The Hebron confessions

As ex-soldiers speak out about seeing Palestinian civilians being killed, Donald Macintyre talks to the victims' families

Still dressed in the loose sharwal trousers that he wears for his work as a gardener, the 22-year-old ex-soldier sits across the café table in a central Tel Aviv shopping mall, and says that when he joined the Israeli army he just "wanted to kill Arabs".

Like most of the other 300 ex-soldiers who have so far testified about their experiences to Breaking the Silence, an organisation formed a year ago by a group of young men who had done their military service in Hebron, the soldier doesn't want to give his real name. But he tells how his attitude gradually changed when he came into contact with Palestinians and Bedouin for the first time and saw the long delays, and sometimes harassment, faced by them at the checkpoints he manned in the Jordan valley.

The ex-soldier, who joined the religious Nahal brigade despite having already shed his own ultra-orthodox background, talks about "initiated action" he saw when serving at the military base at the Psagot settlement on the edge of Ramallah in early 2002, and to which he says officers sometimes turned a blind eye.

Instead of carrying out the instructions to use their machine guns and M16s only when fired at by Palestinians militants, he suggests, "a soldier would say: 'Why let them decide when the shooting takes place? Let's show them who's boss.'"

With time, he says, "the soldiers got the feeling that they were at a firing range, and for every shot fired ... they'd fire hundreds of bullets in return. There's no need to add that they hit innocent people, and sometimes afterwards we saw ... ambulances arriving there. Nobody cared that they were liable to hit innocent people, they found the whole thing funny."

So far the testimonies gathered by Breaking the Silence have triggered 17 official Israel Defence Force investigations and one internal disciplinary process. Three of the accounts (see panels) have also been followed up by The Independent on Sunday with the families of the victims.

They have also helped to fuel a growing debate within parts of Israeli society and the media about many military operations during the present conflict, which was ignited exactly five years ago this Friday.

Central to the rapid escalation of that conflict were attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers which since October 2000 have claimed the lives of 745 Israeli civilians, and wounded over 5,100. But the Israeli human rights agency B'tselem estimates that some 1,700 Palestinian civilians have also been killed in the same period - a figure which many of these disturbing testimonies go some way to explaining.

Breaking the Silence contends that the inspiration for many orders, which it says directly violate the international legal obligations of an occupying power, came from the highest ranks. Certainly, Booomerang, a new book by two prominent Israeli journalists, Ofer Shelah and Raviv Druker, reports that at a conference of officers as early as May 2001, Shaul Mofaz, now the Defence Minister but then Chief of Staff, asked for the tape to be switched off before telling them that he wanted a "price" exacted from the Palestinians of 10 killed a day on each of the Army's seven fronts.

And after six Israeli soldiers were killed in Ein Arik in February 2002, the book says, Mr Mofaz personally ordered a revenge operation in which for the first time Palestinian police officers would be shot, whether they posed a threat or not. One soldier who took part in a raid which killed four or five Palestinian policemen at a checkpoint 24 hours after Ein Arik told the IoS: "It felt bad even at that time. They said Palestinian police are connected to terror and that the [killers] passed through the checkpoint. Maybe the police are connected to terror but for sure they didn't pass through all the checkpoints [attacked that day]."

Much later, he says, the soldiers discussed the raid, using - half-jocularly - the Hebrew term for a "terrorist attack" to describe the operation: "Pigua." "Like they are doing terror attack to us and we are doing it to them." This was also the period in which a tank shell killed a woman and five children in Ramallah (see box, far right).

The IDF's conduct during more than four years of conflict was highlighted this month when a former head of its southern command, Major General Doron Almog, was advised not to get off his plane in London because he faced arrest. A warrant was secured in Britain by a Palestinian organisation for alleged war crimes under theGeneva Conventions Act.

Unlike the 27 Israeli air force pilots who refused in 2003 to carry out missions in the occupied territories at risk to civilian lives, Breaking the Silence does not advocate refusal. But like the pilots, its adherents see speaking out as a national obligation - a "patriotic duty", as Avichai Sharon, the group's spokesman, puts it. "Ninety percent of the 18,19, 20 year olds serving are regular, good decent guys who come from good homes," he says, and many "feel corrupted" by the nature of their service in the occupied territories.

His bag held explosives, the army said. It was pitta bread

Nablus, 18 December 2003

Paratroop sergeant: "We set up a machine gun position in the main street of the [Nablus] Casbah, Firing orders were: anybody walking around the Casbah at night was to be shot and killed. The order was given us in a briefing by the squad commander. From what he told us, the order originated with the Shomron brigade commander. The same order was given many times ... And the answer was always: the info always comes from the Shabak [Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence service]. How did the Shabak know that Ahmed the baker or Salim the carpenter didn't have to get up at 3am for work?

"The sharpshooter's position, of which I was a part, identified a man carrying a bag on Jama'a al Kabir [street] between 3 and 4am, I don't remember. When this was reported,, the order was given to 'take him down'. Killed. A man fell, something in the order of 70m from the house. Then the jeep of the command post came and 'confirmed kill', throwing two grenades on the body that smashed it completely. Then they opened the bag to see what's in it and found: pitot (pitta breads). Pitot.

"This thing was never investigated. The regiment commander cheers us up. 'Listen guys, don't be demoralised. This man wasn't just walking around innocently.' Of course he didn't have any substantive information - 'Be assured that anyone walking round the Casbah at that hour is no friend of Zion. He probably had a terrorist agenda, and you performed a good job'"

Ala Adin Masud Adawiya 24, left home at around 2.30am on his second day of work in the Silawi bakery in Nablus's old city. His 25-year-old brother, Ayman, said he had just switched jobs to be nearer home. As Ala Adin neared the square, he could see Israeli Army tanks massing.

Under strict instructions to tell his mother when he had reached the bakery, he used his cellphone to report what he saw. His mother told him to come back immediately, but never heard from him again. Ayman went out to search for his brother in the narrow streets of the Casbah, repeatedly trying to reach him on his mobile phone. "My mother was weeping and praying," he says.

The Army, which said in early 2004 the victim had been identified as a "terrorist" with Islamic Jihad, and that the bag contained explosives, now acknowledges the shooting was a mistake. The family have a gruesome video, made by a Palestinian TV company, of people crowding round his multiply wounded body, in underpants soaked through with blood.

Why did the tank crew really fire?

Ramallah, 4 March 2002

Commander at tank position, Psagot settlement. Around 8am, as the visiting battalion commander stood by, the tank fired three shells at a police car in a populated area, but missed totally. The shells fell in open ground. Later that morning, "the Battalion Commander left the barracks, leaving me in command. He told me: 'If you see [policemen] again, shoot'.

The commander receiving the order left his deputy in charge by the tank and returned to his office - only to hear a few moments later the loud boom of another shell. He ran back to the tank, where his equally surprised deputy said he too had given no orders to fire. The explosion from the shell was now sending up a black column of smoke from the entrance to the Amari refugee camp.

Amazingly the commander says he did not demand to know why the tank crew had fired without orders. But he told them to revert to previous rules of engagement, and shoot only at targets who had "intent as well as means" to do harm. He heard subsequently that one of the tank crew "reacted emotionally" to what had happened and was moved to a non-combat role, and that the tank and its crew were later replaced.

The only inquiry, he says, was carried out by a colonel heading an investigating committee six months later, and he did not know the outcome. He added: "I don't know if the initial order was legal, but it was stupid. You can't fight like this all the time. You're taught means and intent - and suddenly you are shooting for nothing." In his view, such shelling may have been one element which escalated the conflict into Operation Defensive Shield and full blown war.

Arafat al Masri, 16, and his four-year-old cousin Sheema had minutes earlier climbed with four other children into a Subaru driven by Arafat's uncle Imad. As they left al Amari camp, a Mitsubishi was coming in the opposite direction. It was driven by Bushara Abu Kweik, 37, who was bringing her children - daughters Aziza, 14, and Bara'a, 13, and son Mohammed, 10 - home from school. At that moment the shell struck, killing Arafat, Sheema, Mrs abu Kweik and her three children.

Arafat's father, Ibrahim al Masri is still convinced three years later that his son died because of a failed assassination attempt on Mrs Abu Kweik's husband Hussein, a prominent political figure in Hamas who ran a local charity. But the testimony of the soldier, who has no vested interest in supporting the official version that Mrs Abu Kweik's car was not targeted, strongly indicates that the families' assumption is wrong. The Army says the tank was attempting to hit armed Palestinian police.

Mr al Masri said the loss of his son did not fully sink in until the third day of mourning: "Then I missed him." He added: "I do not believe in vengeance against Israelis. God will punish those that did it."

'No one thought we were going to shoot kids'

Nablus, 19 February 2003

Avichai Sharon, 24, elite unit, Golani Brigade. In late 2002, two men in his unit, in an open backed vehicle during a search and arrest operation, fired live ammunition at people throwing bricks at them. He and fellow soldiers told the squad officer: "The rules of engagement are not clear enough in this kind of situation. We don't have any rubber bullets or tear gas or any alternatives other than our lethal weapons." He says the men never got a reply.

While the squad was surrounding a house in Nablus a few months later, one of its members fired at the legs of a teenager throwing stones. But the boy was bending down to pick up a stone, and was instead shot in the chest. Mr Sharon said the unit heard on the radio that the boy, between 14 and 16, had been killed. "And then we just went back. We finished our operation and continued our daily routine. There was no questioning.

"No one did it intentionally. No one thought we were going to shoot kids. Its just no one cares - it's just total disregard for human life. Life is just totally cheap ... the guy that shot him really felt bad about it, he was really uncomfortable."

Mohammed al Saber, 15, went off with some friends at the time of a military operation. His brother Saed, 25, trying to piece together what happened from Mohammed's friends, thought he had been on a roof at one point. "They were eating biscuits; they were also playing with bottles. They may have been throwing stones."

Mohammed was dead on arrival at Rafidia Hospital. The medical report says he was shot by a bullet with an exit wound through the right shoulder; there was another wound in his right leg. His father, Rabbia al Saber, 58, says the shock of his son's death caused a stroke which left him partially paralysed. Looking for a likeness of Mohammed, one brother brought out a typical Fatah-produced "martyr" poster, depicting him carrying a gun, but the family asked for it not to be photographed. One said: "It makes him look like a soldier, but he wasn't. He was a normal boy."

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