JERUSALEM – Israel's military on Thursday ordered a criminal inquiry into its own soldiers' reports that some troops killed Palestinian civilians, including children, during the Gaza war by hastily opening fire, confident that relaxed rules of engagement would protect them.
Their accounts, published in a military institute's newsletter, echo Palestinian allegations and feed into human rights groups' contention that Israel violated the laws of war. Soldiers also reported the wanton destruction of civilian property.
The troops spoke at a get-together with students enrolled in a military preparatory course. The transcript of the session appeared this week in a newsletter the institute publishes, Israeli newspapers reported.
The head of the course, Danny Zamir, told the Haaretz daily he was "shocked" and relayed the reports to Israeli military chief Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi because he feared serious ethical lapses among troops.
The military said it was not aware of the reported incidents but that its top lawyer has ordered military police to investigate.
Speaking to Israel Radio, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel "has the most ethical army in the world" and reports of exceptions would be "checked carefully."
In one published account reported by Haaretz and the Maariv newspaper, an Israeli sniper killed a Palestinian woman and her two children after they misunderstood another soldier's order and turned the wrong way. The sniper was not told the civilians had been released from the house where they were confined and, in compliance with standing orders, opened fire when they approached him.
In another account given at the military institute, an elderly woman was shot dead while walking on a road, even though she was close enough for the soldiers to see whether she posed a threat, Maariv said. Haaretz said the woman was shot from 100 yards away.
"The climate in general, from what I understood from most of my men whom I talked to, was ... the lives of Palestinians, let's say, are far less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they're concerned, they can justify it that way," an infantry squad leader was quoted as saying.
According to Israeli government figures, during the course of the Gaza operation nine soldiers were killed and 336 wounded. Four of those soldiers died in "friendly fire" incidents. Official figures say that during the same period Palestinian rocket fire into Israel killed four civilians and injured 182.
Heavy Palestinian civilian casualties and widespread destruction during the three-week war provoked international outcry against Israel, which halted its fire on Jan. 18. Palestinians say over half of the more than 1,300 Gazans killed were civilians.
However, Gur Rosenblatt, 35, a reserve infantry major who said he took part in fighting all over Gaza during the offensive, told The Associated Press he witnessed no wrongdoing.
"I was with my soldiers in the thick of the fighting and there was absolutely no incident where soldiers purposely hurt civilians or damaged their property," he said. "In fact we risked our own lives in order to protect civilians and their property. Even when Palestinians had rigged buildings with explosives or attacked us from homes we did our best not to harm civilians."
Israel says the toll published by the Palestinians is inflated but has acknowledged loosening its rules of engagement in Gaza to minimize military casualties. Troops operating in densely populated areas, for example, were supported with heavy tank and artillery fire that sometimes flattened entire neighborhoods.
Rights groups have accused Israel of using disproportionate force and failing to protect civilians. Cases they cite include the use of white phosphorus ammunition and shelling near a U.N. school that killed 42 people seeking sanctuary there. White phosphorus can be employed legitimately in battle, but rights groups say its use over populated areas can indiscriminately burn civilians and constitutes a war crime.
Yaakov Amidror, a former chief of Israel's military academies, told Army Radio that in combat not all situations are clear-cut, and if it comes down to a choice between soldiers being killed or killing others, "you must make a very cold choice and kill the other side."
But "if you see a woman and two children in the crosshairs, it's pretty clear — there is almost no case in the world that would justify pulling the trigger," Amidror said.
Soldiers quoted in the transcript also reported wholesale destruction of Palestinian property.
"We would throw everything out of the windows to make room and order," Maariv quoted a soldier as saying. "Everything in the house was tossed out the windows: Refrigerators, plates, furniture. The order was to throw all of the house's contents outside."
Troops felt they could write "Death to the Arabs" on the walls of private homes and spit on family pictures "just because you can," another soldier said.
"I think this is the main thing: To understand how much the army's ethics have sunk, really. It's what I'll remember most," Haaretz quoted him as saying.