By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; A09
JERUSALEM -- Israel has disciplined two army officers for ordering artillery fire into a populated area during last year's Gaza Strip war, the most serious penalties disclosed in the country's follow-up investigation into the brief but intense conflict.
In a report filed Friday with the United Nations, Israel said that a brigadier general and colonel were disciplined "for exceeding their authority in a manner that jeopardized the lives of others" when they directed fire toward Gaza's Tel al-Hawa neighborhood. The attack damaged a U.N. compound, injured several of the hundreds of Palestinians who had taken refuge inside it and fed claims that the Israel Defense Forces had been reckless in their attacks on the densely populated Gaza Strip.
The artillery strike included shells armed with white phosphorus, a smoke-screen material whose use has been criticized because of its incendiary qualities. The report, and IDF officials in follow-up interviews, said the disciplinary action was not taken because of the use of phosphorus but because of the use of artillery against a populated area without proper field authorization.
The names of the officers and the nature of the penalties were not disclosed in the report, but based on their rank and title at the time of the incident, local media identified them as Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, Gaza Division commander, and Col. Ilan Malka, Givati Brigade commander.
The disclosure comes as Israel tries to fend off calls for an independent probe of its conduct in the Gaza war, an issue that has divided the country's political leadership. A U.N. fact-finding panel, under the direction of South African jurist Richard Goldstone, concluded that there was evidence of war crimes by both the IDF and the Gaza-based Hamas movement and recommended that each side conduct an independent investigation or be recommended for international prosecution.
The war, which Israel says it began to halt years of rocket fire by Gaza-based militant groups against southern Israeli towns, killed 1,166 Palestinians, most of them considered members of armed organizations, according to the IDF. Palestinians say that 1,450 people were killed, most of them civilians.
While acknowledging operational and other mistakes, Israel has rejected the U.N. panel's larger allegation of war crimes as biased and said the IDF's internal controls and military justice system are rigorous enough that an independent probe is unnecessary. In the report to the United Nations, the country said it was looking into about 150 possible violations of international standards and its own doctrine and operating rules and had started 36 criminal investigations. A more exhaustive IDF report on the conflict is expected in coming weeks.
Hamas issued a blanket statement last week saying that it fired rockets only at military targets, a statement human rights groups rejected.
Meanwhile, an Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, said the low-level disciplinary action against the two IDF officers amounted to a "cover-up," given the scale of the shelling in the neighborhood and resulting fires, and again called for an independent probe.