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Why some Israeli soldiers are disillusioned by Gaza tactics

More than two dozen alleged in a report published Wednesday that they were under pressure to minimize army casualties even at the risk of killing Palestinian civilians.

By Josh MitnickCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 15, 2009

A Palestinian boy hangs laundry inside a damaged house, hit in January 2009 during Israel's military offensive in Gaza.

Eyad Baba/AP


Tel Aviv

Israeli combatants in the Gaza war against Hamas were told by commanders to minimize their own casualties even if it meant risking the lives of Palestinian civilians, a group of Israeli soldiers have alleged.

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On Wednesday, Breaking the Silence published 54 anonymous testimonies from more than two dozen soldiers on its website. The organization, founded for the express purpose of compiling such accounts, accused the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of sacrificing more rigorous rules of combat engagement for a political end: preventing high Israeli casualty numbers that would have splintered the country's unity over the January war.

During and after the war, Israeli officials often referred to the IDF as "the most moral army in the world."

Israel's army, which received an advance copy of the testimonials on Tuesday – nearly a week after the press – disputed the anonymous accounts as impossible to verify and therefore unreliable.

The soldiers who gave the accounts included both conscripts and reservists active on all four military corridors of invasion into the Gaza Strip, according to the organization. Some said that they were disturbed and disillusioned by what they saw as an erosion of the Israeli army's code of ethics, which requires soldiers avoid deliberate harm to civilians.

"An IDF soldier does not shoot for the sake of shooting nor does he apply excessive force beyond the call of the mission he is to perform," read one testimonial.

In another account, a soldier described a pep talk by one of his commanders that seemed to contradict that standard.

" 'I am not willing to allow a soldier of mine to risk himself by hesitating. If you are not sure – shoot. If there is doubt, then there is no doubt," read the testimony. "This is the difference between urban warfare and a limited confrontation. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents."

"Shoot for the body," soldier says he was told

The latest allegations of a policy to use overwhelming force with little regard to identity of the civilians jibes with allegations made by international and Palestinian rights groups. The testimonials also claim to confirm the use of white phosphorous shells in civilian areas, widespread damage to homes, and the use of civilians as human shields.

In 2005, Israel's Supreme Court banned the use of civilian shieids, a widespread practice during the army's 2002 invasion of Palestinian towns in the West Bank.

Breaking the Silence, which was started five years ago by a religious soldier and has since gained the respect of many Israeli human rights groups, held a press briefing July 8 and provided copies of its 112-page report.

M., a combat reserve medic, was the sole soldier present and spoke to reporters about his war experience on condition of anonymity.

M. said that before going into Gaza a rabbi exhorted his unit to "shoot for the body." M.'s reservist unit was sent in to secure territory already under Israeli control in central Gaza, which he said had been emptied of Palestinians. Still, in order to boost security, one of their jobs included "exposure" of buildings. "Exposure is a nice way [of saying] systematic destruction of the area," M. said.

Army spokeswoman: Anonymity undermines credibility

Maj. Avital Leibovitch, an Israeli army spokeswoman, responded that the anonymous nature of the testimonies made them impossible to verify and therefore could not be taken seriously.