Israeli army admits 'isolated' mistakes in Gaza

At a briefing Wednesday, a top officer described the findings of an internal inquiry, insisting Israel acted in accord with international law.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    In this file photo, smoke rises following explosions caused by Israeli military operations in Gaza City. Israel launched the war in response to Hamas rocket attacks on its territory, but has faced international criticism for excessive force.
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Israel's second-ranking military officer admitted Wednesday the army made mistakes that caused civilian deaths during the January Gaza war against Hamas, but he reiterated the Army's assertion that it did not violate international conventions on warfare.

Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Dan Harel said the Army will forward to Israel's military prosecutor and the attorney general the findings of an internal inquiry into accusations of illegal use of white phosphorous munitions, targeting humanitarian and civilian infrastructure.

"We found a very small amount of cases where we had operational or intelligence mistakes during the fighting," General Harel told journalists attending a briefing at the military's national headquarters. Still, Harel insisted, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) "conducted itself in the Cast Lead operation under international rules of law."

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The briefing was an attempt to address charges at home and abroad of war crimes. Palestinians and human rights groups allege that the Army used disproportionate force in Gaza's densely packed residential areas that left more than 1,000 Palestinians dead, thousands more injured, and a swath of physical destruction.

The UN is investigating some of the charges, and the International Court of Justice is mulling its own inquiry. Human rights lawyers abroad have said they are planning to introduce lawsuits in European domestic courts willing to exercise principles of universal jurisdiction over accusations of war crimes in third-party countries.

On Wednesday, six Norwegian lawyers said they were planning to bring charges of war crimes against former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other top officials, according to Agence France-Presse.

Army: We hit 1,400 Hamas targets

The Army said the deadliest error occurred Jan. 6 when Israeli soldiers killed 21 civilians who were taking cover in a house. The soldiers mistook the house for a nearby weapons storehouse.

Harel said the mix-up was due to an "intelligence mistake," but insisted that the Army successfully identified some 1,400 Hamas other targets during the war. In a reiteration of the military's defense of the civilian toll at the time of the fighting, Harel said Hamas was to blame for the destruction for booby-trapping residences and hunkering down near hospitals.

Israeli human rights organizations disputed the findings and called on the government to cooperate with independent human rights groups seeking to investigate the war. Military commentators have reported that the Army used overwhelming firepower inside Gaza for fear that a high casualty rate among its own soldiers would sap support among the Israeli public for the offensive.

"The doctrine of using extreme armed force was a doctrine set from above," says Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman of the human rights watchdog B'tselem. She adds that the military inquiry "is not the correct forum to conduct this investigation" into accountability.

Inquiries at home and abroad

Israel so far has refused to cooperate with a UN fact-finding team to investigate the war on both sides of the Israel-Gaza divide.

The Army denied accusations that it illegally used artillery shells with the incendiary white phosphorous agent against civilian areas. While saying it launched white phosphorous shells into open areas to target its fire, the military also acknowledged using smoke bombs that scattered fragments with small amounts of phosphorous over civilian areas. The munitions were used to obscure forces and didn't endanger civilians.

"I cannot buy it after being on the receiving end," said Eyad Sarraj, the director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. "I felt it. I sniffed the white phosphorous in my house. My children almost suffocated by it."

Human rights and international news groups have documented medical experts who assert that numerous Gazans were injured by white phosphorous burns.

During the war, accusations that Israel used excessive force against third-party civilians in Gaza instead of Hamas militants helped erode the initial understanding internationally of Israel's opening response to continued rocket fire from the Gaza Strip at southern Israeli towns and cities.

Last month, Israel's military prosecutor opened and then closed an inquiry into the testimony of several war veterans who claimed that soldiers had fired indiscriminately on noncombatants. The stories were dismissed by the Army as "hearsay."

The Army says it is investigating additional allegations of misconduct, but it's unclear whether the military prosecutor will open its own inquiry or even press charges.

Israel said it destroyed 636 residential buildings over the course of the war. Palestinians say about 4,000 structures were destroyed and some $2 billion in damage was caused.

The Army also reiterated that about 1,100 Gazans were killed, about 70 percent of whom were identified as Hamas operatives. Palestinians say the number was about 1,400 and that only 30 percent of the casualties were militants.

Israel also was accused of targeting UN installations and humanitarian workers, though some of those claims were dropped.

Israel still is grappling with the international fallout from the war. The Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday that Britain will review all weapons shipments to Israel following the war.

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