Liberal American Jews are often appalled by allegations of Israeli “war crimes” against Palestinians — and equally appalled by Israelis’ apparent indifference to these allegations. What is wrong with their Israeli brethren, these well-meaning Jews wonder, that they seemingly countenance such heinous acts?
Haaretz’s woman in Ramallah, Amira Hass, unintentionally provides the answer in her citation today of the following testimony collected by Breaking the Silence, a group formed to allow ex-soldiers to “break their silence” about Israeli “war crimes”:
And there is another soldier who suddenly understood, during Operation Defensive Shield, that “the tank is a crazy source of fire. You’re moving around in (a populated area ) with all these refugee villages around and all these clumsy weapons, and you fire in a place like that. To fire with a cannon inside a neighborhood … I felt bad.
“Defensive Shield is a complicated and hysterical story … they constantly spoke in terms of war. It took me two or three months to understand … that I hadn’t returned from a war. I was in some campaign … that was worthless in many senses.
“And all the time there was that terminology of shoot in every direction, at anything that moves, and all the time the word war was repeated. … To this day, I go around with the feeling that someone from the outside orchestrated the atmosphere.”
Two ostensible facts about Defensive Shield, Israel’s April 2002 incursion into the West Bank, emerge from this testimony: soldiers opened fire indiscriminately, and the operation was militarily unjustifiable to begin with — downright “worthless.” Yet both are demonstrably false.
First, Palestinian allegations of an Israeli-perpetrated “massacre” in Jenin during the operation sparked intensive investigations. Yet even the UN — not an organization known for its pro-Israel bias — concluded that the death toll in Jenin was exactly 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers, while Human Rights Watch (another organization not known for pro-Israel bias) concluded that only 22 of those Palestinians were civilians.
Given the difficulty of fighting in a crowded urban environment where combatants and noncombatants are intermingled, and where combatants don’t even wear uniforms (making them harder to distinguish from civilians), this is an extraordinarily low civilian casualty rate, one no other Western army involved in urban warfare has matched. Thus, far from constituting indiscriminate fire, Defensive Shield exemplified the most discriminating fire imaginable.
Second, far from being “worthless,” this was one of the most successful operations in Israel’s history. The number of Israelis killed by Palestinian terror — which peaked at 449 in the intifada’s second year (September 2001–September 2002), including 134 in March 2002 alone — fell by about 50 percent a year in each of the next several years. And the main reason was Defensive Shield, launched in response to that deadly March 2002.
Allegations are rarely so easily disprovable; most pit one person or group’s word against another, with no way to know who’s right. But when organizations like Breaking the Silence treat even such patently false allegations as credible indictments, most Israelis find it hard to give their other claims any credence.