- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

TEL AVIV

Israeli army officers and right-wing politicians find themselves on the defensive with the publication of soldiers’ testimonies that claim unarmed civilians were gunned down during the nation’s three-week incursion into Gaza.

The outcry and soul-searching reflect a backlash stemming from Israel’s oft-repeated assertion that its army is the “most moral in the world” because of an ethics code that aspires to “purity of arms.”

In the days since the army launched a criminal investigation into anecdotes from veterans of the incursion, additional evidence has surfaced suggesting permissive open-fire rules.

Countering those assertions, reserve Col. Tzvi Fogel told Israel’s Channel 10 news that because Israel warned Palestinian civilians prior to the ground offensive, there was an assumption that whoever stayed behind could be hostile.

“It was clear that whoever wasn’t a party to the circle of fighting either evacuates or stays in their house. They don’t wander the streets,” he said. “Therefore, it sounds reasonable that whoever is wandering the streets isn’t innocent. His blood is on his head.”

Seemingly bolstering assertions by Palestinian and international human rights groups, testimony made public last week from infantry veterans described lax rules of engagement that led to killing civilians, even though it was unclear if they were perceived as threats or not.

Some Israeli officers questioned the veracity of the testimony, claiming that the incidents detailing the deaths of women, children and the elderly were based on secondhand accounts.

One unidentified Israeli commando officer from Gaza quoted in the daily Ma’ariv newspaper acknowledged that soldiers were “light on the trigger” during the operation. But, he added, “There was no premeditated injury of innocents. I am fully confident that no soldier fired out of a feeling of revenge.”

And yet, reports surfaced of snipers from an infantry battalion who were said to have ordered commemorative T-shirts showing a pregnant woman viewed through a rifle scope with the English inscription, “1 shot, 2 kills.”

In one video of a commander’s pre-war lecture released on Channel 10,soldiers are encouraged to be aggressive and to put their lives before those of Gazan Palestinians.

The left-wing Ha’aretz newspaper, which first reported on the soldiers’ testimonials, said military documents left behind in Gaza indicated that the army had orders to fire on emergency vehicles.

“The [army] knew very well what its soldiers did in Gaza. It has long ceased to be the most moral army in the world. Far from it - it will not seriously investigate anything,” wrote columnist Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz.

“We have trained our soldiers to think that the lives and property of Palestinians have no value whatsoever. It is part of a process of dehumanization that has endured for dozens of years … .”

Israeli human rights groups have used the revelation to repeat calls for an independent inquiry into the war, which ended Jan. 18.

Right-wing politicians have countered that the charges brought against the military have been brought by politically motivated Israeli leftists.

“There aren´t any ‘clean’ wars in the world, but the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] is a moral army,” wrote right-wing parliament member Aryeh Eldad in a newspaper on Sunday, “and blessed are the soldiers and commanders who preferred in the course of Operation Cast Lead the lives of our soldiers over the lives of the terrorists.”

Israel invaded Gaza in response to Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli cities near the coastal strip.

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