Sunday, March 22, 2009



Reporting from Jerusalem -- Two months after ending its assault on the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army was confronted Thursday by the first public allegations from within its ranks of unwarranted killings and other abuses of Palestinian civilians.

The reports in a military institute's newsletter resembled accounts given by many Palestinians during and after the winter offensive. In gripping language cited by two Israeli newspapers, they appeared to support contentions by some human rights groups that Israel had violated the laws of war.

One squad leader said he argued with his commander over rules of engagement that allowed the army to clear out houses by shooting the residents without warning.

"When we entered a house, we were supposed to bust down the door and start shooting inside and just go up story by story," he was quoted as saying. "Each story, if we identify a person, we shoot them. I asked myself: 'How is this reasonable?' "

A second squad leader said that in a separate case a sniper shot and killed a woman and two children because of miscommunication with the Palestinians and between Israeli units. Soldiers quoted by the daily Haaretz also said wanton destruction of civilian property was common.

Israeli officials had earlier dismissed such accounts, as well as Palestinian claims that almost 1,000 civilians died in the assault, as Palestinian propaganda. Most Israelis supported the 22-day operation, which was aimed at halting years of rocket fire by Hamas militants. They blamed Hamas for civilian casualties in Gaza because its fighters operated in urban neighborhoods.

But the vivid firsthand reports by soldiers who took part in the fighting set off soul-searching in Israel and prompted the army's judge advocate-general to order a special investigation. The military had already launched its own broad review of its conduct during the war. In a statement Thursday, it said it was not aware of the reported incidents.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak repeated Israel's traditional description of its armed forces as "the most moral in the world."

But he added, "This does not mean that there are no irregularities, and I have no doubt that this will be studied seriously."

The soldiers gave their accounts last month at an assembly for students enrolled in a military preparatory school, the Yitzhak Rabin academy. A transcript of the session appeared this week in the academy's newsletter, and excerpts were published in the newspapers Thursday and today.

"We heard about what appeared to be grave incidents, unjustified fire at civilians and vandalism of property," said Danny Zamir, a retired army officer who heads the academy. "But of more concern was the unbridled contempt and reckless disregard for Palestinians."

Zamir said he passed the reports to the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.

According to an account by a squad leader, an Israeli sharpshooter killed a Palestinian woman and her two children after they misunderstood another soldier's order and turned the wrong way. The sharpshooter had not been told the civilians were being released from the house where they were confined and, in compliance with standing orders, opened fire when they approached.

"I don't think he felt too bad about it, because after all . . . he did his job according to the orders he was given," the squad leader was quoted as saying.

"And the atmosphere in general [was that] the lives of Palestinians, let's say, are something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers, so as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way."

In another incident, a different squad leader said an elderly woman was shot dead on orders of a company commander as she walked on a road about 100 yards away.

That squad leader said he argued with his commander over the rules of engagement.

Another soldier quoted in the reports said troops felt they could write "Death to the Arabs" on the walls of homes, toss furniture out the windows and spit on family pictures "just because you can."

Neither the soldiers who spoke out nor those who committed alleged abuses were identified in the transcript. Zamir said those who reported abuses "felt uncomfortable because they could not prevent them."

Several officers and soldiers who were not at the gathering said they were surprised by the accounts.

"It's hard for me to believe these things happened. They seem unfounded," Assaf Dantziger, a 21-year-old soldier who fought in Gaza, told the Ynet online news service. If the soldiers saw comrades doing wrong, he added, "they should have done something about it instead of running out and talking."

Moshe Hager, a retired brigadier general who heads a different military academy, said: "I do not believe a sniper would see a child in his sights and shoot him. But if such a thing happened it must be investigated."

Human rights groups have accused Israel of using disproportionate force and failing to protect civilians. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights has put the Palestinian death toll in Gaza at 1,434, including 960 civilians. Israeli officials say the civilian toll is inflated but have acknowledged that the army used overwhelming force in order to minimize its own casualties.

Thirteen Israelis were killed in the fighting in Gaza or by cross-border rocket fire.

The military's own inquiry includes a review of allegations of abuse made by rights groups, but it has announced nofindings of wrongdoing.

Amos Harel, a military correspondent for Haaretz, suggested Thursday that the inquiry was a whitewash.

Those being queried are at the company commander level and higher, he said, and "the rule is 'you don't ask, we won't tell.' "

"The ones who finally let the dark secrets out were the soldiers in the combat units," Harel wrote. "Somewhere along the way their moral warning lights went off."

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