- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

A group of Israeli army reservists Wednesday released testimony from former soldiers who said they had used Palestinians as human shields and fired at civilians during Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

The report by Breaking the Silence is likely to feed controversy about the 22-day offensive, which U.N. officials and human rights groups say killed more than 1,400 Palestinians including more than 900 civilians. Israeli authorities say the toll was 1,100, the vast majority of whom were Hamas militants. Thirteen Israelis also died in the conflict.

Israel launched its Gaza offensive in December to stop Palestinians from firing rockets at Israeli towns.

Palestinian officials in Washington said the new allegations would hurt Israeli relations with the United States and damage Israel’s international image.

“It puts Israel on the defensive vis-a-vis the United States and the international community,” Maen Areikat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, told The Washington Times.

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, said, however, that the Obama administration understands the conditions Israel faces fighting a terrorist group such as Hamas, which controls Gaza.

“Fighting an enemy like Hamas - that hides behind civilians and seeks to exact civilian casualties among Palestinians and Israelis alike - is a complex challenge that the U.S. leadership understands and appreciates,” Mr. Oren said.

The State Department and White House declined immediate comment on the report.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticized the document, calling the Israeli Defense Force “one of the world’s most moral armies [which] operates according to the highest moral code.”

The Israeli army said it was committed to investigating any credible claim of misconduct but that the report lacked identifying details that would allow it to either confirm or rebut the charges.

The report quoted 26 former Israeli soldiers who claimed they had abused Palestinian civilians under orders from their officers.

The soldiers, none of whom was identified by name, claimed to have regularly used civilians as human shields when entering suspicious buildings.

“To every house we close in on, we send the neighbor in [first],” one soldier said.

They said they were acting under orders and that those orders caused civilian deaths and destruction in the densely populated coastal strip.

“No one said ‘kill innocents,’ ” said one soldier, according to an account of the report by Agence France-Presse. “But the instruction was that for the army, anyone there is suspect and should be taken down.”

“I understood … that it’s better to shoot first and ask questions later,” another said.

“The goal was to carry out an operation with the least possible casualties for the army, without it even asking itself what the price would be for the other side,” said a third.

Other soldiers claimed to have destroyed whole neighborhoods.

• James Morrison can be reached at jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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