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'You can't fire a mortar and target your enemy precisely – I can say that with confidence'

A former IDF Commander writes about civilian casualties in Gaza.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

IN TWO MONTHS, we will mark the first anniversary of Operation “Protective Edge”. Around 2,200 Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip lost their lives during the course of conflict, among them over 500 children and hundreds of other innocent civilians. Despite the enormous death toll, leaders of the Israeli government and army repeated over and over again the mantra that the IDF did everything to minimise civilian casualties in Gaza. Many citizens of Israel believe these claims. Regrettably, I am forced to say that such claims are nothing but lies.

This week Breaking the Silence published a collection of testimonies from commanders and soldiers who took part in ‘Protective Edge’. The testimonies took me back a few years to the days of the Israeli army’s last large operation in Gaza – Operation ‘Cast Lead’. At the time I was a commander in the mortars platoon of the 50th battalion of the Nahal brigade. Our platoon and others were responsible for firing 120-millimeter mortars into the Gaza Strip, in accordance with the instructions we received.

Mortars are inaccurate 

In movies, when a hero wants to strike an enemy, the hero identifies the enemy and shoots in their direction. The gun’s bullet speeds through the air and almost always hits the enemy’s forehead or heart. I assume that when the average person hears news about shells or mortars fired into Gaza by the IDF, they might picture a similar scenario. Sadly, reality is far from being a Hollywood movie. Mortars are both inaccurate and fired from a long range. From my experience as a mortars commander, I can say with confidence: you cannot fire a mortar and precisely target your enemy’s heart.

To compensate for the inaccuracy, mortars are fired in barrages: three to 10 shells each time. Each shell can kill anyone who is 10 meters from the blast, and injure anyone who is up to 20 meters away. When you fire ten such explosives, statistics kick in, and you will end up hitting your target. The large amount of shells fired guarantee immense damage within a wide area. The standard range of deviation for a mortar can reach a radius of up to 50 meters from the target. Picture the death and destruction that one barrage of 10 mortars can cause in a densely populated area like the Gaza Strip.

Civilians are hit hard by these methods

I know this weapon, and I know  the potential results of its use. I also know that throughout Operation “Cast Lead,” the IDF fired mortars on urban areas in which there were innocent civilians. Sometimes it was response fire (firing at a place from which fire toward Israel was identified) and sometimes it was ‘softening’ fire (fire that is supposed to ’clear the path‘ for ground forces). But it doesn’t matter what the reason is for firing. When that kind of weapon is used in populated areas, it is guaranteed to hit civilians hard.

‘’The whole conception was that during that stage, there were no civilians inside the area in which we were fighting… The situation on the ground is very clear – the preliminary fire, which isn’t directed at houses, signals very clearly [to the Palestinian population] that we are going in; this is after the leaflets and all those things. We have our zone, which is totally open, there are no other forces there and we know where the next battalion is located.’’

This is how a soldier described orders with regard to residential neighborhoods during ‘Protective Edge.’ After initial fire and dispersal of leaflets, the area is considered ‘empty and open for bombardment, though despite the fact that many civilians did indeed remain there., . The sole question prior to opening fire was whether there are IDF forces in the area.

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We hoped that our testimonies would spark a public debate

Five years ago my friends and I hoped it wouldn’t happen again – that the IDF wouldn’t so blatantly violate its own commitments to protecting civilian lives. That’s why when the mission was over, we knew we had to break our silence and tell the public how combat was conducted during that operation. We hoped that our testimonies would spark a public debate, which would demand that the IDF cease its use of this weapon in residential areas. Our hopes were shattered. The soldiers’ testimonies from Operation “Protective Edge” reveal that lessons were not learned.

We must recognise the painful fact that as long as the IDF uses ‘statistical weapons,’ like mortars, toward civilian neighborhoods, our leaders’ declarations of “having done everything we could in order to prevent civilian casualties’’ are empty statements that do not align with the reality on the ground. We did not do everything we could to prevent civilian casualties in Operation Cast Lead, in which I took part, and we did not do so in Operation Protective Edge either.

As long as we do not demand that our leaders stop using weapons whose use is almost guaranteed to harm an innocent population, we – each and every one of us – will continue to bear the responsibly for the killing of civilians. Including the next time this kind of weaponry is used in the Gaza Strip.

Itay Reznik served as a Commander in the 50th Battalion of the Nahal Brigade, and is an activist with Breaking the Silence.

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