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My Military's Moral Low

Simcha Leventhal

Since the major military operations in Gaza stopped last week, the full effects of the heavy-handed assault that my country conducted there have become increasingly clear. Our leaders' responses to the carnage are shocking: after each "misfire" of our artillery, hitting a school or hospital, some high-ranking general or politician apologizes for the "mistake." Usually they talk about a Hamas militant firing from the area or using civilians as human shields.

As a former soldier in the artillery forces of the Israel military, I watch and shake my head in disbelief. From the Qassam rockets falling on Sderot and other Israeli cities in the South, we know that Hamas intentionally targets civilians with their bombs, but I wonder how the men and women of my country's artillery corps can do what they are doing while our leaders speak with such cynicism. I wonder what has happened to the moral compass of the Israeli military.

Drafted into the Israeli military in 2000, I served in the artillery corps as a gunner in artillery crew M109. The bombs we used, which are also being used today in Gaza, have a 50 meter kill radius. Anybody caught within 200 meters is likely to be wounded. Because these bombs are imprecise, our military regulations prohibited firing them to within a 350 meter radius of fellow soldiers in an open area (or within 250 meters if they were in an armored vehicle). To fire these shells into a heavily populated area like Gaza City carries a known risk of injuring and killing civilians within this range.

Experts reviewing the evidence have also concluded that soldiers in Gaza have also fired white phosphorus shells, which were in the arsenal when I served in the army as well. These shells contain 116 small wafers of phosphorus. To maximize their effect, the shells explode some tens of meters before they hit the ground, sending 116 flaming wafers over an area up to 250 meters.

Since the beginning of the current incursion, I have been watching the news with anger and shock. I am stunned that the soldiers of my country are firing artillery into a densely populated city, and that the ammunition they are using appears to have involved white phosphorus. With the high number of Palestinian civilian casualties in this incursion, my military has outdone itself in cultivating disregard for the loss of civilian life. Even if our political and military leaders cannot know the precise civilian cost of each shell, we do know well in advance that the weapons are using now in Gaza will have severe consequences for the human beings in a wide radius around them.

As a soldier who used these weapons in Lebanon, I am outraged at our leaders' apologies and explanations for loss of innocent civilian life. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak is a decorated former head of military who should know what every combat soldier learns in basic training. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert led an unsuccessful war in Lebanon only two years ago, and we remember the dire civilian consequences (still unfolding) of our military's use of cluster bombs there.

I want to know what goes on in the heads of these experienced leaders when they decide to use such weapons in the field, this time using artillery fire in a densely populated urban area. I wonder whether they think they can get away with their claims that they were aiming only at terrorists.

Challenging them, we must quote not only the numbers of dead civilians, many of them women and children, but we must also say openly that the methods used by our military were ones with known results. Our government knew in advance that the artillery shells would result in hundreds of civilians dead and wounded and thousands of homes destroyed. When they decided to move forward anyway, they did so in complete disregard of international law, dragging our military to a new moral low.

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Simcha Leventhal is a veteran of the Israeli military artillery corps, where he served between 2000 -2003. He is a founding member of Breaking the Silence, a group of former members of the Israel Defense Forces.

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