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In school talks, Israeli officer defends army’s rights record
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In school talks, Israeli officer defends army’s rights record

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Bentzi Gruber, a colonel in the Israel Defense Forces reserves, speaks to students at the Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph on March 11 in defense of the ethics of the IDF on the battlefield.
Bentzi Gruber, a colonel in the Israel Defense Forces reserves, speaks to students at the Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph on March 11 in defense of the ethics of the IDF on the battlefield.

An Israeli army officer brought his one-man myth-busting talk to local Jewish students and adults.

Bentzi Gruber, a corporal in the Israeli army reserves, spoke at area schools and agencies last week about the challenges Israeli soldiers confront in the field and their strong record of ethical behavior in the face of provocation.

Gruber’s talks, which he delivers as part of his reserve duty, were meant to counter impressions left by media reports and some NGOs that Israel had violated the law and its own policies during last year’s Gaza war and other operations.

“I try to put a small worm of doubt in everyone,” said Gruber, at his first stop of the day, the Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph, where he spoke to students in the sixth through eighth grades. “So maybe the CNN isn’t right, so maybe you know what they see in the newspapers is not right.”

On March 11, he spoke to four receptive audiences: middle school students at HAMC, middle and high school students at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, high school students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, and community members at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ offices on the Aidekman campus in Whippany.

Gruber walked each of his audiences through a variety of scenarios involving real-time decisions made by his team fighting in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008-09.

Speaking at HAMC, he emphasized, “You have eight seconds to make a decision in the field,” he said. He pointed out that it’s not always easy to figure out the right thing to do in such a short span of time.

Illustrating one scenario, he showed actual footage of a suicide bomber in a green jeep attempting to blow himself up near a school bus. The film showed decoys shooting at a lookout tower that, Gruber explained, were intended to distract an Israeli patrol stationed there so they wouldn’t see the jeep drive through.

With Gruber narrating the action, the bomber misses his rendezvous with the bus by several minutes; an Israeli patrol sees him and shoots; an Israeli official from the nearest town, hearing the shooting, comes to check out the situation. The official drives his Hummer toward the jeep and must figure out what to do. In less than eight seconds, he comes to the decision that this must be a suicide bomber, blocks the road with his vehicle, and uses its door to protect himself against the expected explosion. The force of the explosion reveals the presence of huge quantities of TNT in the jeep and results in the Israeli official being blown 50 meters from the site and losing his legs.

The dilemma illustrated by the film is a common one for soldiers and others, said Gruber. “The jeep had Israeli plates and could have come from Tel Aviv; the driver was not wearing a sign that said ‘terrorist.’

“How did he know it was a suicide bomber? One, he had a warning about a suicide bomber and a green jeep, and this was a green jeep. Second, he heard the shooting. He put one and one together.”

‘No collateral damage’

Gruber spoke of the ways the Israel Defense Forces are trained to avoid “collateral damage” — civilian victims — and showed footage of a drone aircraft being redirected to an empty field after its intended target takes cover among civilians. “No collateral damage,” said Gruber. “We’ll get him next week.”

He also showed footage taken by Reuters of people in Gaza carrying guns and grabbing children as shields as they run across the street, and footage of men jumping aboard ambulances painted with UN logos after firing on Israeli tanks.

Gruber said Israeli protocol requires that local residents be warned — via multiple phone calls and dropped leaflets — to evacuate an area before an attack.

Finally, he offered statistics on fatalities during Operation Cast Lead, to refute the criticism that Israel targeted civilians. Using Israel’s statistics from the war — which are lower than other international sources — he pointed out that only 50 women were killed. (Some international sources put this number at over 100, for example.)

Gruber said, “If we tried to hit civilian areas — how many women live in Gaza? Half the population are women, no? So if we tried to hit civilian population, half of the fatalities should be women.” If Israel had targeted civilians and “there are 1,000 fatalities,” he asked, “how could only 50 be women?”

While focusing on his own experiences during his talk at HAMC, Gruber did not touch on the IDF’s own investigations into the Gaza offensive, including some subsequent indictments of soldiers for breaching international humanitarian law. Nor did he address the Israeli NGOs that have been investigating charges of unethical or criminal behavior.

He was, however, critical of Israel’s official hasbara, or public information, establishment for failing to effectively promote Israel on the world stage. “A lot of times you see an Israeli guy talking to CNN — and you are crying. Often he is speaking Yiddish, not Hebrew, and he doesn’t know anything,” Gruber quipped. “I think we can do much better. In the budget, we are spending so many millions on hasbara, and I don’t know what we are doing. But the point is, it’s not the money.”

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