Tuesday, April 29, 2008

who is to blame?

Our Defense Forces, our war crimes, our terrorism
By Bradley Burston

Tags: Burston, war crimes, terror

Author's note: This is the second version of this piece. The first was written, I freely admit, in anger and in suspicion, not least because of the many cases of the unwarranted killings of Palestinian civilians which have gone unreported, underreported, glossed over, or misrepresented in the Israeli media, and because the army was initially unwilling to provide its side of the story, and has been less than completely forthcoming since.

Allow me, if you will, to preface this piece by pointing out to those of you who began your comments "If you had ever served in the IDF ..." to state that it was because I served in the IDF, as a combat medic, as an enlisted man and for 16 years in annual reserve duty, that I wrote what I wrote and felt what I felt. And if what I wrote was an over-reaction, it was for this reason as well.

Allow me to add, as well, that I believe that a tremendous effort has been made by the IDF to limit Palestinian civilian casualties, especially since late 2006, and statistics bear this out. But I still believe that more can, and must, be done in this regard.


I want to apologize for the unforgivable.

It is time for us to stop "understanding" why so many we kill so many Palestinian civilians. It is time for us to stop explaining away the deaths we excuse as the unfortunate and incidental by-product of a terrible war.

If it had been only an isolated incident, a tragic aberration, I would have kept my peace, said nothing, just moved on.

But the same crime, the same - let's call it by its real name - atrocity, has been committed time and again, under the same circumstances, for the same reasons, with the same indefensible result.

Someone in an IDF uniform, in a position of responsibility, gave an order. We will probably never know who. Nor will we know who loaded the shell into the tank gun, if that was, indeed what happened, or who armed the air-to-surface missile, if that was what happened, who sighted the target, who gave the order to fire, who carried it out.

What we do know is that a mother in Beit Hanoun, a devastated area of northern Gaza from which Qassams and mortars are fired at Israel, was seeing to the breakfast of her four small children Monday morning when their world exploded.

We know that they are all dead.

The army said it fired two missiles at Palestinian militants near the tin shack of the Abu Meatik family, detonating explosives carried by the militants, spaking a "secondary explosion" that struck the home.

Witnesses said that a tank shell sheared through the roof and killed everyone inside, among them Rudina Abu Meatik, 6, her brothers, Saleh, 4 and Mousab, 15 months, and her three-year-old sister, Hana, 3.

We console ourselves, here on the Israeli side of the border, that, unlike the suicide bomber, the box cutter terrorist, the drive-by machine gunner, the Merkaz Harav gunman, the deaths of the children and their mother in Beit Hanoun were a terrible case of bad fortune.

We salve our doubts by stressing - and this is true - that the Israeli army never intentionally targets non-combatants. We protect our fragile consciences by suppressing case after case of Palestinian civilian casualties.

We deflect our guilt by shifting the blame to Hamas, to the Jihad, even - and for this I apologize seventy-fold - to the failure of Palestinian civilians to rise up and stop the terrorists.

We are prepared to excuse it again and again. We excused it when we heard the news today, just as we excused it in November, 2006, when an IDF artillery piece killed 19 people in Beit Hanoun, some of them children still sleeping in their beds when the shell hit.

No more.

It would pay, in this regard, for us to review the reasons why Palestinian mortars and Qassam rockets fired at civilian centers are considered a war crime. "Because Qassams are not capable of accurate targeting, it is unlawful to use them in or near areas populated with civilians," Human Rights Watch said after a Qassam killed a Sderot mother of two children, days after the 19, mostly women and children, were killed in Beit Hanoun.

It would pay, in this regard, for us to recognize that despite cutting edge technology, we can aim neither tank shells nor missile with assurance.

"International humanitarian law prohibits direct attacks against civilians and civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks and attacks that cause disproportionate damage to civilians," the organization declared. "A prohibited indiscriminate attack includes using weapons that are incapable of discriminating between civilians and combatants or between civilian and military objects."

We all know why we send in the assault helicopter, and the tank, and the fighter-bomber, and use them against Palestinians. We use them for the same reason we pulled out of Gaza. To spare our own soldiers. We know that occupation takes huge numbers of troops. We use armor against humans in order to limit the exposure of our own soldiers to risk.

The way we use them, however, kills children.

There will be those on our side who on principle doubt the Palestinian witness accounts, and who prefer to believe the army version. I am willing to believe that the army version, in the narrow sense, was correct. But even the army version does not explain insufficient concern for the proximity of civilians.

I am, however, unwilling to accept the approach of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose hand can clearly be seen in current military policy in Gaza. "We see Hamas as responsible for everything that happens there, for all injuries," Barak said, responding to the Beit Hanoun deaths Monday.

"The army is acting, and will continue to act, against Hamas, including inside the Gaza Strip. Hamas is also responsible, by way of its activity within the civilian population, for part of the casualties among uninvolved civilians," Barak said.

At the same time, the army has ordered a special inquiry into the incident. That is exactly as it should be. Soldiers and, especially, their commanders, must know that there will be intensive, impartial investigations and severe consequences for the killings of Palestinian civilians.

And while we;re at it, let the Israeli who is stunned and stricken by Palestinian terror, begin to acknowledge that incidental killings of civilians are our shame, our war crime, our suicide bombs, the massacres for which we, virtuous as we believe we are, are directly to blame.

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