The United Nations and much of the world media have blasted Israel for alleged war crimes during its incursion into the Gaza Strip in January, but one Israeli tank commander is mounting a spirited defense, using declassified video footage from Israel Defense Force drones and commercial media.
The video clips show the extraordinary efforts the IDF made to avoid civilian casualties, at times steering bombs away from their intended targets, because the target had moved into a crowd of civilians.
They also provide graphic testimony of war crimes committed by Hamas. In one scene, an armed Hamas fighter can be seen grabbing a child by the arm holding the child in front of him as he crossed the street.
“He knows that our snipers shoot them when they are in the open, crossing the street,” says Col. Ben-Tzion Gruber. “So they grab children as human shields. He knows we don’t shoot when there are children around.”
In another scene, a Hamas fighter can be seen launching a rocket from the roof of a house, and then calling in neighborhood children to serve as human shields so he can leave before Israeli jets bomb the house. In yet another, a Hamas fighter actually hides behind three children as he shoots at Israeli troops.
In a remarkable sequence filmed by The Associated Press on the ground in Gaza on the Palestinian side, armed Hamas fighters piled into an ambulance with the huge letters “UN” painted on its side as Israeli forces advanced into the street where they had prepared an ambush.
“How many Hamas terrorists will fit into a United Nations ambulance? Count them,” Gruber told an audience on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as he pointed to the fighters and their weapons.
Seven armed fighters piled into the back of the ambulance, some of them carrying bulky antitank weapons.
Shortly after Hamas took over Gaza 2 1/2 years ago, they fired all 500 ambulance drivers and 7,000 teachers in U.N. employ, replacing them with people loyal to them who allowed Hamas to use the ambulances to carry troops and munitions and the schools as rocket launch-sites, Gruber said.
“Wherever we entered a village, Hamas always had ambulances right at the front” carrying troops and munitions,” he said.
Gruber was deputy commander of IDF Division 252. At one point, as his 60-ton Merkava tanks were about to engage in a major offensive operation, his commander called him with an unusual demand.
“Even during the fighting, we were talking all the time to the Palestinian forces,” Gruber explained. “They called us that morning and said, ‘There are two women who are pregnant who need to go to the hospital.’ So I took four of my tanks out of the battle and located two ambulances, and escorted them to the hospital.”
In his report for the United Nations, South African Magistrate Richard Goldstone accused both Hamas and Israel of committing war crimes. But it was the allegation that Israel purposefully targeted civilians that stung Gruber the most.
“During [one] operation, we killed 709 terrorists. How do we know they were terrorists? Because we knew where they came from, what they did. We knew their families. We spent a lot of time identifying them,” Gruber said.
Gruber said Israel acknowledges killing 295 non-combatants “by accident, regrettably,” during the Gaza fighting. Of those, 89 were under the age of 16, and another 50 were women.
“How many women do you think live in Gaza?” Col. Gruber asked. “About 50 percent of the population, no? And there were just 50 women killed? This is killing civilian targets? No way.”
By comparison, during the war in Bosnia 10 civilians were killed for every combatant. “That’s not what happened here,” he said.
About 435 people die every month in Gaza of natural causes. “So some of the names the Palestinians claimed we killed may have been these people.”
Israel was unable to determine whether an additional 162 Palestinians killed during the fighting were civilians or combatants. Another video sequence Gruber showed made clear why there was confusion.
In the video, a wounded fighter lay on a stretcher, drenched in blood, his AK-47 assault rifle tucked by his side. As medics lifted the stretcher into a waiting U.N. ambulance, another fighter grabbed the assault rifle and took it away.
None of the men were wearing uniforms, so there was nothing to distinguish a civilian from a Hamas fighter. “And so now, this wounded terrorist becomes a civilian casualty,” Gruber said.
Gruber also refuted oft-repeated claims by Goldstone that Israel used white phosphorus bombs during the Gaza operation. He showed photographs of real phosphorous bombs exploding, and compared them to actual footage of the bombs Israel used in Gaza. “We did not use phosphorus. Period. We used smoke bombs. You could walk through the cloud of smoke without feeling anything.”
Goldstone and his small team of U.N. investigators held two days of public hearings in Gaza last July and visited 36 sites in Gaza where local residents claimed that Israel had committed war crimes.
Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation because it was performed under the auspices of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body where Iran, Libya, Syria and Cuba sit and they are slanted against Israel and the United States.
Even before the fighting began, the Council’s Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, American leftist Richard Falk, was comparing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to “the criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity.”
The appointment of someone like Richard Falk to the U.N. Human Rights Council was “exactly why we voted against the new Human Rights Council,” said former U.S. U.N. ambassador, John Bolton.
Gruber repeated the claims of Israeli leaders that the objective of December’s campaign, “Operation Cast Lead,” was “to stop the rockets from Hamas,” not to punish the Palestinian population or kill civilians. “During the war, we brought 60 trucks full of aid every day into Gaza,” he said. “We did this during the war!”
In the two year before Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, Hamas launched close to 6,000 rockets from Gaza into Israel, hitting towns and villages and killing about two dozen people.
An Israeli early warning siren system, which gives people roughly 10 to 45 seconds to find cover in prepared shelters, has “undoubtedly limited the number of civilian casualties in Israel,” according to the Jewish Policy Center in Jerusalem.
“We have been hit by Hamas rockets since 2001,” Gruber said. “How long you would wait to strike back if terrorists were sending rockets into Los Angeles from across the border?” he asked.
The entire 575 page Goldstone report devotes just one short paragraph to the subject of “Israeli casualties,” and only takes into account Israeli civilians killed during the three weeks of the operation.
Gruber’s presentation was sponsored by the Endowment for Middle Eastern Truth and Reps. Doug Lamborn, R, Colo., and Shelly Berkley, D, Nev.
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