Whenever concerns are expressed over civilian casualties inflicted in Israeli military operations, the country's generals and political leaders are quick to insist that theirs is the "world's most moral army." That claim was challenged by human rights observers over Israel's recent offensive in Gaza, although such criticism is reflexively dismissed by Israel as driven by pro-Palestinian bias. But when the allegations of abuses come from Israeli soldiers involved in the fighting, they can't be as easily dismissed.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak was forced to repeat the "world's most moral army" mantra on Thursday, this time to reassure his own countrymen shocked by allegations published in the Israeli media from six veterans of the Gaza operation. The six soldiers, whose identity is being kept confidential, made their claims in an address last month to cadets of the Yitzhak Rabin military academy, of which they are graduates. Among other claims, the soldiers alleged that an Israeli sniper had shot a woman and her two children who walked in the wrong direction after being ordered out of their home by Israeli troops. In a second incident, a sniper supposedly killed an unarmed elderly woman who posed no apparent threat to Israeli troops. And the soldiers ascribed these incidents to overly permissive rules of engagement. See pictures of Israel's Gaza offensive)
"I simply felt it was murder in cold blood, said the soldier who witnessed the scene, quoted in the daily Haaretz. He went on to explain sarcastically, "That's what is so nice, supposedly about Gaza. You see a person walking on a road... He doesn't have to be with a weapon, you don't have to identify him with anything and you can just shoot him. With us it was an old woman on whom I didn't see any weapon. The order was to take that woman out, the moment you see her."
After the anonymous soldiers' testimony was splashed across the media in Israel and abroad, the military police on Thursday said it would investigate the alleged killings. Their allegations renewed an ongoing debate between Israelis who defend the Gaza assault and those who say it failed to accomplish its goal of crippling Hamas, but stained Israel's reputation. On Friday, an Israeli Defense Forces spokesman dismissed claims of the gunning down of the mother and her two children as "heresay", but said that the account of the elderly woman's death was still being probed. But those were just two of the incidents alleged by the six soldiers.
Human rights investigators suggest that what the soldiers' allegations and eyewitness accounts from Gaza residents suggest is that, in an effort to maximize the safety of their own soldiers entering Gaza, Israeli commanders may have let their ethical standards slide. Retired general and former security chief Ami Ayalon concurs. The Gaza operation, says Ayalon, "compromised the I.D.F.'s ethos, which was once built on ethics, sacrifice. And today, after the Gaza offensive, it is based on force alone."
A soldier identified as Aviv from the Givati Brigade, one of Israel's elite combat units, reportedly described to the military cadets his inner conflict over obeying orders to use indiscriminate firepower while clearing out an eight-story apartment building. "We were supposed to ... burst through the lower door, start shooting inside and then ... I call this murder... in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified, we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?"
Aviv explained that his commanders had blurred the boundaries between combatants and civilians: "From [the officers] above, they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained ...inside Gaza City was, in effect, incriminated, a terrorist, because they hadn't fled," Aviv alleged. "On one hand, they really don't have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand [the officers] are telling us they hadn't fled so it's their fault." Faced with having to slay the 40 families cowering in the building, he was able to persuade his superiors to let him warn the tenants, giving them five minutes to leave or "get killed."
In the Israeli military offensive, 1,434 Palestinians, including 960 civilians, were killed, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Center in Gaza. Three Israeli civilians were killed in the course of the same operation, and 10 soldiers, four of them by friendly fire. The lopsided death toll, and the fact that so many civilians were killed, has drawn fierce criticism of Israel's by human rights agencies in Israel and abroad. And the consequences could extend from the political to the legal realm.
U.N. human rights envoy Falk said that Israel's apparent failure to distinguish between military targets and civilians could "constitute a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law." He also said that rocket fire by Palestinian militants that indiscriminately targeted Israeli towns could also constitute a war crime, and urged the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the actions of both sides during the recent conflict. With mounting pressure at home and abroad to account for the high Palestinian civilian death toll in Gaza, Israel's claim to have "the world's most moral army" is likely to be subjected to the test of evidence in the months ahead.
With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv