As the death toll in Gaza grows, Israeli troops' conduct is getting worse

Amid the destruction, there is a discernible overtone of disrespect, dislike and dehumanisation

Israeli troops trying to burn food and water supplies in an abandoned lorry in Gaza. AP
Powered by automated translation

Sometimes, the difference between perception and reality can be a chasm. In late October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while angrily denouncing critics of his country’s armed forces as “people imbued with hypocrisy and lies”, went on to describe the Israeli military as the “most moral army in the world”. Events in the ruins of Gaza and the occupied West Bank call this lofty claim into question.

With each week that passes, an apparent lack of restraint on the part of Israel’s forces grows. Their actions in Gaza could arguably be described as a lethal indifference to Palestinian life or, at worst, a vengeful hostility towards nearly two million people.

The relentless nature of the Israeli operation has been exposed by a string of shocking incidents. At his weekly blessing on Sunday, Pope Francis used the word “terrorism” when referring to the reported actions of an Israeli military sniper, who Catholic leaders in Jerusalem say shot and killed two women outside a church on Saturday. Israeli attacks on the enclave’s Jabalia refugee camp and Nasser hospital in Khan Younis have since resulted in dozens more civilian deaths.

Less lethal but troubling in their own way are a string of social media videos that have emerged, showing Israeli troops behaving in a manner that seriously questions the military’s professionalism. From soldiers in the West Bank city of Jenin using a mosque’s loudspeaker system to goad residents with Jewish prayer to online videos that show troops disrespecting private homes, trashing shops or happily using bulldozers to crush Gazans' cars, there is a discernible overtone of disrespect, dislike and dehumanisation. The wilful and unnecessary destruction of civilian property, moreover, is a war crime under international humanitarian law.

The army has promised to investigate some of these cases, but it is particularly worrying that the one incident that the military has outright described as a mistake – the gunning down by soldiers of three Israeli hostages who were waving a white flag and trying to be rescued – is the only one that has led to protests in Israel itself.

Into this deteriorating situation enters Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defence, who arrived in Israel on Monday to begin a regional tour. As a senior military figure, Mr Austin knows all about the need for discipline and restraint, even in the face of appalling provocation, such as Hamas’s October 7 attacks that claimed many civilian lives. As someone who was a leading commander with US forces in Iraq, he also knows about the deadly consequences that can come from detrimental campaigns that alienate entire populations and sow the seeds for future conflict.

That risk of further violence is borne out by polling from the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research published last Wednesday. It found that although most Palestinians remain unsupportive of Hamas, “the war increases Hamas’s popularity and greatly weakens the standing of the Palestinian Authority and its leadership”. At the same time, the “overwhelming majority condemns the positions taken by the US and the main European powers during the war and express the belief that they have lost their moral compass”.

Mr Austin, given his extensive experience and political weight, is in a strong position to explain the growing dangers in Gaza to Israel’s security establishment in a language they can comprehend. The message from Washington’s most senior soldier should be direct: enough is enough.

Published: December 19, 2023, 3:00 AM