- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel’s defense minister promised on Thursday to investigate soldiers’ claims that some troops in the recent war in Gaza opened fire too easily on Palestinian civilians and killed them, under permissive rules of engagement that wouldn’t hold them to account.

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 in the coastal strip provoked an international outcry against Israel that pressured it to halt 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 the newspaper reports.

“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 said.

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, the newspapers said.

Soldiers also reported large-scale destruction of Palestinian property. “We would throw everything out of the windows to make room and order. 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 cited in the newspapers relayed their accounts at a get-together with incoming recruits at a military institute where the troops had studied. The transcript of the session appeared this week in a newsletter the institute publishes for course graduates, the papers said.

The military spokesman’s office said it wasn’t aware of the soldiers’ reports but would look into them.

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.

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