- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel’s defense minister promised Thursday to investigate soldiers’ claims that some troops opened fire too hastily on Palestinian civilians during the recent Gaza war and killed them, believing that they would not be held to account under relaxed rules of engagement.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak defended the military’s conduct overall but said the reports that appeared in Israeli newspapers Thursday would be investigated.

Steep civilian casualties during the three-week operation provoked an international outcry against Israel, which halted its fire on Jan. 18. Palestinians say over half of the more than 1,300 Gazans who were killed were civilians, a number Israel disputes.

In one case reported by the Haaretz and Maariv dailies, an Israeli sniper killed a Palestinian woman and her two children after they misunderstood another soldier’s order and turned the wrong way.

The sniper wasn’t told the civilians had been released from the house where they had been confined and he opened fire when they approached him, according to orders.

“The climate in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, are much, much less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned, they can justify it that way,” an infantry squad leader reported.

In another case, a company commander ordered that an elderly Palestinian woman be shot and killed while walking on a road, even though she was close enough for the soldiers to discern whether she posed a threat, Maariv said. Haaretz, too, reported that the woman was shot at a range of 100 meters (yards).

Soldiers also reported large-scale destruction of Palestinian property. “We would throw everything out of the windows to make room and order,” Maariv reported a soldier as saying. “Everything in the house was tossed out the windows: Refrigerators, plates, furniture. The order was to throw all of the house’s contents outside.”

The soldiers relayed their accounts at a get-together with incoming recruits at a military preparatory institute where the troops had studied. The transcript of the session appeared this week in a newsletter the institute publishes for course graduates, the newspapers said.

The military said it wasn’t aware of the incidents the soldiers reported but assigned its top lawyer to investigate.

Barak told Israel Radio that Israel “has the most ethical army in the world” but “that doesn’t mean there are no exceptions.”

“I have no doubt that it will be checked carefully,” he said.

Israel has acknowledged loosening its rules of engagement in Gaza to reduce military casualties. As a result, ground troops moved under heavy covering fire from tanks and artillery that flattened entire neighborhoods.

At the same time, Israel has blamed the high civilian death toll on Hamas militiamen fighting from civilian areas.

Yaakov Amidror, a former chief of Israel’s military academies, told Army Radio that in war, not all situations are clear-cut, and if it comes down to a choice between soldiers being killed and killing people on the other side, “you must make a very cold choice and kill the other side.”

But “if you see a woman and two children in the crosshairs, it’s pretty clear - there is almost no case in the world that would justify pulling the trigger,” Amidror said.

The head of the military institute, Danny Zamir, told Haaretz he was shocked by the soldiers’ accounts and contacted military chief Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi afterward because he feared a serious ethical lapse in the military. Zamir did not immediately return calls to The Associated Press on Thursday.

Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers have not cemented their informal, Jan. 18 cease-fire with a long-term truce. Prospects dimmed this week with the failure of negotiations to release an Israeli soldier Hamas holds.

On Thursday, Israel rounded up 10 Hamas leaders in the West Bank, including four lawmakers and a former deputy prime minister, in an apparent effort to pressure the group.

The Israeli military said in a statement that those arrested were involved in “restoring the Hamas administrative branch.”

Ahmed Bahar, a deputy parliament speaker in Gaza, denounced the arrests as “immoral blackmail by the Zionist occupation.”

Israel has detained dozens of Hamas politicians in the West Bank on various occasions following the capture of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, 22, in June 2006.

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