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Israeli army discounts soldiers’ stories of Gaza misconduct

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JERUSALEM (JTA) — Myth or fact?

The Israel Defense Forces says that two accounts by Israeli soldiers alleging misconduct by their comrades in Gaza were based on hearsay rather than fact.

After an initial inquiry, the criminal investigation department of Israel’s Military Police closed the probe Monday after it could not substantiate any of the accounts. But the allegations, first aired last month at a conference at an Israeli military college and then published two weeks ago in the college’s bulletin, already had sparked a firestorm of controversy in Israel and criticism of the Jewish state overseas.

A flurry of editorials and op-eds around the world condemned the IDF’s alleged misdeeds. 

According to the soldiers, Israeli troops used heavy firepower in built-up civilian areas, shot and killed women and children on at least two occasions because of loose rules of engagement and, in many cases, showed little respect for Palestinian people and property.

The day after the allegations were made public by the Oranim Academic College’s bulletin and reported by Israeli media outlets, the IDF’s advocate general, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, instructed the army to look into the claims.

"It is unfortunate that none of the speakers at the conference was careful to be accurate in the depiction of his claims, and even more so that they chose to present various incidents of a severe nature, despite not personally witnessing and knowing much about them,” Mendelblit said Monday. “It seems that it will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the IDF and its soldiers who had participated in Operation Cast Lead."

The central allegation — that soldiers shot at a Palestinian mother and two of her children after they entered a closed military zone after being evicted from their home and sent in that direction, was proven to be false. The soldier who made the claim did not witness the incident, the IDF said.

"After checking the claim, it was found that during this incident a force had opened fire in a different direction, towards two suspicious men who were unrelated to the civilians in question," the IDF spokesman’s office said.

In the days since the accounts were published, several army officers offered their own refutations, saying they instructed their soldiers to avoid harming civilians and to observe the IDF’s rules of engagement. Other soldiers recorded their testimonies of how they and their colleagues took steps to help and protect Palestinian civilians.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, called for Israel’s attorney general to allow "an independent, non-partisan investigative body to be established in order to look into all Israeli Army activity during Operation Cast Lead."

"The speedy closing of the investigation immediately raises suspicions that the very opening of this investigation was merely the army’s attempt to wipe its hands of all blame for illegal activity during Operation Cast Lead," a statement on the B’Tselem Web site said.

The allegations at Oranim are hardly the only ones the IDF is facing over its actions during the recent 22-day war with Hamas in Gaza.

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a 71-page report alleging that the IDF used dangerous and highly flammable white phosphorus artillery shells in a "deliberate or reckless way." In February, Amnesty International accused both sides in the Gaza conflict of "war crimes." And several U.N. committees and officials have accused Israel of war crimes as well as other human rights atrocities.

In Israel, along with B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel slammed the IDF for its conduct during the war, as did Palestinian groups.

The IDF said its soldiers followed its strict code of ethical behavior and humane rules of engagement, but the nature of the Gaza battlefield, placed by Hamas squarely in civilian areas, caused confusion and some mistakes by soldiers.

Late last week, the IDF released its own figures of those killed in the Gaza fighting. The IDF said 25 percent, or 295, of 1,166 Palestinians killed were civilians.

Palestinian officials and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights claim that of the 1,417 people killed, more than 900 were civilians — approximately 65 percent.

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