Israeli Military Actions: Discussion.
The Joint Committee met at 9.30 a.m.
|Deputy Pat Breen,||Senator Maurice Cummins,|
|Deputy Joe Costello,||Senator John Hanafin,|
|Deputy Timmy Dooley,||Senator Terry Leyden,|
|Deputy Seán Power,||Senator Feargal Quinn.|
|Deputy Noel Treacy,|
|Deputy Joanna Tuffy,|
In attendance: Deputies Chris Andrews and Aengus Ó Snodaigh.
DEPUTY BERNARD J. DURKAN IN THE CHAIR.
Chairman: The first item on our agenda is a discussion on Israel’s military actions in the occupied territories. As members will recall, this committee, in conjunction with the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, visited Gaza last year. It was an interesting investigative visit. The committee also adopted motions at the time of the war a year ago and was very concerned about much of the activity which took place there, which led to the subsequent visit. The briefing materials received from Trócaire and Breaking the Silence have been circulated to members. The secretariat also circulated a statement on this matter from the Israeli Embassy. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Yehuda Shaul, director of Breaking the Silence, and Mr. Eoin Murray from Trócaire. I invite them to make their presentations.
Mr. Eoin Murray: Thank you. I will be brief as Mr. Shaul’s contribution will be more interesting. The members of this committee have constantly illustrated their commitment to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, something for which we thank them. We also thank them for the invitation to appear before the committee today.
A couple of years ago, when I was leading a visit by the four leaders of Ireland’s Christian churches to the Holy Land, at the end of a week in which we had spent our time in the newspapers and in front of television cameras, we found ourselves in a room with an Israeli woman who had lost her son because of an attack by Palestinians and a Palestinian whose brother had been killed in an Israeli prison. There was an extraordinary moment when one realised it is actually possible to build peace in the Middle East. It is possible for Israelis and Palestinians to come together to share their pain, open their hearts and try to bridge some of the difficult gaps that face them. I came out of that meeting with huge levels of optimism and hope.
However, when I last visited the Gaza strip, in autumn of last year, I found much of that hope in ruins, in the rubble of Gaza. That says to me we need to work even harder to ensure the basic principles of building a just and lasting peace, namely, an end to occupation, the realisation of the right to self-determination for Palestinians and Israelis, and perhaps most crucially, in terms of where we stand now, respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.
The Goldstone report, of which members will be well aware, represents a real opportunity for us to progress respect for international and humanitarian and human rights law. Trócaire and Christian Aid ask the members of the committee to appeal to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Government for Ireland to continue putting pressure on fellow EU member states. We need to ask the EU Presidency to monitor and enforce the recommendations of the Goldstone report, and to ensure that the Palestinian side, both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and the Israeli Government, have proper, independent and thorough investigations that will live up to the standards the world has agreed.
I first met Mr. Shaul some years ago when he gave me a tour of Hebron. I shall let him introduce himself but I wish to say that I am very proud to be sitting beside him today. He has come through an extraordinary personal life story and is putting himself at risk every day in his work as a human rights defender. His positions and opinions are not popular among the government or the military establishment in Israel. I want to salute his bravery in speaking out and doing the work he does.
I thank members for the opportunity to be here. I hope they find Mr. Shaul’s testimony interesting.
Mr. Yehuda Shaul: I thank the Chairman and the committee for asking me here today. Perhaps I will start by introducing myself briefly and then I shall talk about the group to which I am affiliated, Breaking the Silence. Then I shall speak more specifically on testimonies we received from soldiers who served in Gaza.
I am 27 years old and an Israeli. I know my accent and my English will say something different but that is because both my parents emigrated to Israel from North America. I grew up in Israel and like every Israeli I joined the draft in March 2001. I served for three years as a combat infantry soldier commander and ended my service as a company sergeant. My service was mainly during the peak of the second intifada. I served two years on the West Bank. Mr. Murray mentioned Hebron, a city in which I had the privilege to serve for over a year as a soldier and commander.
My experience as a soldier and commander in the occupied territories brought me to be in the group founded in 2004, Breaking the Silence. Sixty-five people from my unit came back to Israel from service in the territories, realising that our people do not know anything because they are not faced with what goes on there. We wanted to bring the story to our society. We opened a photographic exhibition in Tel Aviv along with some video testimonies of our experiences in the territories. The reaction to this exhibit and the noise our organisation made in the beginning was reason for us to continue. Today, Breaking the Silence is a group of more than 700 ex-combat soldiers who served in the second intifada. Everybody is more or less my age, in their 20s, with the oldest in the early 30s. We document video and audio tapes, soldiers’ testimonies about their time in the occupied territories, and publish them. We do a lot of educational work with these testimonies and with our personal experiences and stories to try to generate a debate, mainly inside Israel, about the moral price tag of the occupation.
As a group we do not ask to promote any specific political agenda or solution. Our group exists to try to bring up the moral questions that rise from the reality of the military controlling civilians on a day-to-day basis for over 40 years in the occupied territories. When we started to work on Gaza and Operation Cast Lead of the recent winter, this was the approach we took. We are not a pacifist organisation or one that is against using power or force to achieve goals. Breaking the Silence does not take a stand against the operation. The booklet members will have received is a book of testimonies we published last July. It presents the testimonies of 26 different soldiers and officers who served in Gaza in the recent operation. Most of them remain in favour of the operation. They spoke to us and took a stand because they were against specific missions, orders or procedures they bumped into during the operation. This is something which is very important for me to mention.
Before I get into the specifics of what we found emerging from the testimonies of soldiers who served in Gaza, I want to say that the work of Breaking the Silence on Gaza was something new and unique to us. Usually the assumption on which Breaking the Silence works is that people need time away from the military in order to reflect. They see things in a different way and then may be willing to step ahead, take a stand and testify about what they have done and witnessed. The new approach came about only because we were sitting in our offices in Jerusalem watching this operation on television. Something in our instincts as combat soldiers told us that this time it was something different. That is why we decided to treat it in a different way. We decided to give it a shot and when the operation ended, on 17 or 18 January, if I am not mistaken, we started calling all our members right away to see whether somebody had served there or knew somebody who had served there. Slowly, we managed to reach soldiers who had served in Gaza.
As somebody who took part in the research, interviewing these people and sitting down with them, trying to understand what took place there, I must say that in the beginning I did not believe them. I remember that after I had sat down with four or five soldiers this just did not make sense. I am an ex-soldier. I served three years during the height of the second intifada. All I have done in my life since I was honourably discharged is deal with the wrong side of what we are doing in the territories. This did not seem like what I am used to.
Then there were the next four people who sat down, and the next. After one has sat down with 20 soldiers who have come out of Gaza, all speaking of the same things, one begins to understand they are probably not lying. This is something I want to elaborate upon, and perhaps explain to the members why I did not believe them. It was not the specific horrible stories I heard which one might describe as being sadistic. Those were not the stories that shocked us. Once we had published this booklet, perhaps the media used these stories as a hook. I shall mention one example so that members will understand what I mean.
There were four ground invasions into the Gaza strip during Operation Cast Lead. Three main ones centred on Gaza city: from the north in an area called Tel al-Hawa; from the east near Jebalyah, undertaken by the Golani brigade, a different infantry brigade of the Israeli Defence Forces; and south of Gaza city the Giv’ati brigade was in an area called Zaytoun. The fourth invasion was in the south between Khan Younis and Rafah.
I am talking about the area south of Gaza city in a neighbourhood called Zaytoun, in the most southern house taken over by the IDF on the main road of the Gaza strip, Salah al Din, the road that leads from the Erez crossing in the north to Rafah in the south. The soldiers sitting in the house were observing the main road, their job being to ensure that the Gaza strip was cut in two. Nobody was allowed to cross from north to south or south to north.
In the middle of the night, a soldier there recognises that a Palestinian is approaching the house by the main road from the south and sends a report saying this. The sergeant comes to the post, looks around with the night-vision scope and understands straightaway that this is not a terrorist. I am talking about a person who was walking in full profile on the main road in the middle of the night with a flashlight on. The sergeant realises the man is unarmed and is not going to hit the post. He goes to the radio and requests permission to fire what we call warning shots. He wants to let fire to within 50 m of the man who will understand the military is there, will turn around and leave the place.
The company officer who hears the report says not to shoot. He comes to see the situation and then his order is that the soldiers should not respond until he gives the okay. He goes around the house, collects all the sharpshooters and puts them on the roof. By this time the Palestinian is 150 m from the house. The sergeant requests permission to fire but the answer is wait, that he will see. The Palestinian is 100 m from the house and from this distance one can identify that he is not armed. Again, the sergeant goes to the radio and requests permission. The answer again is to wait; that he will see. Then the Palestinian is 80 m from the house and the sergeant becomes stressed. The sergeant is of the view that if the Palestinian is wearing a suicide belt, he will soon become a danger to him and his men. The sergeant thinks there is a need to either take the guy out or remove him from the area. He requests permission to shoot and the answer is “No, wait”. At 50 m. he begins to yell at the company officer, “It is getting dangerous, we need to get him out of there”. Still the answer is “No, wait”. When the Palestinian is 30 m. from the house the company officer gives the go-ahead and all the sharpshooters on the roof open fire and murder him. A dog is sent out to check the body and it emerges it was just an old guy who did not have any explosives. He was wearing a white t-shirt, was carrying a flashlight and wore a beard.
As terrible as it sounds, this story is not the thing which led us not to believe the testimonies coming out of Gaza. In military operations, events such as those I have just described can happen. What shocked us was the bigger strategy. It was the fact that we bumped into a military we did not know. What I am going to try to do is explain that fact to members and I will then be happy to answer any questions they wish to pose.
It is important to state that Breaking the Silence does not carry out analysis. Sadly, therefore, I will not be in a position to answer the major political or analysis questions. What we know is what soldiers said. Everything I am saying is an attempt to frame the testimonies contained in the booklet we published.
It is not a secret that to understand Operation Cast Lead we need to return to the summer of 2006 and the second Lebanon war. In light of the perception in Israel of defeat in the war against Hizbollah, two things needed to be done. The first was to rebuild confidence within the Israel Defence Forces, IDF, and the second was to rebuild the confidence of our society in the military’s ability to gain victory. In order to achieve victory over Hamas we needed time. In order to obtain that time, we could not have Israeli soldiers being hurt. If they were being hurt, pressure to end the occupation would have increased. If we ended the occupation before victory was achieved, we would have been in a worse position than ever before.
Before they go into Gaza, Israeli lieutenant colonels and colonels inform their soldiers that they are not going into Lebanon, that the story is different and that they are part of a different military. When Israel went into Gaza, a principal decision, which is the story behind this operation, was taken to the effect that we would go in with minimal risk to our troops. Soldiers were informed that their top priority in Gaza would be the missions they were running, then their lives and then all remaining factors. They were also informed “If in doubt, shoot. Do not take risks because we would prefer the other side to pay for our mistakes”. These words were used by the colonels and lieutenant colonels in briefings to their soldiers.
Breaking the Silence does not want soldiers to die. Half of those who provided testimonies for the booklet on Gaza remain in service and some of them are platoon and company leaders in the IDF. In 2002, I took part in Operation Defensive Shield, the largest operation in the second intifada, to retake the Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Before entering Ramallah, we were informed that we should be careful because we were going to be operating in a city and that there would be civilians present. In other words, there were restrictions in place. In the case of Operation Cast Lead, no such restrictions were in place. This impacted on the approach of the IDF to Gaza.
In order to avoid casualties on our side during Operation Cast Lead, we were to use principles of war that were not previously used against Palestinian cities. I will try to explain what I mean by that. With regard to the type of operation I was involved in carrying out in the West Bank, foot soldiers do the work. We make arrests, carry out house demolitions and stand at checkpoints. Members will be familiar with such things. This is more of a policing job. However, in a war if a specific target, such as an Egyptian barracks, is identified and one wants to take it over, one does not send in one’s infantry because they will be slaughtered in a second. Instead, one does what is referred to in military terms as “softening” the target. One uses what is referred to as the “envelope of fire”, namely, one protects one’s troops by laying down massive fire before they go in. This means that the air force will bomb the hell out of the target and the artillery, mortars and tanks will also be used. Engineers will then open the way before the infantry are sent in to capture anyone who remains.
This is how the operation in Gaza was conducted. It is important to state that Israel has taken many steps to ensure that civilians will not be hurt. Leaflets requesting that civilians leave were dropped into neighbourhoods before the IDF went in. Telephone calls were also made in this regard. The problem, as we see it, is what happened after that. The concept in Gaza was “We have done these things and that is why these neighbourhoods turned into a battlefield”. This means that one can use thousands of artillery shells on these neighbourhoods. This is despite the fact that such shells are not accurate.
There has been a great deal of reference to white phosphorus. Let us consider the thousands of exploding shells that were fired. These weapons each contain 52kg of TNT. The death radius of an artillery shell is 50 m. The injury radius is a further 200 m. The margin of error is that if a shell explodes 50 m from its target coordinates, this is considered to be a perfect hit. I apologise for using these dry, technical details. However, they are important in order that people might understand the approach we used on entering Gaza.
In war — not in training — the idea of safety rules is that we do not fire artillery shells 250 m from our troops. However, in Gaza the safety distance from buildings was less than 50 m. I could continue in this vein and refer to the type of weapons that were used. Members will find details in that regard in the booklet.
The final matter to which I wish to refer does not relate to the kind of weapons one uses to underpin one’s strategy, rather it relates to how this impacts on the way soldiers on the ground behave. We spoke to 14 soldiers who took part in the first invasion of Gaza. Breaking the Silence asks one question of every soldier from whom it seeks testimony, namely, when they went into this operation what were their rules of engagement The answer given by everyone who provided testimony in respect of Gaza was that there were no rules of engagement.
I wish to clarify the position in this regard. When I state that there were no rules of engagement I mean that if the concept behind such rules is that some restrictions and boundaries be put in place in respect of the use of lethal force, then in the first invasion of Gaza there were no boundaries. When they have taken over neighbourhoods and sat down in buildings, that is when soldiers receive directions with regard to when they should and should not shoot. That is part of being in a war. One of those we asked about the rules of engagement said: “Look, we are not in an operation in the West Bank where you have rules of engagement. We were at war. You just shoot.”
I will conclude by providing a small but important example. There are many different stories with regard to how this big strategy arose to the that chances should not be taken and that troops should be protected to the same, if not a greater, degree than civilians on the other side. It is important to state that having been involved, on behalf of Breaking the Silence, in speaking to over 50 soldiers who served in Gaza, I do not believe that civilians — innocent people — were deliberately targeted. However, it is very obvious that there is a great deal of distance between this and the official claim that everything was done to avoid civilians becoming involved in the armed conflict.
There is a reason Breaking the Silence, the human rights organisations in Israel and the intellectuals who wrote the IDF code of conduct — the IDF actually has an ethical code which indicates what troops can and cannot do — are calling publicly for an independent inquiry. The intellectuals to whom I refer are on the inside. They hear the discourse, they hear about the rules and the orders passed down. They know that something went wrong in this instance.
I wish to finish with a story also related to the Zaitun area. It is an exceptional and unique story which teaches us much about how the Gaza operation went. Usually when one arrests a person in the West Bank — I carried out hundreds of such arrest operations in my time in the military — the secret service supplies the address of the house and soldiers come in the middle of the night, surround the house and call on the people to surrender. It is more like a police arrest. However, under Operation Cast Lead we were in a war mode.
When one trains in the military in open warfare there are two ways to enter a structure. One is what we in the army call a “wet entry” and the other is a “dry entry”. A wet entry means that one does not take risks. Before entering every room one throws a grenade and spray bullets. A dry entry is the opposite where one comes in ready and enters the house. Only if one sees an enemy does one selectively take him out.
Given the objective in Gaza of minimum risk to our side, most of the units used wet entries. A platoon officer was leading his platoon into the first house in the Zaitun area that he had to take over. As he was taught and consistent with the strategy, he sprayed bullets all over the yard. The only problem was that before he went in, the air force had been bombing the area so the family had left the house and were hiding inside the yard. When he entered the yard and sprayed bullets he killed the grandfather. What is exceptional and unique in this story is what happened after. This platoon leader saw the grandfather he killed and right away on the spot he decided to change the rules such that his platoon from now on would enter using a dry entry.
I bring up this story because it is a very important thing to see. The way that we are always presented with the facts from the Administration in Israel to our society is that the big rules, the big strategy and the big generals were okay, and that if there was some wrongdoing it was at the level of the low-ranking soldiers on the ground who lost control. This is a very good example to understand. The story is exactly the opposite. The strategy and big idea for this operation did not fit on the ground. It is a good platoon leader who was wise enough to understand that the strategy did not fit the reality and decided to take a stand and at least in his platoon change the rules. It is only 35 soldiers out of more than 10,000 soldiers who were there, but that was a change. That change came only from the ground level. This is why we, the people of Israel, feel it is so important for once to have a real, open inquiry so that we will know what was done in our name because that is a basic principle of Breaking the Silence.
This is why we think what happened in Gaza demands a different approach from us and a different approach from everyone around. It is not just another example; it is a categorical shift in the ethics of combat that our military follows or does not. I thank members of the committee for giving me the time to speak.
Chairman: I thank Mr. Shaul. We have a long list of speakers and because it is a Dáil sitting day we may be interrupted for a vote in which case we will need to leave. The Seanad Order of Business will also start shortly. I ask members to observe that, but we do not wish to restrict the debate in any way. If we need to interrupt, we shall reconvene afterwards, according to the wishes of the members.
Deputy Timmy Dooley: I welcome Mr. Shaul and Mr. Murray. I thank them for a very interesting and enlightening presentation. It is always useful to hear from someone who has served at the coalface. We receive regular presentations from various diplomats and while they are helpful, to get the testimony of people like Mr. Shaul and Mr. Murray is particularly useful to us. I congratulate Mr. Shaul on the courage he has shown, obviously working within a military environment and then moving from that into what is a peacekeeping role. Clearly it is difficult for him to share with us the kind of information he has. He has given us considerable detail at a micro level.
Over time it has become clear to us that war is a dirty business. Close combat in built-up densely populated areas will give rise to the kinds of situations Mr. Shaul mentioned, which are repulsive and revolting to most people. To hear that much of that is engineered or orchestrated at a particular level and deemed to be acceptable by the political leaders in his country is also revolting. Mr. Shaul highlighted that in his final story in which he said that the efforts by some to suggest that repulsive behaviour on the ground is a result of a platoon leader or a group of people who have shifted away from what they should have been doing, further illustrates the point.
The macro solution to the problem in Gaza, no different from conflict anywhere, lies outside the battlefield or theatre of war and must reside at political level. I would be interested to hear Mr. Shaul’s views on the politics of the situation and how he believes a solution can be brought about. He spoke about the necessity for European countries and near neighbours of Israel and Gaza to exercise political support for a resolution of the conflict. What more can we do? Would sanctions be helpful? Would greater support from the United States in ensuring that the voice of the Palestinians is heard help? What concrete steps can we as parliamentarians in Ireland and as part of the European Union take to bring about that impetus for change?
Talk is cheap and has been cheap. Unfortunately it has not delivered the kind of message to the Israeli Government that it needs to change its approach. Are there concrete measures in which we can engage as Europeans, also recognising our role and relationship with the United States, to bring about circumstances that would force Israel to realise that the approach it has taken is not the way forward and based on what we know from our country that ultimately a solution must come about through dialogue between the warring parties?
Deputy Joe Costello: I welcome Mr. Shaul and acknowledge his moving contribution. I also acknowledge what he has done. One can only imagine how difficult it is given the high tension that exists between Israel and the Palestinian community and the situation on the ground there. Mr. Shaul outlined that he bears testimony, witnesses, gives a narrative, describes, provides information and creates awareness, but does not provide the political or military solutions. It is not so much the analysis as the projection of the witness testimony, which is extremely important in providing the basic ingredient we all need to move towards any ultimate solution.
I understand Mr. Shaul is anxious to see an independent investigation into all matters relating to Operation Cast Lead. How does he envisage such an independent investigation taking place? What elements would be required either on a local or national stage, or in an international forum? What personnel might be advantageous? Does he agree with the statement of Trócaire and Christian Aid on asking the Irish Government as an EU member state to endorse the findings of the recommendations of the Goldstone report, and to move forward in that direction as well?
In the context of how this committee conducts its business, we expressed a great deal of interest in the matter. By and large our perception is that there was an enormous degree of disproportionality about the conflict that took place just over a year ago, in terms of the manner in which the Israeli Defence Forces operated. Subsequent to that there was no element of time allocated or opportunity given for reconstruction. Again, there appears to have been a deliberate ploy to ensure that the reconstruction of Gaza did not take place. What opinions does Mr. Shaul have on that or does he have any information on that side of the story?
I invite him to express his view on whether he believes this committee might have any role in conducting an investigation in its own right, in the context of the relationships between the European Union and its individual member states, Israel and the Palestinian community, either in terms of donor aid or trading arrangements — given that all European Union trading arrangements are based on the operation of human rights criteria, and therefore that is an element to be considered.
We are almost doing the opposite of what we should be doing, because Mr. Shaul is giving testimony and so on. However, in the context of the ultimate resolution of the overall peace process, perhaps he might care to share his views on the present situation with the committee, given that he has come hotfoot from the Middle East, where the dispute is taking place.
Deputy Pat Breen: Like other speakers, I welcome Mr. Shaul. Obviously the situation in Gaza is intolerable. It is good to get an insight into how the Israeli Defence Forces work and to hear details of matters on the ground in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
We have seen a great deal of emphasis on Haiti, and rightly so, in recent weeks. However, the situation in Gaza seems to go unnoticed by many people in the outside world, particularly as regards the reconstruction issue. What does Mr. Shaul believe was achieved in the three weeks of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last year? Did the invasion drive the civilian population more into the hands of Hamas? Some 3,000 homes were damaged and there is an enormous amount of reconstruction to be done.
On Operation Cast Lead in which Mr. Shaul played a part, Gaza is a very narrow strip, a densely populated area and some of us who have been there have seen first-hand the devastation caused not alone to the civilian population but to the industrial area, schools and agriculture which was a thriving industry in Gaza. All that is gone now. What did the operation achieve, and is it now considered to have been a mistake?
On the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, as promoted by the Israeli Government, does Mr. Shaul not agree that this has to stop if some type of peace is to be achieved in the area? Gaza is an open prison. What about the border crossings? How does he believe the blockade can be ended so that reconstruction may begin and Gaza can be rebuilt? I believe some €4 billion has been pledged in funding from various countries, yet very little has happened there and none of this money has been spent.
Does Mr. Shaul believe the European Union has delayed in taking a lead role in the reconstruction effort, particularly given that the Lisbon treaty has been passed and that the EU is now an important player on the world stage?
I admire Mr. Shaul’s courage in offering to give us an insight into the way the Israeli Defence Forces work and the terms of engagement in the battlefield during that three-week campaign.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I thank Mr. Shaul and Mr. Murray for coming in today. They have opened my eyes to the horror of war. I have never served in an army other than the FCA, when I was a teenager. From what has been said, it seems to me that the horror of war is its impact on the civilians, particularly when they are being used to protect soldiers. At the time of D-Day in Normandy, the Nazis purposely based themselves in civilian areas, for protection. I understand that part of the Palestinian activity is for soldiers to place themselves in civilian areas and not allow civilians to get away. That makes it very difficult, I understand. I thought Mr. Shaul’s story about that unarmed old man approaching who could have been a suicide bomber is a reminder of how difficult things were. I do not know what any of us would have done in that situation, and I can understand the horror.
As far as I understand, the Palestinians started shooting at Jewish civilians every night at 6 p.m. How is this to be handled when one knows it is going to happen? Does one take action before the shooting begins, in which case one is initiating hostilities, or does one wait until it starts. There is an enormous moral responsibility, and I believe that is part of the problem.
Mr. Shaul used the phrase, “Things like that can happen”, and that concerns me. He said, “If you have doubts you shoot” and I believe we would all do that if our families or other civilians were there. There is sufficient evidence to the effect that the Palestinians use civilian areas to hinder the IDF’s ability to target them. How is that to be handled other than the way the IDF does? Clearly what he is describing is something that is not acceptable, but then war is not acceptable. When one thinks of Dresden at the end of the Second World War and the civilians that were killed as well as the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is just horrific. Those who did that will say it was worth it to get peace.
One thing that has impressed me about Israel, however, when I have been there is that it is a democracy. That Mr. Shaul is here today shows that Israel is a democracy. How can we achieve a break in the silence on the other side? What would happen if some of their troops were to do what the Israelis have done? Mr. Shaul is upset, with a sense of moral responsibility, but nonetheless has been allowed to come out and state this. I doubt very much if this could happen on the other side, however, and how might we bring about a similar break in the silence on the Palestinian side, to get the viewpoint from that perspective on what happened? War is horrific, however, and I have learned a great deal today from what has been said. It is a reminder of what is happening not just in Israel but in other parts of the world, too, particularly as regards suicide bombers. How does one manage to protect oneself without killing civilians as well, whether it is done accidentally or in a form of protection or in a way that acknowledges a moral responsibility but also the moral responsibility to protect one’s own people?
Senator John Hanafin: The actions of the Israeli Government do not make things easy for those who would traditionally be long supporters of Israel. It is no wonder it has so few friends. Of all people, the Israeli Government should be far more sensitive to every aspect of human rights. The population of 1.4 million in Gaza is located on a tiny strip of land. It is not an equivalent target to the rural countryside of Israel where rockets are landing and very few people have lost their lives. A bomb that explodes over a city will kill tens or hundreds of people. The fact is that a war was waged against people. Have the missiles stopped firing?
The actions of the Israeli Government have created a wave of families and children who watched their houses being destroyed behind them as they left. Where do they go? We are not even allowed to bring in humanitarian aid. Their food, water and electricity supplies have been cut off. People are living on less than $2 per day while in the nation next door people have $18,000 or $20,000 per year. It was the wrong solution to the problem, and the problem will be exacerbated. I thank Mr. Shaul for giving us a micro view of what happens at military level, but the government strategy is way out of sync and is creating difficulties for itself and the international community. I do not know what the solution will be. If this happens again, I hope the EU will look again at the preferential and favoured nation status Israel has for trading with the EU. More importantly, and better than a knee jerk reaction, it should ensure that Gaza is entitled to the same status, and if any effort is made by the Israelis to take it from Gaza, it should be taken from Israel as well. This cannot be allowed to continue. A total of 1.4 million people cannot continue to be left without basic necessities and without the aid that is waiting for them at the border.
I fully support Mr. Shaul’s actions. The vast majority of people would support Israel’s right to survive and thrive, but not in this manner, not through disproportionate responses and certainly not by taking it out on the innocent civilian population.
Deputy Noel Treacy: I warmly welcome Mr. Shaul and Mr. Murray. I pay particular tribute to Mr. Shaul for his bravery, openness and factual narration of a very sad situation. Some years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Middle East. Many of us have believed for a long time that the Israeli Government’s strategy has been to destroy the Palestinian people, and that its international diplomacy has always been a shield to justify its actions. In a period of two weeks I met nobody there at any level, be they ordinary citizens or people in areas of responsibility, who did not feel there was constant discrimination against the Palestinian people.
Does Mr. Shaul believe that in a constant military operation the international code of military conduct, as laid down by the United Nations, is being continuously breached by Israeli forces? Does he believe that the strategy operated by the Israeli Government on a consistent basis is a total violation of human rights, as those rights are defined by the United Nations and the Council of Europe? As somebody with experience in the theatre of war, can Mr. Shaul make any recommendation to us as people of a sovereign nation which has also experienced conflict for a long time? Hopefully, at present we are at the final chapter in the resolution of that conflict, which will put in place final structures and systems that will ensure mutual respect in all operations in the northern part of this island. We have an understanding of the conflict and the difficulties. Are there any recommendations Mr. Shaul would make to us, as parliamentarians and members of the European Union, as to what we should do to assist in bringing this serious tragedy of grave human proportions to some type of reasonable semblance of normality?
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: I apologise for missing the presentation. Unfortunately, I ran short of petrol on my way to the House. Mr. Shaul is also due to speak at an event organised by the Labour Party MEP, Mr. Proinsias De Rossa. I welcome his attendance at this meeting and will look at the transcript of his presentation later.
Mr. Shaul will be aware that there is much sympathy in Ireland for the Palestinian people. He will have heard that in the contributions that have been made during this meeting. People were appalled last year when Operation Cast Lead took place. There was extensive coverage in this country of the civilians and children who were killed in the operation. There were many photographs, in fact, far more than have been shown from other conflicts, such as Iraq and so forth. I visited Israel recently and I am aware from asking people there that they did not see the same type of coverage. It is important that people in Israel are more informed about what happens to the Palestinian people. They need to be aware of that side of the story.
With regard to Ireland, I do not believe there is a very balanced debate here about the Israeli predicament. There was not much coverage when rockets were being fired into Israel over the years. There was coverage of the many suicide bombings but not as much as there should have been. That is my perception. Would Mr. Shaul agree that places such as Ireland need to hear and understand both sides to be able to assist, help or give advice? He was not involved in the operation in Gaza and did not support it. I did not support it either. However, did he support previous military operations by the Israeli Defence Forces? Does he feel that steps were taken over the years that were necessary to provide for the security of the Israeli people and state?
With regard to the Goldstone report, does Mr. Shaul agree that both sides should be given an opportunity to investigate themselves first? There are investigations in Britain regarding allegations of war crimes by British soldiers in Iraq. In a democratic country one would expect that type of thing to happen. Does Mr. Shaul believe that type of space should be provided to Israel, and that pressure in that regard should be applied as well?
Finally, most people, and certainly most members of the committee, would support the peace process. As far as I know, every member of the committee believes there should be an objective of two states living peacefully side by side. We have had a peace process in this country and I have expressed the view to this committee that if Ireland wishes to assist as a third party in that regard, it should be an honest broker and should do what it can through diplomacy with both sides. That does not mean we should not be critical of any particular acts on either side. Campaigns for a boycott of Israel are counterproductive and not conducive to assisting the two sides to engage in a peace process. What are the delegates’ views on this?
Deputy Seán Power: I welcome the two speakers. I will be brief because there is not much point in covering the ground covered by some of my colleagues.
How big is Breaking the Silence? Mr. Shaul referred to the testimonies from the 30 Israeli soldiers, which were very interesting and helpful in terms of our understanding. How many participate in Breaking the Silence and how does it operate? How is it perceived? What relationship does it have with the ordinary Israeli people? Does Mr. Shaul feel under threat as a result of his involvement in the organisation? If so, are his feelings shared by other members of the organisation? How much can it publicise what it is doing in Israel?
Mr. Shaul was in military service for three years. If he were to relive it, would he do things very differently? Does he have any regrets about the role he played during those three years?
Deputy Chris Andrews: I welcome Mr. Shaul and thank him for his presentation. His is a very passionate, human and sad story about the tragedy of war. It contrasts starkly with the cold dispassionate statement made by the Israeli ambassador last year when he appeared here to justify the war and slaughter of more than 1,000 people in Gaza.
To pick up on Deputy Power’s comments, what is life like for Mr. Shaul in Israel now that he has joined the Breaking the Silence campaign? How is he treated? Has he fallen out with his family?
Chairman: I compliment the members of the committee. They have been very active in their participation in respect of this issue over the course of the past 12 months. Motions were passed and various delegations were brought before the committee. More than 50 interventions were made by the committee in the 12-month period following the most recent war. The committee tends to follow the headline issues as identified by the European Commission or the European Parliament and to pursue them accordingly. The committee may well wish to revisit some of the issues because they have been brought to our attention again recently. They include the conflicts in the western Balkans and Middle East. I have been a student of Arab-Israeli relations since the time of General Wingate, which was not today or yesterday. The point is that some things do not change and have not changed. Various members of the committee have pointed this out.
An internal conflict, which is what we all know is occurring and which we have had experience of in Ireland, is very difficult to resolve because of its origins. I visited Israel 30 years ago and returned in the summer of 2009 and noted the thought process had changed very little. Members referred to the peace and thought processes. Little has changed because most of the problems brought to our attention arise from history, retaliation and counter-retaliation. This continues forever. The problem with such circumstances, as we know in Ireland, is that many outrageous atrocities are carried out on both sides. Retaliation does not make circumstances better. It appears to make those involved feel good for the time being but two wrongs do not make a right, as we well know. This is unfortunately the position.
The conclusion of the committee, on foot of all its intervention, is that the conflict must not be allowed to continue forever. However, it will if neither side says it wants to work positively on a constant peace process. The process should have a permanent secretariat, as proposed by Deputies Michael D. Higgins and Costello and other members over the past 12 months. The process should be active and constant and act as a catalyst for those with a positive view on the issues involved.
I am not so sure about the ability of a soldier to identify a body-wrap explosive in the circumstances described by Senator Quinn. I used to be a shooter in a previous incarnation. I am sure most other members were.
Deputy Seán Power: I ask the Chairman to clarify that.
Chairman: I assure the members it was in a sporting context. It is virtually impossible to be absolutely certain in doubtful light. I have seen video clips of soldiers in live action and, even with night-scopes, it is very difficult for them to be certain about their targets.
The circumstances described by Mr. Shaul are appallingly tragic. Unfortunately, the position is that everybody tries to preserve his own life in so far as this is possible. The person given the responsibility to make a decision may find it very difficult at times to act with certainty.
The rules of engagement were alluded to. We know about these. The other matter is propaganda. It works in both directions, as referred to by various people. In a war, every army or group seeking to maximise its public relations position will try to ensure that the lives of as many civilians as possible are jeopardised and it will use them as cover. That is the way circumstances have always been. It is appalling but war is appalling.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs was refused access to the region recently. This does not reflect well on Israel. From the committee’s visit to the region, it appears there is considerable ground on which to build an ongoing peace process if there is willingness and a permanent structure to which both sides are willing to contribute. The alternative is that both sides can continue as they are doing, in which case the conflict will still be taking place in 50 years. This is amazing but it is my summation of events. Other members have come to the same conclusion.
This committee has intervened with the EU institutions to try to use its influence in a positive way on Israel and the Palestinians. During its visit to the region, it became quite clear to it that there is total devastation. It is like an appalling, man-made version of the earthquake in Haiti. There is space for the introduction of good-will to address the issues that arise from the point of view of Israel.
The Israeli embassy has been in touch with this committee seeking an opportunity to speak with its members. We will deal with that at a future meeting. The committee will be anxious to facilitate each side in a positive way — not to exacerbate the situation but in so far as we can to try to bring about an improvement. We know about that and have had ample of experience of it. We have even seen unfolding before us in recent days the necessity to pursue and be conscious of the sensitivities of the situation at all times, while trying to be helpful in any way possible. The bi-partisan approach adopted by the Government and Opposition parties concerning the Northern Ireland situation is a typical example of that. We do not expect Mr. Shaul to respond to all the points raised in any great detail. Perhaps at a later stage, however, he might correspond with the committee to give us a more detailed response to the issues that have been raised. At the same time we will do our best to continue to pursue the issues in a fair and even-handed fashion.
Mr. Yehuda Shaul: How deep shall I go into things now? What is our time-frame? There are two things that I think it is most important to address. One is the issue that Hamas used Palestinian civilians as human shields. One will not hear a good word about Hamas from me. I am not a big fan of Hamas, but there is something that we have to put on the table. It is right that service in Gaza was always different for us as soldiers than in the West Bank. Gaza is a different story and especially post the disengagement. After the Hamas takeover of Gaza it was a different story for the Israeli military to go in to fight, and for the Israeli civilians in the south to live under constant rocket attacks.
However, this is something that we should put on the table and always have before our eyes when we think about the strategies that were used in Cast Lead. The Israeli military itself has proven to us that there are other ways of conducting military operations in Gaza without the level of destruction we left behind in Cast Lead, without reaching the level of civilian casualties as in Cast Lead. I do not know if all of us here remember Operation Warm Winter, which took place about a year before Cast Lead, and other operations post the disengagement from Gaza — Summer Rains, First Rains and other big operations.
I raise Warm Winter as an example because this operation took place with over a brigade of soldiers who went into Gaza around a year before Cast Lead. That is the third size of soldiers’ group and they did not leave even 10% of the destruction that Cast Lead left behind inside Gaza. It was because Warm Winter was operated as a regular military operation, the way I have known it from my experience, and the way we have all seen with previous operations. There was a lot of resistance by Hamas to Operation Warm Winter in Gaza. If one sits down and speaks with soldiers who served there, they will say that hundreds of Hamas people were fighting back, as opposed to Cast Lead where there was almost no resistance. So the Israeli military has proven to us that there are other ways of going in and achieving the military goals, which is a different question. What were the goals of this operation? At least we know that our military knows the way to go in and be more sensitive to international law, human rights, the morality of our people, and the moral lines of who we are as the Israeli people. That is why it is important to understand that even though we are talking about Gaza post disengagement, this was something different.
As a soldier, I grew up in the military knowing one very important Hebrew sentence, which translates into English as: “You have doubt, you have no doubt”. The way I was trained, the sentence meant that if one does not see a clear target or is not sure one needs to pull the trigger, then one has no doubt — one does not pull the trigger. That is the meaning of being a soldier as opposed to being a civilian. In Cast Lead in Gaza this same sentence was used in the exactly the opposite way. Soldiers were told: “You have doubt, you pull the trigger, even though we prefer the mistakes to be on the other side”. These were colonels and lieutenant-colonels speaking to soldiers before going in. That is a shift. Operation Warm Winter in Gaza was not operated this way. It did not leave the level of destruction and the amount of injured people the way Cast Lead did. It is not that Israeli soldiers were slaughtered in Warm Winter. It is important to mention that. Yes, it is a sad fact that military personnel will be hurt in warfare. It is something that we can all expect and try to avoid, but we understand that civilians will also be hurt in war. Many committee members said that war is hell. It is, but the Israeli military has proven to us that there are different ways of approaching it while protecting more civilians. In Cast Lead, in order to reach this minimum risk topic, these things were done.
I do not know if members of the committee had a chance to read a story in yesterday’s edition of The Independent of London. A colonel was quoted as saying that before our troops entered neighbourhoods, the night before we were scanning this area with drones and choppers. Even though people — men, not women and children — were unarmed, they were considered legitimate targets. That is a red line that was never crossed before by the IDF at this level.
Chairman: I am sorry to interrupt Mr. Shaul, but we will have a vote in the Dáil in the next four minutes. It is a matter for the committee to decide whether it wants to reconvene. We will reconvene after the vote. Is that agreed? We will suspend for the vote.
Deputy Joe Costello: I do not think we will get people back after the vote.
Chairman: We will have to conclude therefore. We will follow the line that I originally set out for Mr. Shaul. We will be delighted to accept a written response to the remaining queries because we knew that this was likely to happen. I thank both Mr. Murray and Mr. Shaul for coming here. They have made very interesting and informative submissions. We will have to come back to this matter again.
Correspondence has been received requesting the committee to meet with a former Guantánamo detainee next Tuesday. The committee is already scheduled to meet next Tuesday at 2 p.m. with the Fundamental Rights Agency, headed by Anastasia Quigley. Do members wish to have a second session next Tuesday to meet the former detainee from Guantánamo Bay?
Deputy Joe Costello: Perhaps it can be incorporated.
Chairman: Yes, we will try to arrange it. I will leave it to the secretariat to do so.
The joint committee adjourned at 10.50 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 February 2010.