Gaza offensive: Israel confronts soldiers' testimony of excessive force

Israel's military prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation into the alleged deliberate killing of women, children, and elderly noncombatants.

Kevin Frayer/AP
In late January, as the Gaza war was winding down, a Palestinian woman carried her child past a building destroyed in an Israeli army offensive. The UN humanitarian chief, then on a trip to the region, called the Palestinian casualty toll 'extremely shocking.'

After repeatedly rebuffing charges of having committed war crimes in its recent war against Hamas in Gaza, Israel has been stunned into a self-examination following the publication of soldier testimony about the use of excessive force against Palestinian civilians.

The Israeli army spokesperson said in a statement Thursday that its military prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation into the alleged deliberate killing of women, children, and elderly noncombatants. It marks the first acknowledgement by Israel of possible misdeeds in a war that left 1,300 Gazans dead, thousands more injured, and billions of dollars worth of property damaged.

"I hope there's an in-depth investigation into this issue," Education Minister Yuli Tamir told the Ha'aretz newspaper. "This needs to be checked out immediately and openly, and if there's a grain of truth in it, it must be protested."

Seeming to bolster allegations by Palestinian and international human rights groups, infantry veterans of the three-week war described lax rules of engagement that allegedly led to the killing of civilians, even it was unclear if they were perceived as threats or not. The testimony was given at a seminar at the Yitzhak Rabin military preparatory school near the northern Israel town of Kiryat Tivon.

Earlier this month, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague said that he is mulling an investigation in to allegations of war crimes in Gaza.

The anecdotal testimony, which was submitted to the army last month and then published in the military prep school's bulletin, contradicts the military's portrayal of soldiers as trying to minimize civilian casualties wherever possible.

In one instance, soldiers killed a woman and two children at a distance of 100 to 200 yards away because they had misunderstood the army instructions on how to leave the combat zone. Another veteran described an officer who ordered machine-gunners to fire at an elderly woman who was also positioned far away. In the testimony, the soldiers admitted that excessive force was used because the lives of Palestinian civilians were valued far less than those of the soldiers.

"I was shocked," said an Israeli military spokesperson, who requested to remain anonymous. "Some of the stuff described there is far from the rules of the engagement that I know."

Other soldiers described routine vandalism of Palestinian property by units that were holed up in homes.

When asked about the revelations, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that he believed the stories described were an exception, and insisted the Israeli Defense Forces are the "most moral army in the world" – a commonly used phrase that underscores the prevalent view in Israel that the army hews to an ethical code emphasizing "purity of arms."

Danny Zamir, the chairman of the preparatory school that hosted the seminar, said that the soldiers' testimony showed that the disregard for Palestinian civilians was not an exception.
But, he added, "The norms that prevailed at lower echelons of the command chain that allowed behavior are inconsistent not only with the ethics code of the IDF, but also what is acceptable,’’ he told Israel Radio.

"I'm talking about infantry men who were, for a week or two, without almost anything to do, and, together with their comrades, were a party to destruction of property, graffiti on the walls, and in extreme circumstances, were involved in unjustified injury to civilians – and the reaction of the junior officers in the field was nonexistent."

Michael Sfard, a lawyer for the human right group Yesh Din, called on the government to establish an independent panel to investigate the allegations.

"The new release testimonies raise a grave suspicion that the rules of engagement in the infantry violated the basic principles of the international laws of war," he said. "If the alleged rules of engagement are true, both the officers who gave the order and the soldiers who obeyed them might have committed war crimes."

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