"You feel like a child playing around with a magnifying glass, burning
up ants." That is how one Israeli soldier described Operation Cast
Lead, the Israeli Defense Force's (IDF) invasion of the Gaza Strip,
which began in December 2008.
His is one of 54 testimonies collected by the Israeli organization
Breaking the Silence in a 110-page report that paints a disturbing
picture of urban warfare in one of the world's most densely populated
areas, where more than 1.5 million people occupy a narrow strip of land
between Israel and the sea.
Another soldier, after recounting an incident in which his unit used
civilians as human shields, described Gaza as a "moral twilight zone."
It is an apt term for Gaza's wholesale destruction: homes demolished by
Caterpillar D9 bulldozers (manufactured in the United States and
armored by Israeli Military Industries) and set afire by white
phosphorus canisters (made by Pine Bluff Arsenal, a U.S. Army
installation in Pine Bluff, Ark.). Save the Children, a U.K.-based NGO,
estimated that more than 500,000 people were displaced during the war,
and, a month after the ceasefire, 100,000 remained homeless. The
Palestinian Economic Development Council puts a $1.9-billion price tag
on rebuilding from the 22-day war. It noted that even under ideal
circumstances the work could take five years.
The term also applies to the civilians killed: children cut down while
playing, women and men killed as they tried to carry on their normal
lives. Civilians were targeted by Cobra helicopters armed with
high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) missiles (both made by Lockheed
Martin), blasted by Strike missiles shot from Hermes drones (designed
and manufactured in Israel) and caught in the crossfire as groups of
soldiers advanced on firing militants. Richard Falk, the UN Special
Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, says that of
the 1,434 Palestinians killed in Gaza, 960 were civilians, including
121 women and 288 children.
Arms and Dollars for the ‘Moral Twilight Zone'
Israel--the largest recipient of U.S. military aid--has one of the most
sophisticated and extensive military arsenals in the region.
U.S.--origin weapons predominate and are an emblem of Washington's
close relationship with Tel Aviv. During George W. Bush's presidency,
Israel received more than $22 billion in military assistance from the
United States. The bulk of this was in Foreign Military Financing
(FMF), which are U.S. grants for weapons purchases. Now, FMF is on the
rise. President Obama is following through on his predecessor's promise
to increase security assistance to $30 billion over the next 10 years.
In a review of the Gaza war published in February 2009, the nonpartisan
Congressional Research Service listed U.S. weapons platforms used in
Operation Cast Lead, including "F-15 and F-16 aircraft [and] Apache
helicopters." Human Rights Watch's (HRW) list of the U.S. systems
deployed by Israel is far more extensive, including Cobra helicopters
and American-made High-Explosive, Dual-Purpose rockets and HEAT
In addition to these systems, human rights groups found evidence of
Israel's use of a wide array of controversial, experimental weapons
"Why fire phosphorus?" "Because it's fun. Cool."--Israeli soldier, to Breaking the Silence.
White phosphorus is designed to obscure the battlefield, increasing
freedom of movement for the user. It can also be used as a weapon. The
U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine notes
that white phosphorous is "spontaneously flammable" and an "extremely
toxic inorganic substance." In Gaza, it was used to devastating effect
used to burn down buildings. As one Israeli soldier told Breaking the
Silence, "phosphorus was used as an igniter, simply to make it all go
up in flames."
One woman interviewed by HRW described what happened after she was hit
by burning white phosphorus: "It burnt a hole and melted everything,"
she said, pointing to her bandaged arm. The phosphorus ignites and
burns on contact with oxygen, and continues burning until nothing is
left or the oxygen supply is cut. According to medical personnel, the
wounds sometimes began to burn again as they cleaned them.
In late January 2009, an Amnesty International investigation "found
white phosphorus still smoldering in residential areas throughout Gaza
days after the ceasefire came into effect on 18 January." In the bombed
courtyard of the Gaza headquarters of the UN Relief and Works Agency
for Palestine Refugees, researchers found fragments of white phosphorus
artillery shells and note that the "attack had caused a large fire,
which destroyed tens of tons of humanitarian aid, including medicines,
food and other non-food items."
Unlike much of Israeli military hardware, the Hermes and Heron drones
are manufactured domestically, and both were used in Operation Cast
Lead. In a joint assessment of Israeli drone attacks, B'Tselem, the
Palestine Centre for Human Rights and Al Meza Centre for Human Rights
found that Israel carried out 42 drone attacks in which 87 civilians
were killed during the war.
Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst with HRW, describes how
precise and discriminate the drones can be: "Drone operators can
clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles
after launch." In a study of six specific IDF drone attacks during
Operation Cast Lead, HRW found that 29 civilians were killed, including
8 children. According to their study, 5 of the 6 attacks were carried
out in broad daylight, all of them in civilian areas far from the
fighting and in "unlikely sites for launching rockets into Israel."
Given the drones' high degree of precision, HRW asserts that "these
attacks violated international humanitarian law."
New Weapons Testing
Human rights investigators, journalists and humanitarian workers were
all barred from Gaza during the fighting, fueling confusion and
speculation about what kinds of weapons systems were being used.
Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor who worked in a Gaza hospital during
the war, told "Democracy Now!" that "we have seen a substantial number
of amputations where the amputees do not have shrapnel injuries. On the
contrary, they have torn apart their legs, often one or two or even
three limbs." These injuries--new, terrible and seemingly
shrapnel-free--have led to the hypothesis that Israel has been using
what are known as Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME), a type of weapon
that is still in testing phase in the United States.
"It is highly likely that Israel has developed its own version of
DIME," writes journalist David Hambling on the national security blog Danger Room.
The "Iron Fist" interceptor, unveiled by the Israeli military in 2006,
works in a way that is consistent with DIME technology. As Hambling
writes in the online magazine Defense Update, the Iron Fist
"uses only the blast effect to defeat the threat, crushing the soft
components of a shaped charge or deflecting and destabilizing the
missile or kinetic rod in their flight."
Amnesty International researcher Donatella Rovera surveyed the damage
wrought by these weapons and concluded, "The kinds of weapons used and
the manner in which they were used indicates prima facie evidence of
Months after Operation Cast Lead, countless questions about the conduct
of the IDF and the weapons used in Gaza remain unanswered. Gathering
incontrovertible evidence and making solid conclusions is a critical
part of post-conflict reconstruction. But given the kind of
investigations that have been carried out thus far, that sort of
closure seems out of reach for the people of Gaza.
The IDF carried out five of its own investigations, concluding that it
"operated in accordance with international law" and that the small
number of questionable incidents that did occur were "unavoidable and
occur in all combat situations."
HRW deems these investigations "not credible" and has called on the
Israeli government to cooperate with a comprehensive UN investigation
led by the former chief prosecutor of the international war crimes
tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Richard Goldstone. Thus
far, Israel has opted not to participate.
And the United States--Israel's closest ally and largest supporter--has
refused to push Israel to cooperate. It seems the "moral twilight zone"
extends beyond Gaza, all the way to Washington.