JERUSALEM — Israeli soldiers rummaging through private homes in Gaza. Forces destroying plastic figurines in a toy store, or trying to burn food and water supplies in the back of an abandoned truck. Troops with their arms slung around each other, chanting racist slogans as they dance in a circle.
Several viral videos and photos of Israeli soldiers behaving in a derogatory manner in Gaza have emerged in recent days, creating a headache for the Israeli military as it faces an international outcry over its tactics and the rising civilian death toll in its punishing war against Hamas.
The Israeli army has pledged to take disciplinary action in what it says are a handful of isolated cases.
Such videos are not a new or unique phenomenon. Over the years, Israeli soldiers — and members of the U.S. and other militaries — have been caught on camera acting inappropriately or maliciously in conflict zones.
But critics say the new videos, largely shrugged off in Israel, reflect a national mood that is highly supportive of the war in Gaza, with little empathy for the plight of Gaza’s civilians.
“The dehumanization from the top is very much sinking down to the soldiers,” said Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which has long documented Israeli abuses against Palestinians.
Israel has been embroiled in fierce combat in Gaza since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants raided southern Israel and killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 hostages.
More Than 18,000 Palestinians Killed in Gaza
More than 18,400 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory. About 90% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced within the besieged territory.
The videos seem to have been uploaded by soldiers themselves during their time in Gaza.
In one, soldiers ride bicycles through rubble. In another, a soldier has moved Muslim prayer rugs into a bathroom. In another, a soldier films boxes of lingerie found in a Gaza home. Yet another shows a soldier trying to set fire to food and water supplies that are scarce in Gaza.
In a photo, an Israeli soldier sits in front of a room under the graffiti “Khan Younis Rabbinical Court.” Israeli forces have battled Hamas militants in and around the southern city, where the military opened a new line of attack last week.
In another photo, a soldier poses next to words spray-painted in red on a pink building that read, “instead of erasing graffiti, let’s erase Gaza.”
A video posted by conservative Israeli media personality Yinon Magal on X, formerly Twitter, shows dozens of soldiers dancing in a circle, apparently in Gaza, and singing a song that includes the words, “Gaza we have come to conquer. … We know our slogan – there are no people who are uninvolved.” The Israeli military blames Hamas for the civilian death toll, saying the group operates in crowded neighborhoods and uses residents as human shields.
The video, which Magal took from Facebook, has been viewed almost 200,000 times on his account and widely shared on other accounts.
Magal said he did not know the soldiers involved. But the AP has verified backgrounds, uniforms and language heard in the videos and found them to be consistent with independent reporting.
Magal said the video struck a chord among Israelis because of the popular tune and because Israelis need to see pictures of a strong military. It is based on the fight song of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, whose hard-core fans have a history of racist chants against Arabs and rowdy behavior.
“These are my fighters, they’re fighting against brutal murderers, and after what they did to us, I don’t have to defend myself to anyone,” Magal told The Associated Press.
He condemned some of the other videos that have surfaced, including the ransacking of the toy store, apparently in the northern area of Jebaliya, in which a soldier smashes toys and decapitates a plastic figurine, as destruction that is unnecessary for Israel’s security objectives.
On Sunday, the Israeli military’s spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, condemned some of the actions seen in the recent videos. “In any event that does not align with IDF values, command and disciplinary steps will be taken,” he said.
The videos emerged just days after leaked photos and video of detained Palestinians in Gaza, stripped to their underwear, in some cases blindfolded and handcuffed, also drew international attention. The army says it did not release those images, but Hagari said this week that soldiers have undressed Palestinian detainees to ensure they are not wearing explosive vests.
Osama Hamdan, a top Hamas official, aired the video of the soldier in the toy shop at a news conference in Beirut. He called the footage “disgusting.”
Hamas has come under heavy criticism for releasing a series of videos of Israeli hostages, clearly under duress. Hamas militants also wore bodycams during their Oct. 7 rampage, capturing violent images of deadly attacks on families in their homes and revelers at a dance party.
Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister and peace negotiator, said he can’t remember a time when each side was so unwilling to consider the pain of the other.
“Previously, there are people that are interested in seeing from the two perspectives,” said Khatib, who teaches international relations at Beir Zeit University in the West Bank. “Now, each side is closed to its own narrative, its own information, rules, and perspective.”
Eran Halperin, a professor with Hebrew University’s psychology department who studies communal emotional responses to conflict, said that in previous wars between Israel and Hamas, there may have been more condemnation of these types of photos and videos from within Israeli society.
But he said the Oct. 7 attack, which exposed deep weaknesses and failures by the army, caused trauma and humiliation for Israelis in a way that hasn’t happened before.
“When people feel they were humiliated, hurting the source of this humiliation doesn’t feel as morally problematic,” Halperin said. “When people feel like their individual and collective existence is under threat, they don’t have the mental capacity to empathize or apply the moral rulings when thinking about the enemy.”