New details of Israeli war conduct emerge

An increasingly disturbing picture of the Israeli army's conduct in the recent Gaza war emerged Friday, as new witness accounts from Israeli troops described wanton vandalism to Palestinian homes, humiliation of civilians and loose rules of engagement that resulted in unnecessary civilian deaths. The revelations of soldier conduct over the past two days have set off soul-searching and alarm in a country where the military is widely revered. They also have echoed Palestinian allegations that Israel's assault did not distinguish between civilians and combatants, at a time when some international human rights groups contend Israel violated the laws of war. Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 in what it said was an effort to end years of Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which conducted a survey of casualties, says a total of 1,417 people were killed, including 926 civilians during the 22-day offensive. Israel has disputed the findings, saying the most of the dead were legitimate targets, but it offered no evidence. Thirteen Israelis also died in the fighting. The Israeli government has insisted it did all it could to prevent civilian casualties, but on Thursday, the army ordered a criminal inquiry into its own soldiers' reports that some troops killed civilians, including children, by hastily opening fire, confident that the relaxed rules of engagement would protect them. The inquiry was based on postwar testimony from a gathering of soldiers involved in the offensive, published in a military institute's newsletter and leaked to two Israeli newspapers. The Haaretz daily published additional details Friday, and the transcript of the session was obtained by The Associated Press. According to one account, an Israeli sniper killed a Palestinian woman and her two children after they misunderstood another soldier's order and turned the wrong way. The sniper was not told the civilians had been released from the house and, in compliance with standing orders, opened fire when they approached him. In another account, an elderly woman was shot dead while walking on a road. The soldier who described the incident, identified only as Aviv,'' said it was not clear whether the woman was a threat. From the description of this story, I simply felt it was murder in cold blood,'' Aviv said, according to the transcript. The order was to take that woman out, the moment you see her.'' Aviv said in one instance, his unit was sent to take over a house by bursting in, going up floor by floor and shooting anyone they saw. I call this murder,'' he said. From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn't fled.'' In the end, he said he managed to change the order so residents would be given five minutes to leave their homes, drawing protests from other soldiers. Anyone who's in there is a terrorist, that's a known fact,'' he quoted another soldier as saying. Aviv said he felt an attitude among soldiers that inside Gaza you are allowed to do anything you want, to break down doors of houses for no reason other than that it's cool.'' To write 'Death to the Arabs' on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can,'' he said. The army said Friday it had no additional comment beyond Thursday's announcement of the inquiry. During the fighting, the military acknowledged loosening the rules of engagement, aiming to reduce casualties among Israeli troops. Another soldier, Ram, described what appeared to be a rift between secular and religious soldiers. What I do remember in particular at the beginning is the feeling of an almost religious mission,'' he said. He described a huge gap'' between background material provided by the army's education corps, and religious material distributed by the army's rabbinate. Their message was very clear: 'We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle. God brought us back to this land, and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land,''' he said. Earlier this year, the military severely reprimanded'' an officer for distributing a religious booklet urging soldiers to show no mercy to their enemies. The army said the booklet was based on the writings of an ultranationalist rabbi and that the chief military rabbi had not approved it. The published accounts revealed debate and soul-searching among the soldiers. Discussing the death of the old woman, one soldier, Zvi, said the shooting could be understood in the context of the battle zone. Logic says she should be there,'' he said. It's known that they have lookouts and that sort of thing.'' And Yossi said his unit was forced to clean up a home it had occupied on the same day that a Palestinian rocket wounded a mother and baby in an Israeli city. He said soldiers were unhappy, but complied. In the end I was convinced, and realized it was the right thing to do,'' he said. Danny Zamir, the head of the institute, called the discussion instructive,'' but also dismaying and depressing.'' You are describing an army with very low norms of value,'' he said. The heavy Palestinian civilian casualties and widespread destruction during the three-week war provoked international outcry against Israel, which halted its fire on Jan. 18.

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