said the army "holds itself to the highest moral and ethical standards, and as such is investigating the claims with the diligence one would expect in order to determine their accuracy, should further action be required."
Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the operation, more than half of them civilians, according to Palestinian human rights groups.
Danny Zamir, the head of the Yitzhak Rabin military academy, which organized the soldiers' the forum, said the Gaza operation was "an unusual military action in the IDF's history which established new, unknown, norm in the IDF's ethical code."
The testimonies indicated that the army, despite repeated claims that it was protecting civilian lives, was not instructing its troops to that effect.
One soldier, identified only as "Aviv," said he was bothered by open fire orders given to his unit for an operation that was later canceled.
"We were supposed to go in with an armored vehicle called an Ahzarit, break into the door and start to shoot inside and simply go up floor by floor. . . . I call this murder . . . to go up floor by floor and every person that we see we were to shoot," he said. "Aviv" served as a squad leader with the Givati unit in the Gaza neighborhood of Zeitoun.
"At first I said to myself how is this logical? Higher authorities said this was permissible because everyone left in the area and in the city of Gaza is condemned, is a terrorist, because they didn't run away."
When the orders were changed, Aviv said that another soldier protested: "Everyone in there is a terrorist, that's known." His comrades joined in, "We need to kill every person found there; everyone in Gaza is a terrorist."
Another soldier, indentified as "Gilad," said his battalion commander made clear that the army was going to use its overwhelming firepower as its protection in entering densely populated Gaza City.
"He made clear to everyone that one of the most important lessons and one of the big differences with the Second Lebanon War (in 2006) is the way in which we, the army . . . went in with a lot of fire. The surprise wouldn't be the time, or the way or the place, nothing but a lot of firepower. The goal actually was to protect solders' lives with firepower."
McClatchy reported that scores of Palestinians were treated at Gaza hospitals for burns that may have come from shells containing white phosphorus, which is illegal to use in heavily populated areas. The issue came up only briefly at the Oranim conference, when a sergeant in the paratroops, identified as Yossi, said, "There was a lot of use of white phosphorous."
Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem thinks that the public release of the testimony helped spur the investigation. "There have been many cases where we have asked the advocate general to look into cases, and they drag their feet until it gets into the media."
Michaeli said the testimonies showed the need for an independent investigation into Israel's action in Gaza, "The army and (State Attorney Menahem) Mazuz has claimed all along that the internal investigations and debriefings are the correct way. This clearly demonstrates that the soldiers didn't reveal what they did or that they didn't consider it a problem," Michaeli told McClatchy.
Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.