UPDATE – The New York Times has now published a follow-up story, Israel Disputes Soldiers’ Accounts of Gaza Abuses, which corrects some of the errors in its earlier reports, including the claim an Israeli sniper killed a mother and her two children. The Times admits that this charge was an “urban myth” based on nothing more than hearsay, and the story also directly quotes Israeli soldiers, including Yishai Goldflam, on the efforts they made to safeguard the lives and property of innocent Palestinian civilians.
UPDATE March 23 – The brigade commander of the unit linked to alleged “wanton killings” in Gaza launched his own investigation after hearing of the charges, speaking with actual eyewitnesses, all of whom said that the alleged killings did not took place. The original charges, based only on hearsay and rumors, have therefore been refuted and should be retracted.
The brigade commander’s findings were reported in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, in a story titled IDF Investigation Refutes the Testimonies About Gaza Killings. According to the story (translation by CAMERA):
Two central incidents that came up in the testimony, which Danny Zamir, the head of the Rabin pre-military academy presented to Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi, focus on one infantry brigade. The brigade’s commander today will present to Brigadier General Eyal Eisenberg, commander of the Gaza division, the findings of his personal investigation about the matter which he undertook in the last few days, and after approval, he will present his findings to the head of the Southern Command, Major General Yoav Gallant.
Regarding the incident in which it was claimed that a sniper fired at a Palestinian woman and her two daughters, the brigade commander’s investigation cites the sniper: “I saw the woman and her daughters and I shot warning shots. The section commander came up to the roof and shouted at me, ‘Why did you shoot at them?’ I explained that I did not shoot at them, but I fired warning shots.”
Officers from the brigade surmise that fighters that stayed in the bottom floor of the Palestinian house thought that he hit them, and from here the rumor that a sniper killed a mother and her two daughters spread.
The other alleged incident, the killing by a sniper of an elderly woman, also seems not to have taken place:
Regarding the second incident, in which it was claimed that soldiers went up to the roof to entertain themselves with firing and killed an elderly Palestinian woman, the brigade commander investigation found that there was no such incident.
It seems the both Ha’aretz and the New York Times, which gave these stories great play despite a clear lack of evidence, should be composing forthright corrections – preferably to be run on the front page.
CAMERA’s first report on this subject, which includes full details of the charges and links to the initial reports in Ha’aretz and the New York Times, follows below.
March 22, 2009
Questions Raised about Charges of “Wanton Killing” in Gaza
Less than a month after Israel concluded operations in Gaza, some of the soldiers who served there met at the pre-military academy they had attended to discuss their experiences in the fighting. As the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has reported, the head of the academy, Danny Zamir, arranged the gathering, and at the outset he condemned the Israeli operation for setting “new limits for the army’s ethical code and that of the State of Israel” and for sowing “massive destruction among civilians.”
Later in the discussion Zamir went further, stating:
I think it would be important for parents to sit here and hear this discussion. I think it would be an instructive discussion, and also very dismaying and depressing. You are describing an army with very low value norms, that’s the truth.
Since, as Ha’aretz put it, Zamir “does not hide his political opinions,” it seems likely that his former students at the left-leaning Kibbutz-affiliated school knew what Zamir wanted to hear at the meeting, and that only a self-selected group attended. In any event, some of the attendees certainly did not disappoint Zamir, who had been imprisoned by the IDF in 1990 for refusing to serve in the West Bank. They recounted tales of “murder in cold blood,” including seemingly eyewitness accounts of a sniper shooting a woman and two of her children merely because they made a wrong turn, and another sniper killing an old woman.
Zamir wrote an article about the discussion for the academy’s newsletter, which he then provided to the Israeli newspapers Ha’aretz and Maariv, triggering in Ha’aretz alone multiple stories extremely critical of the Israeli army’s alleged conduct (here, here, here, here and here), as well as numerous stories in the foreign press, such as the New York Times, which put its initial report on page one above the fold (here and here). Both the Ha’aretz and the New York Times reports ignored detailed testimony by soldiers of exemplary conduct by the IDF, such as soldiers leaving an envelope of cash for the Palestinian homeowner whose house they had occupied.
While the Israeli government has promised a full and even a criminal investigation, serious doubts have already been raised about some of the charges.
For example, on Israel’s Channel 2, defense correspondent Roni Daniel reported that the soldier who supposedly witnessed the sniper shoot a mother and two of her children has now admitted to his brigade commander that he didn’t see any such thing:
I didn’t see it myself. There were stories like this. I wasn’t in that house and everything I said was only on the basis of rumors. At the gathering it was a friendly talk, and that’s how I related to it.
Daniel raised similar questions about the killing of the old woman by a sniper, and concluded that “The credibility of these two stories is very doubtful.”
Here is Daniel’s report in Hebrew (English subtitles by CAMERA):
In the wake of Daniel’s broadcast, even Ha’aretz reported that the soldier recounting the tale of a mother and children being killed had been called in by his brigade commander, at which time he admitted he was relying solely on “rumors” within his unit:
By the afternoon, the army could report that the investigation into the testimony regarding the shooting of a mother and two children had reached preliminary conclusions. Givati brigade commander Ilan Malkha summoned the squad leader who recounted the story, who admitted he had relied solely on rumors in the company.
Counter Evidence Ignored
Ha’aretz, the New York Times, and most other outlets covering this controversy have ignored detailed statements by other soldiers of the strict rules of engagement that they followed, and of their acts of kindness towards Palestinians. (The Times devoted all of one sentence to a soldier who said that Israeli soldiers put their own lives at risk to avoid harming Palestinians. And the lone sentence was buried towards the end of the article.)
The Israeli newspaper Yediot recounted some of these in reaction to the Ha’aretz stories:
“I don’t believe there were soldiers who were looking to kill (Palestinians) for no reason,” said 21-year-old Givati Brigade soldier Assaf Danziger, who was lightly injured three days before the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead.
“What happened there was not enjoyable to anyone; we wanted it to end as soon as possible and tried to avoid contact with innocent civilians,” he said.
According to Danziger, soldiers were given specific orders to open fire only at armed terrorists or people who posed a threat. “There were no incidents of vandalism at any of the buildings we occupied. We did only what was justified and acted out of necessity. No one shot at civilians. People walked by us freely,” he recounted.
In the same article Yediot also quoted other soldiers:
A Paratroopers Brigade soldier who also participated in the war called the claims “nonsense”. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said “It is true that in war morality can be interpreted in many different ways, and there are always a few idiots who act inappropriately, but most of the soldiers represented Israel honorably and with a high degree of morality.
“For instance, on three separate occasions my company commander checked soldiers’ bags for stolen goods. Those who stole the smallest things, like candy, were severely punished,” he said.
“We were forbidden from sleeping in Palestinians’ beds even when we had no alternate accommodations, and we didn’t touch any of their food even after we hadn’t had enough to eat for two days.”
“During one incident, we were informed that a female suicide bomber was heading in our direction, but even when women approached us and crossed a certain point we made do with firing in the air, or near the women,” the soldier recalled. “Even when we came across deserted stores, we didn’t even think of taking anything. One soldier took a can of food, but he immediately returned it after everyone yelled at him.”
Major (res.) Idan Zuaretz of Givati said “in every war there is a small percentage of problematic soldiers, but we must look at it from a broad perspective and not focus on isolated incidents.”
Zuaretz, a company commander, also questioned the integrity of the soldiers who made the controversial claims, saying “if this was such a burning issue for them, why have they remained silent until now? On an ethical and moral level, they were obligated to stop what they claimed had occurred and not wait two months to be heard at some esoteric debate.”
According to the officer, the IDF went to great lengths and employed the most advanced technology to avoid harming civilian population.
“I’ve seen a few things in my time, but even I was blown away by the level of professionalism displayed by the army,” Zuaretz said. “I personally gave my soldiers an order on the day we withdrew from Gaza to leave all of our goodies in the last house we occupied. Some reservists even left an envelope full of money to one Palestinian family.”
Another soldier who had fought in Gaza, Yishai Goldflam, circulated an open letter to the Palestinian family whose home his unit had temporarily occupied during the fighting. His letter, titled “I am the soldier who slept in your home,” was published in Maariv, and then translated and published in Canada’s National Post. Goldflam too spoke of the care he and his fellow soldiers had taken to minimize damage to the home:
I spent many days in your home. You and your family’s presence was felt in every corner. I saw your family portraits on the wall, and I thought of my family. I saw your wife’s perfume bottles on the bureau, and I thought of my wife. I saw your children’s toys and their English-language schoolbooks. I saw your personal computer and how you set up the modem and wireless phone next to the screen, just as I do.
I wanted you to know that despite the immense disorder you found in your house that was created during a search for explosives and tunnels (which were indeed found in other homes), we did our best to treat your possessions with respect. When I moved the computer table, I disconnected the cables and laid them down neatly on the floor, as I would do with my own computer. I even covered the computer from dust with a piece of cloth.
I know that the devastation, the bullet holes in your walls and the destruction of those homes near you place my descriptions in a ridiculous light. Still, I need you to understand me — us — and hope that you will channel your anger and criticism to the right places. I decided to write you this letter specifically because I stayed in your home…
It’s unfortunate that New York Times and Haaretz readers are fed constant doses of the anti-Israel story-of-the-day, while the papers ignore the stories of typical Israeli soldiers like Yishai Goldflam. Times editors (and their counterparts at Haaretz) should explain why Danny Zamir is fit to print, and Yishai Goldflam is not fit to print.
Through such tendentious choices is news made rather than reported.