Lt. Avi Cohen tells a different story about the Gaza Strip fighting this past January than the version many people around the world hear.
He ordered his men not to shoot back at two Hamas gunmen who were firing from behind a group of kids; he told one soldier not to pick a strawberry from a field they encountered when they entered the Strip, and his men actually volunteered to do the dishes before leaving a private home they had overrun.
“In the army, who volunteers for
anything?” Cohen asked.
Cohen is one of eight Israeli soldiers State of Israel Bonds is sending on a 20-city tour of the United States to talk about their experiences during the recent fighting, and why it was necessary. Pittsburgh was Cohen’s first stop on his leg of the tour.
Dressed in his uniform and speaking with a decidedly British accent for a Sabra (his father is from New Zealand; his mother, from England), the 23-year-old Cohen described in stark terms his motivation to fight Hamas.
He has a 3-year-year old cousin who lives in a Moshav near Ashkelon, which is now in Hamas rocket range. While staying there as he recovered from a leg wound he sustained on the third day of fighting, the little girl woke in the middle of the night crying because a door had slammed hard somewhere in the house. It sounded like a rocket.
“We made it very clear to the soldiers why we’re going into Gaza,” Cohen said, “so people in the south could go to sleep without fear of rockets.”
Even so, he took umbrage at recent claims by the United Nations investigators that U.N. positions were attacked by Israel, and claims by other Israel Defense Forces soldiers that attacks on civilians did occur because of “loose rules of engagement.”
“It’s disturbing to hear,” he said. “We trained our soldiers to be humane.”
In his personal experiences, at least, those allegations are not true.
In one case, soon after crossing into Gaza, his unit encountered a strawberry field, and one soldier asked if he could pick one.
“I explained to him we came here to hurt Hamas, not to hurt the civilians.”
In another instance, they made contact with a group of children; suddenly, two Hamas gunman who were among the children opened fire on the Israelis.
What to do?
“It’s confusing, even for me — an officer with some experience,” Cohen said. “In that case we decided not to shoot.”
People who haven’t been to Gaza can’t understand how Hamas fights, he said. “Even being a soldier in Israel, you can’t believe these things until you see them.”
Global reaction to the January incursion remains mixed.
While Rabbis for Human Rights-North America joined 10 Israeli human rights organizations in calling for the investigation of Israeli soldiers’ actions during the Gaza operation, attorneys general from 10 states defended Israel’s military action in Gaza in an April letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“By intentionally targeting 6,300 rockets against Israel’s civilian population,” the letter said, “Hamas is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of a war crime in that it has violated … the Geneva Convention of 1949.”
Israel Bonds representative Harold Marcus said Cohen would make stops in Pittsburgh and Johnstown this week before heading on to Philadelphia and later Hartford, Conn.
For his part, Cohen believes the IDF made a difference in the security of Israelis living in southern Israel.
“I told my soldiers we were taking part in a historical time,” he said. “This is a real war here. We want peace, and hopefully there comes a day when we can make peace with the Palestinians. Until then, we’ll do whatever we can so the citizens of the Israel can sleep without any fear.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)