On the other hand, failure to note the substantial evidence that the army’s rules of engagement had been loosened had the effect of weakening the soldiers’ credibility. If there were no evidence that the abuses had been ordered from above, then the entire case would rest on the soldiers’ testimony. The public could then conclude that the misdeeds represented only a few bad apples—or never happened at all.
That theme—that the evidence was flimsy—was sounded repeatedly by conservative columnists and bloggers as they began to counterattack in the days after the first reports. “There is no evidence,” [emphasis in the original] conservative British columnist Melanie Phillips wrote in a Sunday posting on the Spectator Web site, tellingly titled the Haaretz blood libel. “Not one single verifiable actual incident of intentional killing of civilians.”
Back in Israel, a virtuoso summation of the stories’ purported flimsiness was presented by conservative columnist Caroline Glick, a longtime fixture at the venerable, rightist Jerusalem Post. Glick termed the entire process of eliciting and publicizing the soldiers’ testimonies a “major media assault on the IDF,” or Israel Defense Forces, and “a coproduction of a far-left political activist”—that would be Rabin academy director Danny Zamir—“and far-left reporters.”
At Zamir’s institute, she wrote, students are “subjected to post-Zionist political philosophy that according to sources familiar with the institution indoctrinates them to believe that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state.” Actually, the school is a prime source of elite Israeli fighters, and Zamir remains a trusted officer.
More important, there was substantial evidence for the charge about changed rules. Ofer Shelah wrote, in his second-day report in the Maariv weekend supplement, that the military had drafted new rules of engagement in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon war. “Changing the rules was a General Staff decision,” Shelah told me in a phone interview. The army had concluded after Lebanon that its rules on protecting civilians left troops vulnerable to ambushes and booby traps. This time, it would protect its soldiers first. One of the senior commanders in Gaza, artillery chief Colonel Tzvi Fogel, had described the rules to him in an on-air interview on Channel 10. The army was instructed to target an area of suspected Hamas activity with artillery fire, then drop leaflets warning residents to clear out. Anyone who was still around after that was to be considered a suspected terrorist and fair game.
But you had to read it in Maariv (or see it in Shelah’s report on Channel 10). Most of the foreign correspondents don’t read Hebrew, and most educated Israelis they talk to don’t read the right-wing tabloid. Naturally, most overseas readers—and columnists—didn’t hear about it. Mostly they heard what was in Haaretz. And so one commentator after another complained about lack of evidence—and about Haaretz’s “leftist” motives in publishing.
On march 30, eleven days after the stories first appeared, the army published the report of its investigation. It said the squad leaders who described the two killings admitted they had not witnessed them directly, but were reporting hearsay. Therefore, the case was considered closed.
Amos Harel of Haaretz treated the probe’s findings sarcastically. A year earlier, investigators had completed a probe of an officer accused of letting his teenage son take a joy ride on a military ATV. That investigation took eighteen months. “One would be hard-pressed not to express astonishment at the speed and efficiency” shown by the army’s legal team this time, he wrote. Still, he wondered, why were the investigators so certain “the soldiers were truthful during the investigations,” as the army report put it, but lied when talking among themselves? Why were the soldiers now forbidden to speak to the press? What about the soldiers’ other accounts—of vandalism, bullying and the like? And why hadn’t the army sought testimony from Palestinians in Gaza, some of whom had told the AP stories that matched the soldiers’ accounts?