Army used reckless force in Gaza

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military used reckless force during the fighting in Gaza earlier this year, resulting in needless deaths and damage, a group of former Israeli soldiers charged in a report Wednesday.

In testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli army reservists, 26 soldiers who participated in the three weeks of Gaza fighting describe demolishing homes and using firepower beyond what was necessary given the relatively light resistance they encountered.

None of the soldiers was identified, and no dates or locations were provided for the events they recount. The report did not look at the actions of Palestinian militants during the fighting.

The Israeli military accused the group of "defaming and slandering the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and its commanders."

"The IDF is one of the world's most moral armies and operates according to the highest moral code," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a separate statement.

In one of the new testimonies, a soldier said his unit used Palestinian civilians as human shields — a practice outlawed by Israel's Supreme Court — forcing them to enter buildings suspected of housing militants and to break down walls using sledgehammers.

"Sometimes the force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian's shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield. Commanders said these were the instructions and we had to do it," the soldier said.

Another said the regulations on when to shoot were vague.

"My impression about rules of engagement was that, at least at our level, they were not clear. There were no clear red lines," he said.

"This report reflects the crimes committed in Gaza," said Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza. He called on "human rights bodies and international groups" to put Israel's leaders on trial.

A small number of other soldiers have come forward with similar testimony since the operation. But overall, Israelis support their army and believe the Gaza operation was necessary, so the long-term impact of such reports on public opinion appears limited.

Israel maintains that responsibility for the Gaza carnage lies with Palestinian militant groups, and chiefly Hamas, who hid ammunition in civilian buildings, whose fighters blended in with civilians and used them for cover, and who provoked Israel with thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians over an eight-year period.

More than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, were killed in the Gaza fighting, thousands of homes were destroyed and Gaza's infrastructure suffered heavy damage, according to Gaza health officials and human rights groups. Israel puts the death toll closer to 1,100 and says most were armed fighters. Thirteen Israelis also were killed, including three civilians who died from rocket fire.

Wednesday's report did not represent a cross-section of soldiers, but rather included troops who approached the group or were reached through acquaintances of group members. Two were junior officers and the rest were lower-ranking troops.

Yehuda Saul, a founder of Breaking the Silence, said the Israeli public, which overwhelmingly supported a military operation aimed at halting years of rocket fire from Gaza, needs to know what soldiers saw during the fighting.

"In terms of what Israeli society knows, the Gaza operation is a black hole," Saul said. "In order to discuss what we want and what values we stand for as a people, we must have the information about what happened on the ground, and as a group of soldiers we see this as our job."

Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004 by recently discharged soldiers who served in the West Bank. Since then, they have recorded the testimonies of some 670 soldiers speaking about their service in the West Bank and Gaza.

The military attacked the report's veracity, saying it "regrets the fact that yet another human rights organization is presenting to Israel and the world a report based on anonymous and general testimonies, without investigating their details or credibility."

The military also said the fact that no identifying details are given makes verifying the accounts impossible and urged soldiers who saw improper behavior to come forward and register official complaints.

While confirming that Palestinian militants also violated the laws of war, human rights groups like Amnesty International have focused on Israeli violations, charging that Israel's response was disproportionate and that Israel's military used powerful weapons indiscriminately in heavily populated areas. The U.N. has also launched a probe into Israel's actions during the offensive.

Israel says many of those reports are politically motivated and that it is singled out for scrutiny not devoted to the Palestinians or to other global conflicts.