Israeli veterans of Gaza war call military force excessive

26 give testimony about use of phosphorus, human shields, heavy firepower

In January, smoke rose from an explosion caused by Israeli military operations in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed in fighting in last winter's Gaza War, a three-week offensive. In January, smoke rose from an explosion caused by Israeli military operations in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed in fighting in last winter's Gaza War, a three-week offensive. (Eyad Baba/ Associated Press)
By Steve Weizman
Associated Press / July 16, 2009
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JERUSALEM - Israeli soldiers who fought in last winter’s Gaza war say the military used Palestinians as human shields, improperly fired incendiary white phosphorus shells over civilian areas, and used overwhelming firepower that caused needless deaths and destruction, according to a report released yesterday.

The testimonies were by far the strongest allegations to come from war veterans that the army used excessive force during the three-week offensive and echoed claims already leveled by Palestinian and human rights groups.

The military rebutted the report, saying the accounts were anonymous and impossible to verify.

The accounts of 26 war veterans were collected by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli army reservists who are critical of their country’s treatment of Palestinians. They described demolishing buildings, vandalizing homes, and using more than essential firepower, given the relatively light resistance they encountered. One said the army needlessly used white phosphorus a masking agent that can cause severe burns, for smokescreens. Others said regulations for opening fire were vague, and that soldiers were expected to do whatever was necessary to protect themselves.

“There were no clear red lines,’’ one soldier told the group. “If you’re not sure, kill. Firepower was insane,’’ said another.

Military officers have acknowledged that rules of engagement were relaxed to minimize army casualties, but they insisted civilians were never targeted.

Israel launched the blistering offensive in December, after thousands of rocket attacks by Palestinian militants on southern Israel over an eight-year period.

More than 1,400 Palestinians, including at least 900 civilians, were killed in the fighting, thousands of homes were destroyed, and Gaza’s infrastructure was battered, 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 were killed, including three civilians who died from rocket fire.

Yesterday’s report was sure to fuel a debate that still rages six months after the offensive over whether Israel violated the rules of war. International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have said the degree of force and the heavy civilian death toll constitute war crimes, and the UN has launched an investigation, headed by a respected war crimes prosecutor, into the actions of Israel and Hamas. Human rights groups say Hamas committed war crimes by firing rockets at civilian areas in Israel.

Israel maintains that responsibility for the carnage lies with Hamas, which it says cached ammunition in schools and mosques, blended in with the general population, and used civilian areas and public buildings for cover.

The Israeli military said 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 that since no identifying details were given, it was impossible to verify the accounts. It urged soldiers to come forward and register official complaints.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated his belief that the Israeli military “is one of the world’s most moral armies and operates according to the highest moral code.’’

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

The 110-page report, which included videotaped testimonies in which soldiers’ faces were blurred out, did not represent a cross-section of the army. Rather, they were troops who approached the group or were reached through acquaintances of group members. Two were junior officers, and the rest were lower-ranking personnel. It did not examine Hamas’s actions.