MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Many organizations, from the U.N. to the Israeli military, have examined the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas in Gaza last summer. Today, an Israeli organization of former soldiers released something different - first-hand combat stories from more than 60 soldiers. NPR's Emily Harris reports.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The veterans group Breaking the Silence collected interviews from soldiers who fought during the 50-day war. The conflict killed more than 70 Israelis and more than 2,200 Palestinians. Israeli leaders claimed to do everything they could to protect civilians, but accounts collected by Breaking the Silence tell a different story on the ground. One young first sergeant who spoke with NPR said he was a tank gunner in the central Gaza Strip. He was surprised when his commander said anything within 200 yards was fair game to shoot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I remember myself stood up in front of this commander and tell him is it real? It's so weird for me. It's so vague. It's so - I don't know - you can do whatever you want? And he said, yes.
HARRIS: One day he was told to pick a target - any target - and fire a tank shell at it in memory of a soldier who had been killed. He said he and others played a game - trying to hit moving cars along a main north-south road in Gaza. He admitted it's fun to fire a tank. "I can destroy buildings and I'm only 21," he said. But he also said this attitude was not what he'd learned during military service in the West Bank or on Israel's northern border.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There is a good reason, of course, to protect soldiers' lives, so you need to shoot. And you can't now try to discuss about rules of engagement. But I think the commanders just let themselves loose - let's do whatever we want. It's our time to shine. It's the war we were prepared for, and everything is fine in war. I think it's their excuse in my mind.
HARRIS: Avner Gvaryahu directs public outreach in Israel for Breaking the Silence. He says the organization double-checks every story, but hides soldiers' identity for their protection. He also says the aim is not to point fingers at individuals.
AVNER GVARYAHU: It is so easy to find a scapegoat. It is so easy to pinpoint - say, well, that specific person is the problem. It was definitely our specific actions, but it goes all the way to the top.
HARRIS: Israeli military spokesperson Peter Lerner says one of the military's biggest challenges is operating in an urban environment, where militants shot rockets from residential areas. He questions why Breaking the Silence didn't push to share the stories with the military, which is doing its own investigations before the public.
PETER LERNER: They've been building this file for months and months now. Clearly, we need to be looking at certain things there, but they haven't conveyed those to us. So it raises questions. What is the intent behind this entire report?
HARRIS: He says Breaking the Silence has a political motive. The group says their intent is to reveal what soldiers actually do on the ground. One soldier, whose voice was distorted to hide his identity in a video released by the group, said his unit to tried to use up all its machine-gun ammunition just before getting resupplied. It didn't matter whether targets had been identified.
(SOUNDBITE OF BREAKING THE SILENCE VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Through interpreter) We just kept shooting and shooting, almost nonstop, until the barrel was overheated. When it does, it's no longer usable. But we really didn't care because we knew that no one would ask questions. If anyone did, we could say, well, it was for the sake of the operation. It didn't happen on purpose.
HARRIS: In other stories released by Breaking the Silence, soldiers claim two women were killed because they looked suspicious using cell phones. An old man was wounded, then covered in dirt by a bulldozer because soldiers say they feared he might have had a grenade. Several soldiers who told their stories to Breaking the Silence said they did so because their families and friends didn't want to hear. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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