- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

TEL AVIV | The Israeli army said Thursday its military prosecutor is launching a criminal investigation into the reported killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza during a three-week war earlier this year against Hamas.

The inquiry was initiated after the publication of eyewitness accounts of misconduct by combat soldiers delivered at a postwar seminar at a military preparatory school one month ago.

It marks first acknowledgment by Israel of possible misdeeds in an offensive that left 1,300 Gazans dead and has stirred up allegations of war crimes.

Speaking at the convention of a school named for the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, soldiers described lax rules of engagement and the killing of women, children and the elderly even though they were not perceived as threats. The veterans added that Israeli soldiers also vandalized Palestinian property.

In one instance contained in the testimony, soldiers said a woman and two children were killed at a distance of 100 to 200 yards because they had misunderstood army instructions on how to leave the combat zone.

“We didn’t think there was moral problem until these guys started getting it off of their chest,” Danny Zamir, head of the Yitzhak Rabin military preparatory school, told the Israeli news Web site Ynet.

“In spite of that, there was a feeling that something bad was going on there because of the media fog that accompanied the war - but we stifled that feeling,” he said.

Mr. Zamir had the soldiers’ stories documented in written transcripts, which were submitted to the army last month. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported on the testimony Wednesday.

The anecdotes undermine Israel’s claim that its army is the “most moral” in the world because it sticks to a strict code of military ethics even under the pressure of war.

Soldiers at the convention described a squad of machine gunners shooting at an elderly Gaza woman from long distance as well.

“I was shocked to read that,” said an Israeli military official who requested to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Some of the stuff described there is far from the rules of the engagement that I know.”

Meanwhile, Israel began a new crackdown on Hamas on Thursday, rounding up top leaders in the West Bank after the failure of efforts to secure the release of an Israeli soldier held by the Islamist rulers of the Gaza Strip, Agence France-Presse reported.

Security forces seized 12 senior Hamas leaders in pre-dawn raids in the occupied West Bank, including four members of the Palestinian legislative council, Hamas and the army said.

The Islamists denounced the action as “blackmail” after the collapse of Egyptian-brokered efforts to reach an agreement on an Israel-Hamas prisoner swap.

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been held by Gaza militants, including Hamas, since June 2006.

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