Citing insufficient evidence and hearsay, the Israeli military on Monday closed an investigation into two cases of alleged killings of Gaza civilians that had caused an uproar in Israel and around the world.
Israeli soldiers had described the alleged incidents in a closed-door meeting at a military prep school, and their accounts, along with their reports of vandalism in Palestinian homes, were published by Israeli media earlier this month. One case involved the alleged killing of an elderly woman by a rooftop sniper, and the second described a sniper fatally shooting a mother and two children who had entered a no-go zone.
The chief army prosecutor, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, announced the criminal investigation after the accounts became public. But on Monday he said he would not file charges, saying crucial components of the soldiers' descriptions were based on hearsay.
Mendelblit said the soldier who described the killing of the woman and two children clarified in the investigation that he did not witness it.
He said the soldiers had been careless in their remarks and harmed Israel's image. "It seems that it will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the Israel Defense Forces and its soldiers ... in Israel and the world," Mendelblit said in a statement.
He said other investigations into army conduct during Israel's three-week offensive in Gaza would continue but did not elaborate. Officials in the army spokesman's office declined further comment.
The Israeli military used unprecedented force in its war against Gaza's Hamas rulers in December and January. The offensive was aimed at halting eight years of rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli border towns. After a week of aerial bombardments, the military launched a two-week ground offensive.
More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including more than 900 civilians, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which published a list of names of the dead. Israel disputed the figure and said more armed men than civilians were killed, but did not publish a list to back up its claim.
Israel has said it did everything it could to prevent casualties among Gaza civilians, including dropping leaflets and sending phone messages to civilians to evacuate certain areas. It has also said Hamas used civilians as human shields, booby-trapped homes and fired on troops from densely populated areas.
However, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said it is investigating a number of cases in which civilians came under fire while trying to leave the war zone.
Senior researcher Fred Abrahams said the group has so far confirmed six cases involving the deaths of 10 Palestinians. Abrahams said some of the shootings apparently were the result of a breakdown in communication between different units. "I don't believe there was a policy to shoot at civilians," he said. "But even the cases of miscommunication must be thoroughly investigated because we have the outlines of a pattern."
Last week, The Associated Press investigated the case of a 33-year-old Gaza woman, Abir Hijeh, who said she was in a group of civilians that came under fire from an Israeli army position after soldiers yelled at them to turn around and go in the opposite direction.
Hijeh's 2-year-old daughter and a 27-year-old neighbor were killed in the incident, confirmed by two separate area hospitals and a second witness. The AP investigation found some similarities, but also discrepancies between the Hijeh case and the soldier's account.
The military has not directly commented on this incident, but said all possible deviations from army rules would be investigated.