‘When war is declared, truth is the first casualty’, wrote Arthur Ponsonby in “Falsehood in Wartime”, his 1928 critique of military propaganda.
Although he was not the first to posit this, and as clichéd as it has become, it still provides an appropriate maxim.
Last week the Breaking the Silence group released an 80-page document with testimonies from Israeli soldiers about their experiences during the most recent war on Gaza, “Operation Cast Lead”.
It unsurprisingly led to consternation and denial from the military.
Breaking the Silence began as an organisation of veteran Israeli soldiers that collated evidence from soldiers who had served in the Occupied Territories during the Second Intifada.
According to the group, “Soldiers who serve in the territories are witness to – and participate in – military actions that change them immensely.
“Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still excused as military necessities, or explained as extreme and unique cases.”
The last war began on December 27 2008, when Israel launched a military attack on Gaza.
Between 1,166 and 1,417 Palestinians were killed, as well as 13 Israelis. More than 400,000 Gazans were left without running water, 4,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged and tens of thousands of people were left homeless.
The Breaking the Silence report is a harrowing read. It quotes one soldier who says, “You feel like an infantile little kid with a magnifying glass looking at ants, burning them”.
Another says, “A 20-year-old kid should not have to do these kinds of things to other people”.
Amnesty International recently declared Israel’s actions war crimes. This was dismissed by Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev who said, “We tried to be as surgical as is humanly possible in a difficult combat situation.”
The Israeli army has equally denied the validity of this new document, criticising the anonymity of the soldiers.
Depressingly, this is nothing new. B’Tselem, an Israel based human rights group, produced a similar report from Palestinian testimony which was also dismissed by the military.
It detailed names and addresses of Palestinians willing to go on record to document their version of the war. But still the in-house account of the war has been tightly controlled.
The soldiers of Breaking the Silence have confirmed the findings of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Israel’s own B’Tselem and the people of Gaza.
The official line from the Israeli government, in parallel with the military, is becoming increasingly hard to swallow. It is now denying what its own soldiers are saying about the war.
But it is rapidly running out of places to go and, even putting the Palestinian suffering to one side for a moment, it should have the decency to hear the accounts of their own traumatised soldiers on the front line.
If the government is unable to confront the methods of defence within its own armed forces, it sends out a message of utter tactlessness to the families of the dead and traumatized on both sides of this confrontation.
That, disastrously for all concerned, confirms the stereotype that Israel is the biggest kid in the Middle Eastern playground and unaccountable to even itself.
Matt Mankelow is a freelance writer. The Breaking the Silence website is at » www.shovrimshtika.org