Opinion: Occupation has corrupted the humanity of Israel’s military

There is a disregard among Israeli soldiers for Palestinian lives, and we are seeing it in Gaza today.

(Ariel Schalit | AP) Israeli soldiers take up positions near the Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, Friday, Dec. 29, 2023.

Israel’s military has brought utter devastation to the Palestinians of Gaza after the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7. But the extreme response is not only a reaction to the horrors of that day. It is also a product of the decades-long role the military has played in enforcing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

The occupation has cultivated a longstanding disregard among Israeli soldiers for Palestinian lives, and similar impulses in the words and actions of commanders can be seen to lie behind the horrors of what we are witnessing today.

Israel has governed a people denied basic human rights and the rule of law through constant coercion, threats and intimidation. The idea that the only answer to Palestinian resistance, both violent and nonviolent, is greater — and more indiscriminate — force has shown signs of becoming entrenched in the Israel Defense Forces and in Israeli politics.

I know this through the numerous testimonies collected by my organization, Breaking the Silence, which was formed in 2004 by a group of Israeli veterans to expose the reality of Israel’s military occupation. We know firsthand and from thousands of soldiers that military occupation is imposed on civilians through fear, which is instilled by the growing and often arbitrary use of force.

For 20 years, we have heard these soldiers speak of the gradual erosion of principles that, even if never fully upheld, were once seen as fundamental to the moral character of the Israel Defense Forces. We have continued our work despite criticism from the military and the government.

I also know this because I myself have undergone this moral corruption. I, like many Israeli soldiers, went into the military thinking I knew the difference between right and wrong, and had a clear sense of the boundaries on legitimate use of force. But every boundary is destined to be redrawn in a military occupation, whose very existence relies on terrorizing a civilian population into submission.

I clearly remember one of the first times I entered the home of a Palestinian family, as a sergeant, in a village near Nablus in the West Bank in 2007. It was in the middle of the night and we were told that the house would make a good observation point. As we approached, we heard an elderly woman next door screaming in fear. We broke the window of her home and shone a flashlight. She was terrified, speaking unintelligibly. Her family was looking in from the other room, too scared to enter and calm her down. These people weren’t suspects. They just lived next door to the house we needed.

I was horrified, but I soon grew accustomed to such scenes. As soldiers, we used people’s houses for our purposes. We used people’s things. We used people. From home invasions to checkpoints, patrols to arrests, we eventually stopped seeing Palestinian civilians as real, living people. I quit asking myself: What do they feel? What do they think? How would I feel if soldiers barged into my house in the middle of the night? These questions, so crucial for morality and humanity, lost their meaning.

Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 kidnapped, over 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, some 1.7 million Palestinians have been displaced and 1.1 million Palestinians are facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity, according to the United Nations.

And so, as the war grinds on, we Israelis are not who we think we are. We may think we know our boundaries and principles, we may think we are on the side of right, we may think we are in control. Yet what was once unthinkable soon becomes the norm. The innocent, we say, must be protected. But we have lived for too long as an occupying power; two many among us see no one as innocent anymore. We see threats everywhere and in anyone, threats that, we feel, justify almost anything.

That may include using suffering to achieve military goals. “The international community warns of a humanitarian disaster in Gaza and of severe epidemics,” Giora Eiland, a retired major general and former head of the Israel National Security Council, wrote in November. “We must not shy away from this, as difficult as that may be,” he said, adding, “This is not about cruelty for cruelty’s sake, since we don’t support the suffering of the other side as a goal, but as a means.”

Israel has repeatedly maintained that it is doing all that it can to protect civilians. But the heart of this pattern of moral deterioration is in the military’s determination of who is a combatant.

The shifting sense of who is an enemy combatant and who isn’t, both in military procedures and soldiers’ attitudes, is especially clear in Israel’s periodic wars in Gaza, where the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and ground forces in 2005 cleared the way for harsher and less discriminate methods of war.

Take Operation Cast Lead, in 2008 and 2009, which began with an aerial attack on police stations in Gaza City and ultimately killed more than 240 policemen and injured around 750. After the fact, Israel claimed it did not violate the laws of war by targeting policemen since the “collective role of the Gaza ‘police’” was “an integral part of Hamas armed forces” and as such, they were effectively considered enemy combatants. But according to a United Nations fact-finding mission, the policemen killed in the attacks “cannot be said to have been taking a direct part in hostilities.”

Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014, was the deadliest Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip since 1967 until the current war. More than 2,200 Palestinians were killed, 1,391 of them civilians, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Many soldiers who took part in the operation have told Breaking the Silence that very little was required by their commanders to label a person an enemy combatant. Two unarmed women walking in an orchard, talking on their phones, were suspected of scouting Israeli forces — and were killed, one soldier told us. After a commander ordered their bodies to be checked, the conclusion was, “They were fired at — so of course, they must have been terrorists,” said the soldier whose identity like that of many of our witnesses we have kept anonymous to protect his safety.

Israel’s conduct in the current war demonstrates this viewpoint even more. A reservist officer recently told a journalist: “De facto, a terrorist is anyone the military kills inside the zone of combat.” This reckless interpretation of the rules of war has resulted in meaningless loss for Palestinians and Israelis alike. In December, the Israeli military mistakenly killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza who had been shirtless, unarmed and bearing a makeshift white flag.

The military said the shooting of the three men had violated its rules of engagement. But soldiers who participated in previous wars in Gaza reported being instructed, upon entering areas where civilians had been warned to evacuate, to shoot anything that moves because anyone who stayed was considered a threat and a legitimate target. Similar reports are surfacing now.

In contrast to these attitudes, consider the 2002 Israeli bombing of the home of a top Hamas commander in Gaza City that killed him and 14 others, including eight children. A government committee concluded that faulty intelligence led to the high civilian death toll, and implied that had it been known there were many civilians on site, the attack would have been aborted.

The shocking numbers of civilian casualties in the current war — nearly 13,000 women and children, according to Gazan authorities — may be the result, to some degree, of other changes in Israel’s targeting policies, too. According to intelligence sources that +972 Magazine and Local Call spoke with, on previous operations senior military operatives were defined as “human targets” who could be killed in their homes even if civilians were around. In the current war, the sources reportedly said, the term “human target” covers all Hamas fighters.

This has clearly led to a sharp increase in the number of targets, which has probably meant that the lengthy process of justifying operations has had to speed up. The military has employed artificial intelligence to help. According to the intelligence sources who spoke with +972 and Local Call, A.I. marked some 37,000 Palestinians in Gaza in the early days of the war for targeting as suspected Hamas militants, most of them of junior rank. It is unclear how many of that group have been killed. The Israeli military has disputed some of these allegations.

A military that controls civilians by force for decades is bound to lose its ethical compass. So does a society that sends its military on such a mission. The horrors of Oct. 7 have accelerated and intensified this process. The death and destruction that have been brought upon Gaza will shape the future of Palestinians and Israelis for generations to come. There will have to be a profound moral reckoning.

Avner Gvaryahu is director of Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli veterans opposed to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.