- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) — More than two dozen Israeli soldiers who fought in the Gaza war say the military forced Palestinians to serve as human shields and used reckless firepower that caused needless deaths, according to a report released Wednesday.

One of the soldiers said the army needlessly used powerful weapons such as mortars and white phosphorous, an illuminating agent that can cause severe burns, in the three-week offensive last winter.

The allegations were the strongest evidence to come from Israeli war veterans that the army used excessive force during the war, and echoed claims by Palestinian witnesses and international human rights groups. The Israeli military rejected the report, calling it defamation and noting that the accounts were all anonymous and impossible to verify.

The testimonies of 26 war veterans were collected by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli army reservists critical of their country’s policies toward the Palestinians. They describe demolishing homes and using firepower beyond what was necessary given the relatively light resistance they encountered. One said the regulations on when to shoot were vague.

“Sometimes the force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian’s shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield. Commanders said these were the instructions and we had to do it,” one soldier said.

Another soldier said the army needlessly used powerful weapons such as white phosphorous, an illuminating agent that can cause severe burns, and mortars. None of the soldiers was identified, and no dates or locations were provided for the events they recount. Breaking the Silence said it wanted to protect the identity of the soldiers, fearing they would suffer for speaking out. But it said soldiers would “gladly testify” if a formal inquiry were launched.

Israel fought the 3-week war in December and January after Palestinian militants fired thousands of rockets from Gaza aimed at Israeli civilians over an eight-year period.

Israel maintains that responsibility for the Gaza carnage lies with the militant Hamas rulers of Gaza. Israel accused fighters of hiding ammunition in civilian buildings like schools and mosques, blending in with civilians and using them for cover.

More than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, were killed in the fighting, thousands of homes were destroyed and Gaza’s infrastructure suffered heavy damage, according to Gaza health officials and human rights groups. Israel puts the death toll closer to 1,100 and says most were armed fighters. Thirteen Israelis also were killed, including three civilians who died from rocket fire.

Israel’s military rejected the report and accused the group of “defaming and slandering the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and its commanders.”

It questioned the report’s veracity, saying it “regrets the fact that yet another human rights organization is presenting to Israel and the world a report based on anonymous and general testimonies, without investigating their details or credibility.” The military also said that since no identifying details were given, it was impossible to verify the accounts. It urged soldiers to come forward and register official complaints.

“The IDF is one of the world’s most moral armies and operates according to the highest moral code,” said Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, said the report “reflects the crimes committed in Gaza,” and called on “human rights bodies and international groups” to put Israel’s leaders on trial.

Palestinian witnesses and international human rights groups like Amnesty International have long argued that Israel’s response was disproportionate and it used powerful weapons indiscriminately in heavily populated areas. The U.N. has also launched a probe into Israel’s actions during the offensive. Human rights groups have also said Palestinian militants violated the laws of war by firing rockets at civilian areas in Israel.

Israel says many of those reports are politically motivated and that it is subject to unfair scrutiny not devoted to the Palestinians or to other global conflicts.

A small number of other soldiers have come forward with similar second-hand testimony since the operation. But overall, the Israeli public believes the Gaza operation was necessary to halt the rocket fire and think their military is singled out for unfair criticism. An internal army probe early this year found no wrongdoing on the part of the military.

Some testimonies provided a glimpse at the complex battlefield the soldiers faced as they pushed into the densely populated territory, fearful of booby-trapped houses and alleyway ambushes and unable to differentiate civilians from militants. Hamas had promised to turn Gaza into a “graveyard” for the Israelis.

But most focused on what they saw as improper behavior, like the vandalism of Palestinian property.

“My impression about rules of engagement was that, at least at our level, they were not clear. There were no clear red lines,” one soldier told the group, repeating a claim that has arisen repeatedly since the war. During the fighting, Israeli defense officials confirmed that rules of engagement had been loosened to minimize Israeli casualties, which the military initially expected to be high.

Nearly all returned to the theme of the military’s use of overwhelming force.

“There was no need to use weapons like mortars, like phosphorous. I have a feeling that the IDF was looking for an opportunity to show off its strength,” one soldier said.

“Sometimes you’d hear on the radio, ‘permitted, phosphorous in the air,’” another soldier said. Another soldier said white phosphorus artillery shells were used to ignite a house suspected of housing munitions. “The house went up in flames,” he said.

Israel has said it used white phosphorus munitions only outside of crowded areas and only as a smokescreen to protect forces. But New York-based Human Rights Watch says Israel fired white phosphorous shells indiscriminately over densely populated areas in what amounts to a war crime.

Wednesday’s report did not represent a cross-section of soldiers, but rather included troops who approached the group or were reached through acquaintances of group members. Two were junior officers and the rest were lower-ranking troops. The report did not look at the actions of Palestinian militants.

Yehuda Saul, a founder of Breaking the Silence, said the Israeli public needs to know what soldiers saw during the fighting.

“In terms of what Israeli society knows, the Gaza operation is a black hole,” Saul said. “In order to discuss what we want and what values we stand for as a people, we must have the information about what happened on the ground, and as a group of soldiers we see this as our job.”

Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004 by recently discharged soldiers who served in the West Bank. Since then, they have recorded the testimonies of some 670 soldiers speaking about their service in the West Bank and Gaza.

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