How Israeli soldiers are TikToking their war crimes in Gaza
In a now-deleted video, Israeli soldier Oren Lazar knocks on a door only for it to open onto a home turned to dust.
This is just one of many videos Israeli soldiers in Gaza have published on the social media platform TikTok since the war began.
Often mocking Palestinians or boasting of their actions, Israelis deployed on the frontlines in Gaza appear to be treating the war like a game.
"When the top officials are referring to all Gazans as 'non-humans', 'human animals'… no wonder it sinks down to the soldier in the field who sees all Gazans as targets"
In one video, an Israeli soldier, Ofek Yakolev, pretends to be a teacher as he draws on a chalkboard in a bombed-out classroom. As the camera zooms out, just one soldier imitating a student raises his hand amid the rubble. Exasperated, Yakolev drops the chalk and jumps through a hole in the destroyed classroom’s wall.
Another video posted by soldier Lin Moskona shows a door open onto her pretending to fire off her gun as she stands under the wreckage of Khan Younis.
In another video, a soldier announces his wedding date, saying, “It’s going to be a blast,” before detonating a house in Gaza. He and his fellow combatants then rejoice in song.
“Israel in its policy does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, in the extensive bombings, in the unbearable killing of the population, including children,” Dror Sadot, spokesperson for Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem told The New Arab.
“So one cannot be surprised that the soldiers on the ground also see the lives and property of the Gazans as meaningless.”
Huda Abudagga, legal advisor for British not-for-profit organisation Law for Palestine, explained that the incidents Israeli soldiers are capturing on camera and posting online are war crimes under international law.
“Both the bombing of civilian structures with the knowledge that these are being used for civilian use is a war crime under the Geneva Convention,” Abudagga said.
“As well as stealing, appropriating movable public or private property - anything they steal from civilians - is also a war crime under international law.”
However, prosecuting the military occurs at the state level, Abudagga noted. While Israel has investigated soldiers for theft and other misconduct in the past, Abudagga isn’t confident it will do so in this situation.
“Everything is being done systematically. This destruction, this looting, all of this is being done on purpose,” Abudagga said. “It consistently ties in with the genocide they are committing on Palestinians.”
Sadot noted how soldiers’ videos don’t exist in a vacuum and can’t be distinguished from comments made by Israeli politicians during the war. Instead rhetoric from the top trickles down to military action on the ground.
“When the top official[s] are referring [to] all Gazans as ‘non-humans’, ‘human animals’… no wonder it sinks down to the soldier in the field who sees all Gazans as targets,” Sadot said.
"The videos we see on TikTok, whether it be soldiers sealing homes or going through women's private laundry or people's personal belongings…is all to fill this hunger for dehumanising Palestinians, showing who is the boss, who is in control"
In response to conducting internal investigations about these videos, the Israeli military said in a statement to The New Arab:
“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces or Israeli military] has acted and continues to act to identify unusual cases that deviate from what is expected of IDF soldiers. Those cases will be arbitrated, and significant command measures will be taken against the soldiers involved.”
Abudagga explained that the International Criminal Court (ICC) can choose to investigate these crimes but the low-ranking soldiers taking the videos are unlikely to be incriminated. Instead, higher-ranking soldiers are historically prosecuted.
A more likely outcome, from Abudagga’s perspective, is soldiers with dual nationality being prosecuted in countries they are citizens of. For instance, South Africa, recently announced it may prosecute nationals fighting for Israel in Gaza.
Israeli soldiers’ videos have made it to the international stage in South Africa’s genocide case against Israel. South African lawmakers used a video of Israeli soldiers dancing and singing, “There are no uninvolved civilians,” as evidence of genocidal intent.
Yet continuing to publish such videos - whether cognisant or not of their ramifications - demonstrates the vast impunity Israel enjoys.
“It's just a sign of how well-protected they feel,” Marwa Fatafta, MENA policy and advocacy director at digital rights organisation Access Now, said. “They know that they can do this and get away with it in broad daylight.”
Fatafta also questioned why this content was allowed on TikTok.
“Platforms have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their users,” Fatafta said. “I do not understand how this type of content would make users feel safe.”
TikTok’s community guidelines state they “do not allow any violent threats, incitement to violence, or promotion of criminal activities that may harm people, animals, or property”.
TikTok did not respond to queries on whether these videos violate their guiding principles.
"It's just a sign of how well-protected they feel. They know that they can do this and get away with it in broad daylight"
Playing into power
Looting and vandalism are common practices during armed conflict and have occurred in previous Israeli wars on Gaza, such as in the 2008-2009 incursion and 2014. However, publicising these crimes is not something Abudagga has seen before.
“It's a very new thing to actually see being documented in such a blatant and open way,” Abudagga said.
“The videos we see on TikTok, whether it be soldiers sealing homes or going through women's private laundry or people's personal belongings…This is all to fill this hunger for dehumanising Palestinians, showing who is the boss, who is in control, who is the dominant party in Palestine,” Fatafta said.
Yet more so than just revenge, these videos demonstrate Israel trying to regain the power it lost on 7 October. Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud said Hamas’ surprise attack flipped the power dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians by humiliating Israel.
Now, voluntarily publishing their destruction in Gaza, and even making fun of it, is part of Israel’s strategy to retake control. Yet whether this succeeds remains to be seen.
“It’s as if the Israelis are desperately trying to reclaim that power relation they have over Palestinians [that] has always been exemplified in the politics of humiliation,” Baroud said. “It’s an attempt at reclaiming something that, most likely, is lost forever.”
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.
Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum