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The Untold Story of the Shejaiya Massacre in Gaza: A Former Israel Soldier Speaks Out

StorySeptember 12, 2014
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On July 20, at least 90 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya. Days later, former Israeli soldier Eran Efrati was arrested by Israel after he posted details about the massacre based on interviews he conducted with Israeli soldiers who were there. Today he speaks out about what he learned and talks about the killing of 23-year-old Salem Khaleel Shamaly. Activists with the International Solidarity Movement posted a video on YouTube showing the fatal shooting of an unarmed Palestinian civilian during the massacre. Family members later stumbled onto the video and identified the man as Shamaly. In the video, Shamaly is seen lying on the ground, apparently wounded by an unseen sniper. As Shamaly tries to get to his feet, two more shots ring out, and he stops moving. Efrati interviewed three of the Israeli soldiers who witnessed the killing of Salem Khaleel Shamaly. His sources within the Israeli Defense Forces reportedly informed him soldiers were deliberately targeting civilians as “punishment” and “retribution” for the deaths of fellow soldiers in their units. Efrati is a former Israeli combat soldier turned anti-occupation activist and investigative researcher.

Click here to watch part 2 of the interview.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Israeli military says it has opened criminal probes into two of its most publicized killings of Palestinian civilians during the summer’s assault on Gaza. Investigators will examine the killing of four Palestinian children on a Gaza beach and a later attack that killed 14 people in a U.N. school, one of several that hit U.N. shelters. Over 2,100 Palestinians, more than 75 percent civilians, were killed in the Israeli assault. Critics say Israel is seeking to deflect international scrutiny, including a United Nations Human Rights Council probe and potential cases before the International Criminal Court. However, the Israeli army has not announced plans to investigate another notorious episode that occurred during its recent assault on Gaza. That’s the Shejaiya massacre in July, when nearly 90 Gazans and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Shejaiya is one of Gaza’s poorest and most crowded neighborhoods. Activists with the International Solidarity Movement posted a video on YouTube showing the fatal shooting of an unarmed Palestinian civilian during the massacre. Family members later stumbled onto the video and identified the man as 23-year-old Salem Khaleel Shamaly. In the video, we see Shamaly lying on the ground, apparently wounded by an unseen sniper. As Shamaly tries to get to his feet, two more shots ring out. He stops moving.

Well, our next guest interviewed three of the Israeli soldiers who witnessed the killing of Salem Shamaly. His confidential sources within the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, reportedly informed him that the real reason for the recent IDF Shejaiya massacre was that IDF soldiers were deliberately targeting civilians as punishment and retribution for the deaths of fellow soldiers in their units. This former soldier is named Eran Efrati. He’s a former Israeli combat soldier turned anti-occupation activist and investigative researcher. Later this month, Efrati will testify at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in Brussels.

Eran Efrati, we welcome you to Democracy Now!

ERAN EFRATI: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why you went to the border to interview Israeli soldiers?

ERAN EFRATI: Well, I’m doing this job for almost five years now, since Operation Cast Lead. I’m collecting testimonies from soldiers. I started in Breaking the Silence, the organization, and moved on independently to take testimonies, collect testimonies from soldiers in the IDF, because I was there as a soldier, and I know that what we get in the mainstream media and what we get in the news is most of the time very far from what’s really going on in the area. In this summer, I was sitting in Jerusalem in my home, and the atmosphere in Israel, the fascist atmosphere in the streets in Jerusalem, and the overall approval of this terrible massacre that happened in Gaza was so overwhelming that I decided to go on down to the border with Gaza and try to speak directly with the soldiers, because I knew that I will get something else from them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to go to a—Channel 4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy questioned Israeli spokesman Mark Regev about the shooting death of Salem Shamaly. He asked Regev if Israel plans to investigate the shooting. This is how Regev responded.

MARK REGEV: I’d urge that if anyone has information that is relevant, that they come forward and speak to our judge advocate general, the highest military man who deals with these sort of investigations. Obviously, if there are allegations of misbehavior by Israeli soldiers, they must be investigated. We can’t rely on hearsay from political activists. I urge people to come forward. The Israeli army, like other Western armies, like NATO armies, holds itself to a very high professional standard.

KRISHNAN GURU-MURTHY: So you’re saying nobody is currently investigating one of the most notorious shootings of the military incursion, that was widely circulated around the world. Now, someone has come forward now and has spoken, he says, to some of the Israeli soldiers involved, and they make very clear allegations, that you just heard, about the conditions under which they could open fire. Now, you’ve heard those allegations. Are you concerned? Do you believe there should be an investigation?

MARK REGEV: Well, first of all, first of all, I don’t think a YouTube put out by activists is necessarily objective reality, as you yourself know. But once again, the person speaking had no direct knowledge. He was relying on testimony of others. And I would urge—

KRISHNAN GURU-MURTHY: He’s a former soldier, not just an activist. He served his country.

MARK REGEV: I would urge—you said he was an activist, didn’t you? Or your reporter said so. At least that’s what I heard. But if he has information, it’s his duty. It’s his obligation. We have a very independent judicial branch of the army, which is very strong and independent in Israel. And if people have information, they must come forward.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your response to what Regev said?

ERAN EFRATI: My response to the idea that if the Israeli army committed crimes against humanity in Gaza, what they want is to investigate themself. They actually want activists and other civilians to come to the army and tell the army that he was doing something wrong, and they think it’s independent. The Israeli army is independent in the way it’s controlling all of Israeli society. The Israeli media, the Israeli court—everybody is working underneath the army censorship. Nobody can publish anything in Israel—of course, not researchers—and I’m not talking only on TV or radio or newspaper; I’m talking on bloggers in the Internet. Nobody can publish anything if it doesn’t go through the IDF censorship, the same IDF censorship that censorship crimes for years under the occupation of the Palestinians in Palestine. And now they want us to come to them, to be silenced by them. It’s, of course, ridiculous.

AMY GOODMAN: What brings you to the United States?

ERAN EFRATI: Well, I’m here because I’m doing my research from here. For the last five years, I’m doing investigative research on the Israeli army and the American army and the arm trades between them. The Shejaiya story that I encountered this summer was the most recent incredible story that I found, because not only did the war in Gaza—the massacre that was going on in Gaza was, of course, terrible; the story of the Shejaiya neighborhood was a particular story in this war that I think really described the entirety of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about it, because as you interviewed these soldiers on the border, who saw Shamaly killed—


AMY GOODMAN: —you were arrested by the Israeli military.

ERAN EFRATI: Right, after publishing it. What happened is that I was in contact with the soldiers. I knew the soldiers from before this operation, and of course I am continuing to be in touch with them until today. I was talking to them by phone from inside Gaza. What happened in Gaza in 2014 was very surprisingly for the Israeli soldiers in the Israeli army, because we are not used to—the Israeli army, not used to getting resistance from inside Gaza like we get from in Lebanon, for example. So, in 2009 and 2012, we didn’t lose soldiers almost at all. We lost something like 12 soldiers to Hamas killing, and most of them was from our friendly fire. So we killed most of our soldiers. And the idea that soldiers are being killed in Gaza, it’s something new for the Israeli army.

And so, the Israeli army going in and losing almost immediately 13 soldiers in one day, that day will become the night of the Shejaiya massacre, the neighborhood massacre that killed more than 90 people in one night. After a hard night of bombing in Shejaiya, the infantry soldiers are going into the neighborhood and catching houses as bases and waiting for other commands. And in that time, they’re getting orders from their officers inside those houses to get ready inside the house for an extended killing. When they ask why, they’re explained to them that they understand they’re confused, they understand that they’re hurting, the killing of their friends from their unit—I’m talking about two specific unit, the Golani unit and the Nahal Brigade. And they’re telling them that they understand their frustration, and they will have a chance to get out to take out their frustration on Palestinians. They’re waiting until the morning.

And in the morning, families are starting to come back into their neighborhood, civilians looking for family members they left behind and looking for them under the rubbles. We can see in the video uploaded to YouTube and other videos that people going around the neighborhood and screaming names of family members, looking for them—obviously unarmed civilians. The soldiers are in the house, looking ahead. At that time, they decide to do an imaginary red line in the sand. Our officers tell them they had to do an imaginary red line to determine if they’re in risk or not. And whoever will cross this red line will be a risk for them, and so far, they can kill him. Of course, that’s not something new. It happened in 2009 and in 2012. But this time, this imaginary red line was drawn very, very far from the house. Snipers were sitting on the windows waiting for orders.

And when Salem Shamaly came back with international activists and other Palestinians looking for their family member, he crossed one of these red lines. The sniper on the window is asking his commander, is he have approve to shoot? His commander is telling him, “Wait,” two times, and then he’s giving him the first approve. He’s shooting the first shot to the left side of his body and his hand. Salem Shamaly is falling down. And then the sniper is asking another approval to shoot again to finish him off. The officer is telling him, “Wait, wait,” and then he’s giving him approve to finish Salem Shamaly out. This is not the only case we know of, but this is the only case documented by international activists in Shejaiya.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you—you say that there were soldiers who you knew who talked to you. You, yourself, were a combat soldier in the Israeli army. Talk about your—why you decided to do this, the transformation that you went through.

ERAN EFRATI: Right. Well, I grew up in a very Zionist, militaristic home. My father was the head of investigation of the Israeli police. My mother was an officer in the army. My brother was a special—an officer in a special unit in the Israeli army. So I’m coming from a good background in Israel. And I was waiting all of my youth to join the army. It was obvious to me that this is the place I need to be. In the 11th grade, I went to Poland into the trip to the camps with my classmates and saw Auschwitz, the same camp that my grandma survived, and all of our family were killed there. And there, I got the message that if I want to stop a second Holocaust from happening, I have to go back home, join the best unit I can in the military and stop a second Holocaust from happening.

I joined the IDF. I went through seven months of boot camp, getting ready for a war, getting ready to stop the second Holocaust from happening. But in the end of these seven months, I’m not finding myself in a war; I’m finding myself in al-Khalil, or Hebron, in the middle of the West Bank, a city counting 180,000 Palestinians, and in the middle of the city a Jewish settlement of 800 settlers, Jewish settlers, that I need to protect. And very fast, I will understand that my job here is to control the Palestinian lives. My job here is to control their life for the arm trade that’s going on, for testing weapons on the ground, for workers’ rights in Israel, for Palestinian workers that we need for mines, for fuel. All of this stuff, I’m doing daily, not for protection of anybody, but for protection of the rich government in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what happened then. And what was the Israeli military’s response to your transformation?

ERAN EFRATI: Well, I think, you know, very fast during my service, I understand what’s going on. I started giving stories outside, from Hebron, into Breaking the Silence. When I’m losing—I’m sorry, when I’m leaving the army almost after four years, I was a sergeant in the Israeli army. When I’m leaving the army, I’m joining Breaking the Silence and started taking testimonies and trying to publish them out. Very soon I will find out, after Operation Cast Lead, that we cannot publish everything that we want, because even Breaking the Silence is going underneath the army censorship.

AMY GOODMAN: Breaking the Silence is the organization, and Operation Cast Lead was the attack in 2008 on Gaza.

ERAN EFRATI: Right. So it’s an organization that collect testimonies from soldiers all across the West Bank and Gaza, and trying to publish them to the Israeli public and to the world. The problem is that even Breaking the Silence is under the military censorship, so Breaking the Silence is actually only breaking the silence that the Israeli government let them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you say that they’re under military censorship, that they clear their material with the Israeli army?

ERAN EFRATI: Exactly. They’re giving every booklet they’re taking out, they have to give to the Israeli—to the army censorship before it’s letting out to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: As we end on the young man, Shamaly, in Shejaiya—and we’re going to show the video, and you’ll hear him—possibly, you’ll hear him as he is laying there shot, and then shot again, and shot again, as we’re showing this now. Let’s listen. He has been shot once now. He is reaching up. He’s with other activists.

SALEM KHALEEL SHAMALY: [speaking in Arabic]

AMY GOODMAN: His family saw this on YouTube?

ERAN EFRATI: Yes. His family—we need to understand that there was hundreds of thousands refugees in Gaza during this operation running away, trying to save their life, leaving family members behind. They didn’t know—until today, not everybody’s sure who was killed and who was not. People are still looking for their relatives. And then, his family is watching YouTube and seeing their son being killed by a sniper in Shejaiya. And this is how they found out he’s dead.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there. And for our listeners, we are showing the video on television, the horror that his parents discovered afterwards, his family. Eran Efrati, we want to thank you for being with us, former Israeli combat soldier turned anti-occupation activist and investigative researcher, recently interviewed a number of Israeli soldiers who participated in the Shejaiya massacre in Gaza. Later this month, Eran Efrati will testify at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in Brussels.

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