JERUSALEM – Israel's military must hold itself to the highest moral standards even under the most trying circumstances, the army chief said Tuesday, after an elite unit was suspended on suspicion it killed a wounded and unarmed Palestinian militant.
Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon (search) spoke a day after a senior officer told a parliamentary committee he believed some 20 percent of soldiers had racist attitudes toward Palestinians and that the behavior of troops at roadblocks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was sometimes problematic.
In recent weeks, high-level officers have made a series of admissions that they were concerned about their soldiers' conduct during more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, much of it in densely populated urban areas.
Israeli human rights group B'tselem (search) charged Monday that Palestinian witnesses said Islamic Jihad militant Mahmoud Kamil Dobie (search), 25, was conscious and unarmed when troops shot him to death in the West Bank village of Raba on Friday.
B'tselem also said that of the more than 3,000 Palestinians killed by army fire, more than 1,600 were civilians. However, the army has opened only 92 investigations, some of them ongoing, into soldiers' actions, according to the army. Twenty-seven soldiers have been indicted and four convicted of wrongful shootings.
Previously, the military generally dismissed reports of soldiers violating Palestinian human rights, calling them isolated incidents. But several recent questionable shootings of Palestinians have fueled a debate over soldiers' values.
Army critics said the top brass has been sending soldiers mixed messages on what is permitted and what is not.
Yaalon said he has spoken with the army's top officers in recent weeks to re-emphasize battlefield ethics, and he has toured bases to hear how commanders and soldiers understand and carry out orders.
"If we lose the moral high ground, it will undermine our military strength," Yaalon told reporters. "We will not give up our moral standard in the name of combat."
During four years of fighting, soldiers have often had to act in complex situations, including searches for militants in urban areas and roadblock duty. At roadblocks, they must decide who is a civilian and who is a potential suicide bomber.
Yaalon said he was troubled by signs that senior officers lied during recent investigations into their soldiers' alleged misconduct.
Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, commander of the army's human resources branch, told a parliamentary committee Monday that he was concerned about racist attitudes among soldiers.
"In every generation, an Israeli army officer must see himself as though he was released from Auschwitz in two ways: not to do what was done to us — and to ensure that what was done to us never happens again," Stern said, referring to the Nazi death camp.
In Friday's incident, a naval commando unit killed Dobie. On Monday, the army suspended the activities of the unit in the West Bank pending an investigation.
One of Dobie's relatives, Tayel Bzour, who had given refuge to the fugitive, said Tuesday he witnessed the incident. He said Dobie was trying to flee when he realized the soldiers had surrounded his hiding place, and was wounded by army fire.
Bzour said the soldiers ordered him to carry Dobie toward them, and that he did so with the help of a neighbor. Bzour said he spoke to Dobie, who was bleeding from his side, and handed Dobie's pistol to the soldiers.
Bzour said soldiers then told him and his neighbor to leave the area.
"I got about 30 meters [30 yards] away when I heard the first shot," Bzour said. "Then I turned and saw a soldier standing, face painted black, firing at Mahmoud. Then the same soldier fired five more bullets."
Danny Yatom, a former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency and former army general, said he is "very troubled" by what has happened to the military since 2000.
"This [Dobie's killing] is not an isolated incident. It joins a long list of episodes in which soldiers have violated orders and rules," Yatom said.
"It's very possible that the soldiers are being asked to deal with impossible situations. As a consequence of the burden, they become exhausted, their senses are numbed," he added.