21 Mar 2009

Israeli solders testify to deliberate killing of civilians in Gaza

9:39 pm on 21 March 2009

An Israeli military college has printed damning soldiers' accounts of deliberate killing of civilians and vandalism during its recent offensive in Gaza.

One account tells of a sniper killing a Palestinian woman and two of her children at close range, after troops had told her to leave their home. The were allegedly shot after they misunderstood instructions about which way to walk.

Another speaker at the seminar described what he saw as the "cold blooded murder" of a elderly Palestinian woman, who was easily identifiable and clearly not a threat.

The accounts, which were given by combat pilots and infantry soldiers, appeared in a newsletter published by the military academy.

"[The testimonies] conveyed an atmosphere in which one feels entitled to use unrestricted force against Palestinians," academy director Dany Zamir told public radio.

An infantry squad leader is quoted saying: "The climate in general... I don't know how to describe it.... the lives of Palestinians, let's say, are much, much less important than the lives of our soldiers."

The Israeli army has said it will investigate the soldiers' accounts.

"Moral" army

Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that the findings would be examined seriously.

"I still say we have the most moral army in the world. Of course there may be exceptions but I have absolutely no doubt this will be inspected on a case-by-case basis," he said.

The soldiers' testimonies also reportedly told of an unusually high intervention by military and non-military rabbis, who circulated pamphlets describing the war in religious terminology.

"All the articles had one clear message," one soldier said. "We are the people of Israel, we arrived in the country almost by miracle, now we need to fight to uproot the gentiles who interfere with re-conquering the Holy Land."

Israeli human rights groups have criticised the military for failing to properly investigate violations of the laws of war in Gaza, despite plenty of evidence of possible war crimes.

Heavy civilian casualties during the three-week offensive, which ended in the blockaded coastal strip on 18 January, provoked an international outcry.

Correspondents say the testimonies undermine Israel's claims that troops took care to protect non-combatants and accusations that Hamas militants were responsible for putting civilians into harm's way.

Palestinian human rights groups say more than 1,400 Gazans were killed during Israel's offensive, 900 of them civilians. They included at least 440 children, 110 women, and dozens of elderly people.

Israel's stated aim was to curb rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were killed - three of the soldiers by friendly fire.