Eleven years ago I was discharged from my military service as a combatant with the Nahal Brigade of the Israel Defence Force (IDF). After my release I founded the organisation Breaking the Silence together with several friends. Since then, I have spoken with hundreds of soldiers who described their military service in the territories. I never came across such lenient rules of engagement as those described by dozens of soldiers and officers who took part in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. Their testimonies describe how the IDF conducted itself and can explain to a large extent why there were such fatal results.
But the testimonies from Protective Edge do not tell the whole story. They do not recount that last summer’s operation was only the latest in a series of operations conducted by the IDF in recent years in Gaza. (Warm Winter in 2008, Cast Lead at the start of 2009, Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Protective Edge in 2014). They also neglect to explain why it is apparent that it is only a matter of time until the next operation.
This succession of operations in Gaza is an expression of a strategy nicknamed by senior IDF officers as “cutting the grass”. Those who advocate for this strategy describe it as a necessary response to the terror threats facing Israel. These officers present the strategy as a defensive tool designed to undermine terror groups’ ability to threaten Israel’s security. They claim that because the threats facing Israel are constant and can never be completely averted, Israel must periodically and cyclically “cut” terror organisations’ capabilities and disrupt their readiness for combat. An operation every two or three years is an expression of cold and calculated logic, not whimsy.
But the last operation, like those that preceded it, not only damaged Hamas’s infrastructure and that of other armed groups. The principal casualties from the “grass cutting” policy were Palestinian civilians, whose population is being torn apart under the throes of war. Think about what happens to a society when hundreds of its children are killed within the span of two months, along with 18,000 of its homes. It is impossible not to discern whether what the IDF is “cutting” every couple of years is terror capabilities, or the ability for an entire society to develop and subsist.
In effect, the “grass cutting” policy is but another component of Israel’s system of control over the Palestinian population, both in Gaza and the West Bank. In order to preserve its control, Israel continuously operates to ensure Palestinians remain weak and vulnerable. As a soldier, I took part in countless operations aimed at “lowering the heads” of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. Many other soldiers have and continue to do the same. Patrols at all hours of the day and night throughout the streets of Palestinian cities, raids in arbitrarily chosen civilian homes, checkpoints in the heart of densely populated Palestinian areas – all these activities are designed to show the Palestinian population that Israeli soldiers are always present in every place, and to create a sense of persecution. Other operations, like curfews on a village or the arrest of all the men in it for an undefined period of time, allow for the entrenchment of fear in the population, and with it the strengthening of control over them.
The difference between the soldiers’ missions in the West Bank and Gaza stems from the difference in the nature of control Israel has on these two territories. The West Bank has been under full, direct and daily military control and partial civilian control for the last 48 years. In the Gaza Strip, Israel has not implemented direct military control since 2005. However, to this day, it continues to retain control over the most basic aspects of daily life in Gaza. We control Gaza’s air and sea space, as well as its population registry and the passage of trade and people. The periodic conflicts in Gaza are another tool in Israel’s indirect system of control over the population, and is another means of dismembering Palestinian society.
We should remind ourselves that when we cut down Palestinians’ freedom to choose how to live their lives and their right to live securely with a roof over their heads, we are also cutting ourselves down. We are cutting down our values and our humanity, as well as our security and hope to live without anticipating the next round of war.
If we do not act to stop Israel’s perennial “grass cutting,” within the West Bank and Gaza, then we can only expect more death and destruction on both sides. Only a determined political struggle to end Israeli control can prevent the next war and bring peace and security to the people of the region. Only freedom for Palestinians can guarantee freedom and security for Israelis.
Yehuda Shaul is a co-founder and member of Breaking the Silence, an organisation of almost 1,000 Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation