By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
JERUSALEM, March 30 -- The Israeli military's top lawyer on Monday closed an investigation into alleged misconduct by soldiers who took part in Israel's recent three-week assault on the Gaza Strip, concluding that accusations made by graduates of a military preparatory school were "based on hearsay."
In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces said that Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, the IDF's advocate general, found no evidence to support the most serious accusations, including alleged instances in which civilians were shot without cause.
Israeli human rights groups including B'Tselem and Yesh Din said they still want a broad, independent investigation of the Gaza operation because they don't trust the Israeli military to police itself.
Maj. Yehoshua Gurtler, a military lawyer, told reporters that investigators had matched the allegations with actual incidents -- including one in which an elderly woman was shot. In that case and others, he said, soldiers had followed the rules of engagement set out for the Gaza operation and had acted in accordance with Israeli law.
The elderly woman, suspected of being a suicide bomber, continued approaching an IDF position after soldiers yelled at her to stop and fired warning shots, Gurtler said. Once she was "within several yards," he said, the soldiers killed her.
Gurtler said the body was not inspected to see if the woman carried arms or explosives, and was removed by Palestinian authorities.
"The soldiers in accordance with IDF doctrine did not approach the body for fear that an explosive device might be detonated," Gurtler said. "We don't know whether or not she was a suicide bomber, but the fact that she continued approaching -- this was a clear suspicion."
In another case it was alleged that a woman and her two children were killed by a sniper after being ordered to leave a house by an Israeli soldier. Gurtler said that investigators identified an incident in which a family matching the description was told to leave a building but that the family members were not killed. Rather, at the time they were leaving, a sniper fired away from the family at two men regarded as suspicious, Gurtler said.
"These allegations were based on hearsay," he said. "They were not based on firsthand evidence. They were rumors. They did not reflect the operational circumstances which had actually taken place on the ground."
Mendelblit, in the statement, criticized the soldiers who had made the allegations during a recent forum at the Rabin Military Preparation Center. "It seems that it will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the IDF and its soldiers" he said.
The head of the center, Danny Zamir, forwarded the allegations to military officials and later published them in a newsletter distributed to the center's alumni. The center is one of a number in Israel where future recruits can spend a year on a variety of educational or other projects before doing their mandatory military service.
Zamir could not be reached for comment.
The allegations have become part of an ongoing controversy that has developed within Israel and internationally over the 22-day Operation Cast Lead, which took place in December and January. Launched to quell rockets fired by Islamist groups from Gaza into Israeli towns and villages, the operation involved hundreds of airstrikes, mortar and artillery fire, and the movement of several thousand Israeli soldiers into the area.
Between 1,166 and 1,409 Palestinians were killed -- the two sides differ in their estimates. Israel says the bulk of those killed were fighters associated with the Islamist Hamas movement and other groups, though it acknowledges killing at least 295 civilians. Palestinian officials say mostly civilians died in the conflict.
Thirteen Israelis were killed during the operation, three of them civilians.