The civilian population in Gaza is “a partner of terror” that “gets what they choose,” the top commander of the Israeli army’s Givati Brigade told the Israeli press recently, after orchestrating some of the deadliest episodes of butchery visited upon the Gaza Strip this summer.
Colonel Ofer Winter also admitted to ordering the mass-bombardment of an area where an Israeli soldier was known to be in order to prevent his capture alive by Palestinian resistance fighters — an army policy known as the Hannibal Directive.
These are just two of the many incriminating comments made by Winter in a lengthy and candid interview published in a paper-only edition of the Hebrew-language Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot on 15 August.
The interview took place near the end of Israel’s 51-day bombing campaign which killed more than 2,100 people in Gaza, the vast majority of them civilians — including more than 500 children. Israel expert Dena Shunra translated the interview for The Electronic Intifada.
In addition to justifying the mass killing of civilians in Gaza, Winter applauded the carpet bombing he ordered in Rafah as a necessary punishment and repeatedly invoked religious supremacy as a leading factor in what he views as a Jewish victory in Gaza.
Just as a temporary three-day humanitarian ceasefire negotiated by Egypt and the United States went into effect on the morning of Friday 1 August, a unit of soldiers from the Israeli army’s Givati Brigade conducted a tunnel incursion in Rafah, provoking fire from Palestinian resistance fighters.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the ensuing firefight and another, Hadar Goldin, went missing. It was later determined that Goldin died in the battle, but in the immediate aftermath the Israeli army operated under the assumption that he had been captured.
Ofer Winter was napping when he woke up to news of Goldin’s possible capture. He told Yediot Ahronot’s Yossi Yehoshua:
At 9 am, half an hour after I put my head down, the Deputy Brigade Commander woke me up: “come quickly, it’s best you be here.” We asked for a snapshot, we wanted information. We didn’t think there was an abduction yet. While inquiring if everyone was there, I commanded Sagiv, the Armored Forces Commander operating under my orders, to start moving from Hirbat Hiza’a, which was where he was, toward Rafah. Just then I got the message “it’s not green in our eyes” – in other words, not everyone had been found. We were missing a soldier. At 9:36, after inquiries with the battalion commander on site, I announced on the communication system the word that no one wants to say – “Hannibal.” In other words, there had been an abduction. I instructed all the forces to move forward, to occupy space, so the abductors would not be able to move.
The Hannibal Directive is an unwritten Israeli military protocol for executing captured Israeli soldiers to avoid politically painful prisoner swaps. Although its existence has been reported in the Israeli press since the 1980s, this interview with Winter appears to be the most frank acknowledgement of its use.
The idea is to prevent the captors from taking the soldier alive, effectively denying Palestinian or other Arab resistance groups a bargaining chip down the line and relieving Israeli leaders of the political fallout from having to make concessions (such as prisoner swaps) to secure the soldier’s release.
Executing their own
According to blogger Richard Silverstein, the Israeli army has implemented the Hannibal Directive on at least three occasions during this latest war on Gaza, deploying massive firepower with the intention of executing three of their own.
For the following several hours, residents of Rafah, many having just returned to their homes for what they were told would be a three-day ceasefire, were subjected to a carpet bombing campaign that left the town in ruins and 190 people dead.
An Israeli army officer told the Associated Press that soldiers pounded Rafah with 500 artillery shells in just eight hours and launched an estimated 100 airstrikes within two days.
Acting on Winter’s “Hannibal” order, the Israeli army sealed off Rafah to prevent the alleged captors from escaping with Goldin alive. Homes were flattened on top of families sheltering inside. Civilians who attempted to flee the inferno were torn to shreds by artillery. Vehicles trying desperately to evacuate the wounded were fired upon.
By 2 August, the Israeli army had killed 190 Palestinians in Rafah, including 55 children. With the morgues full to capacity, medical workers were forced to store corpses in vegetable refrigerators to accommodate the high volume of dead bodies.
As Israel laid waste to Rafah, the Obama administration called the alleged capture of Goldin, an invading Israeli soldier engaged in armed hostilities against Gaza, a “barbaric” and “outrageous” act.
“They messed with the wrong brigade”
“A lot of criticism was heard about the force you employed in Rafah, directly after the abduction,” said interviewer Yossi Yehoshua to Winter.
“Everything we did was from the understanding that we could return Hadar Goldin alive,” responded Winter. “Stop the abduction event. Come from above to the places he could come out of. That’s what we employed all the force for,” he insisted.
These claims are totally inconsistent with the reality on the ground, where the only possible intended outcome of bombing everything was to kill Goldin and his captors while collectively punishing the surrounding population in the process.
Winter continued with an even more contradictory remark, hinting that the response in Rafah was partly an act of retribution. “Anyone who abducts should know that he will pay a price. This was not revenge. They simply messed with the wrong brigade,” he said.
Then, in a stunning display of hypocrisy, Winter (who relies on airstrikes and indiscriminate artillery fire to avoid face to face confrontations with the supposed enemy and who had to be woken up from a nap to be informed that his soldiers were killed in Rafah) tried to portray Palestinian resistance fighters as cowards.
“We fought against two Hamas brigades. Where were their brigade commanders?” he asked indignantly. “I hoped they would come face to face with us, but they chickened out. They sent their men forward, causing more evil and killing. That’s not combat. There were very few places where there were fighting retreats. They left everything and escaped.”
As an orthodox Jew firmly in Israel’s religious nationalist camp, Winter is making a career of mixing his brand of messianic Zionism with military aggression.
As a graduate of Bnei David, a religious pre-military academy located in Eli, an illegal Jewish-only settlement in the occupied West Bank, Winter epitomizes the mainstreaming of religiously motivated brutality in the Israeli army. Bnei David’s goal is to replace Israel’s largely secular military elite with religious Zionists, like Winter.
On the eve of Israel’s ground invasion, Winter declared in a letter to his troops that they were fighting a Jewish holy war to punish the blasphemous Palestinians of Gaza.
Responding to criticism of the letter, Winter doubled down, telling Yediot Ahronot, “if I had to do so, I would write the same letter again, without batting an eyelid.”
The impact of Winter’s fanaticism on Palestinians in Gaza was nothing short of catastrophic.
Soldiers from the Givati Brigade under Winter’s command made up the majority of ground troops that thundered into Khuzaa, a farming community near the Israeli boundary line. With massive artillery shelling accompanied by airstrikes, the Israeli army reduced all of Khuzaa to rubble to secure a path for columns of invading tanks, jeeps and soldiers.
Cut off from the outside world for days, the residents of Khuzaa were at the mercy of Winter’s religiously-guided soldiers who carried out summary executions of both fighters and civilians and mowed down anyone trying to flee, including a wheelchair-using 16-year-old girl with epilepsy and a wounded elderly woman crawling on the ground desperate for help.
Speaking about his brigade’s reign of terror in Khuzaa, Winter is cited by Yediot Ahronot as telling the ultra-Orthodox weekly newspaper Mishpacha that as the sun rose during the ground invasion, the movement of his troops remained hidden by “clouds of divine honor.”
“It was only when the homes that were supposed to be exploded were exploded and there was no longer any danger to our lives, the fog suddenly dispersed,” said Winter, insisting that the clouds were a direct intervention from God to protect the Jewish people.
Winter offered further religious explanations for his “victory” in Gaza to Yediot Ahronot.
Noting that the ground invasion coincided with “The Between the Straits Days” — a three-week mourning period observed by orthodox Jews to commemorate the ancient siege on Jerusalem and the loss of Jewish statehood — Winter opined that the overlap “was not just a coincidence.”
The Between the Straits Days end on the 9th of Av, also known as Tisha B’Av [observed on 5 August of this year], the very day that the fighting ended. It was especially on this day, a day of national mourning, that the decision was made: the IDF [Israeli military], the Nation of Israel – they won. We proved that we are a unified, determined nation and that we will not be beaten. Unitedness won. No ill words were spoken. Even the ultra-orthodox public – which cannot be taken for granted – fought with all its might from the place where it stands [meaning they prayed very hard]. I received lots of messages during the war. This is a tikun - repair - for what our ancestors have hurt. It enhanced the victory.
“The terrorists are the children” of Gaza
Despite the Palestinian blood on his hands, or more likely because of it, Winter has emerged as a hero in Israel, completely revered within the military and adored by the public.
Asked about his earlier complaints that the political and military establishment was holding him back from finishing the job in Gaza, Winter told Yediot Ahronot that he is ultimately satisfied with the outcome of the onslaught and then proceeded to brag about the carnage.
“There are hundreds of terrorists who were killed,” he boasted. “That is the message – no matter what we do, we’ll go in wherever we want to go. It is important that the enemy know this.”
“We shredded them. We can do it much worse, and it’s best for them that we not do it,” added Winter. “We gave them a much stronger beating than in Cast Lead.”
“When the Palestinians return to their home they will understand the scope of the damage Hamas has inflicted on them. Hamas used them,” he said.
Winter clarified that the enemy is not just Hamas but all of Gaza.
“This population is a hostage, but I think it is also a partner. I don’t exonerate them of responsibility so quickly,” said Winter of the 1.8 million Palestinians who inhabit the besieged coastal enclave, half of whom are children.
“True, there are some pitiable people there, but in many cases the terrorists are the children or relatives of the people who live there. In almost every home there is a son or other relative that is a partner in terror. How do you raise children in a home with explosives? In the end, everyone gets what they choose.”
“Forces of darkness”
He went on to call the Israeli assault “A just war against a cruel enemy. We, who sanctify life, fought against an enemy who sanctifies death. The forces of light against the forces of darkness.”
“This is an important statement due to the absolutism of it,” explains Israel expert Dena Shunra, who translated the article for The Electronic Intifada. “If Hamas (or Gaza as a whole) are the forces of darkness, any action is absolved. It is a Manichean sentiment similar to what we hear from the US military, and does not leave any room for ending hostilities – a war to the death.”
Winter’s warped vision of a civilian population in Gaza complicit in the “forces of darkness” essentially justifies killing them en masse, which is exactly what he did in Rafah and Khuzaa.
As a result, “[Winter] cannot walk around today without being halted, hugged, asked for a photo opportunity,” according to Yediot.
In a final address to his troops following the Gaza slaughter, Winter alluded to the next round of massacres.
“I am proud of you for everything that you have done. It is all thanks to you,” he told the soldiers. “I cannot promise you, like the song does, that this will be the last war, but I promise that this war, which is so just, will push the next war a good few years away.”