By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 20, 2009
JERUSALEM, March 19 -- The Israeli military said Thursday it had opened an investigation into possible troop misconduct during the Gaza war after the head of a school for future recruits relayed stories of civilian killings and property destruction told by graduates during a recent gathering.
The accounts were published in the Israeli newspapers Haaretz and Maariv on Thursday. Haaretz ran excerpts of statements by two squad commanders who told of Palestinian civilians being shot even though they did not appear to pose a threat to Israeli troops.
One of the squad commanders said that although his group had experienced limited combat in its area, an officer ordered an elderly Palestinian woman shot as she walked along a road 100 yards from a house the soldiers had commandeered. "Whether she was suspected or not, I don't know, but what he did in the end was to get people on the roof and together with the snipers get her down," the commander was quoted as saying.
Speaking about incidents involving property destruction and anti-Arab graffiti, he said, "You don't feel there is any sense to it. As much as we talk about how the IDF is an army with values, let's say that it is not like that on the ground." IDF is the abbreviation for Israel Defense Forces.
The other squad leader described an incident in which a mother and two children walked toward an Israeli position from a prohibited area and were killed. "The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him, closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away," the squad leader said.
An officer, by contrast, told of using warning shots to signal to an elderly man to leave a restricted area where he was picking tomatoes.
The names of the soldiers and their units were not made public.
Brig. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit, the chief lawyer for the IDF, ordered the investigation based on information forwarded to the military by Danny Zamir, who runs one of several programs in which young Israelis can defer military service for a year while pursuing other projects or education.
Zamir, who leads the Rabin Pre-Military Academy in Oranim, in northern Israel, held a meeting this year for alumni of the program to meet with prospective students, according to an IDF spokeswoman.
Some of the alumni had served in Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day Israeli offensive in December and January aimed at the Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip. What they said "shocked us," Zamir said, according to Thursday's published reports. The institute, which has a curriculum that focuses on Jewish and military values, published the stories in a newsletter sent to its graduates. Zamir also contacted the IDF chief of staff.
Approximately 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed during the war, according to figures released by the Palestinian Ministry of Health. The operation was launched in response to rocket fire into Israel by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups. Thirteen Israelis died during the operation, including three civilians.
In an interview broadcast on Israel Radio, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he considered Israel's military "the most moral in the world," though "that doesn't mean there are no exceptions."
Amid continuing rocket fire, Israel has persisted since the war in its efforts to combat Hamas, which in its founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Early Thursday, 10 members of the group, including several elected political leaders, were arrested in the West Bank, the IDF said. The men were characterized as leaders of an effort to broaden Hamas's influence in the occupied territory. Fatah, Hamas's moderate rival, holds sway in the West Bank, and U.S. and international efforts focus on trying to strengthen Fatah's hand.
Hamas official Atef Odwan in Gaza said the group believes the arrests are an effort to pressure Hamas after the recent collapse of talks to exchange hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel holds thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including many elected officials.
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.