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Israeli Soldiers' Testimony on Gaza Continues to Cause Uproar

Israeli newspapers recently published leaked Army transcripts from soldiers who described what they say were unjustified shootings of civilians during the recent assault on militants in Gaza. Some soldiers say the rules of war were ignored, resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians and unnecessary destruction of property.

The transcripts, which were leaked to the media by a soldier, speak of wanton killings of civilians, including an elderly woman and a mother and her children, as well as the unnecessary destruction of buildings. The material, which was not intended for public release, was initially printed by the military at a training academy.

Soldier testimony described as 'disturbing'

Yehuda Shaul is a former soldier and co-founder of Breaking the Silence, a group that advocates moral behavior by Israel's military, the IDF.

He is collecting testimony from soldiers who fought in Operation Cast Lead, Israel's 22-day assault on militants in the Gaza Strip. He describes what he is hearing from the soldiers as "disturbing." He says some of the soldiers say their units were not advised to spare civilians.

"Being careful not to hurt civilians wasn't even said. I'm not saying that all units, all the time, all over. But at least, five-six different battalions that we've heard from, commanders in the briefings before the operations didn't even mention the possibility of bumping into innocent victims in the area," Shaul said.

Army to investigate alleged abuses

The Israeli military's Advocate General in Tel Aviv ordered an investigation into the alleged abuses. The IDF say it has halted the investigation, because the allegations were based on hearsay - not first-hand accounts.

Israel Defense Forces Major Yehoshua Gurtler is a military lawyer with the unit that investigated the allegations that were leaked to the media. He tells VOA more investigations are under way.

"As part of this investigation, two other incidents surfaced which were also investigated as part of the same investigation, but it focused on particular incidents and not on more general claims which are being investigated on other levels and by other organizations within the IDF," Gurtler explained.

Some troops denounce 'permissive' attitude

Some soldiers have come forth to denounce what they say was a permissive attitude that allowed soldiers to treat everyone as a Hamas operative.

Some who say they witnessed wrongdoing are conscripts who wish to remain anonymous.

In a recording provided by Yehuda Shaul's group, one soldier says that during preparations for the Gaza assault, a rabbi brought in by the army gave him and his comrades spiritual guidance that - to him - sounded like license to kill Palestinians indiscriminately.

He said the rabbi told him and his comrades that the battle in Gaza was the battle of the sons of light against the sons of darkness, of total good against total evil.

Did rabbis go too far?

Furthermore, literature distributed by rabbis among some units incites soldiers to draw links between the modern Palestinians and the Philistines, the ancient enemies of the Biblical Israelites.

In response, an Israel Defense Forces official told VOA there were a number of incidents where -some rabbis "went too far" in briefings and materials distributed to soldiers. The official said some rabbis have been reprimanded as a result.

Palestinian rights activists say Israel's assault on Gaza killed more than 1,400 people. The offensive was retaliation for rockets that Hamas has been firing from Gaza targeting Israeli civilians for years. The operation had wide support among Israelis who saw the attacks on militants as a necessary deterrent.

Are allegations meant to discredit IDF?

Some Israelis, however, say allegations of excessive force are being used by leftists to discredit the IDF.

Yehuda Shaul says he continues to interview soldiers. His group plans to issue its own report in a few months.

"Until today, we've interviewed 16 people, and I can say very much the stuff that we hear from soldiers who served in Gaza are very much in line with the accounts that were published a week ago in the Israeli media," Shaul said.

Military: attrocities were exceptions

Israel's military says that if atrocities did occur during the operation in Gaza, they were exceptions. It says it will investigate and punish atrocities that are exposed and proven.

Several soldiers have come forward in support of the military's position. One is Sergeant Major Jeff Gafni, a 65 year-old reservist who has fought in every one of Israel's conflicts since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

He was in combat in the Gaza strip and says soldiers received guidance to protect civilian bystanders. In the guerrilla warfare of Gaza where Israel says Hamas was using civilians as human shields, he says implementing that guidance was a challenge.

"You have to define between those that hold the arms with the intention of hurting you, between the bystanders that might cheer them, might not cheer them - it's up to them," Gafni said. "It's their politics. And, you have to understand the definition between those two things: of innocent bystanders and armed guerrillas."

Some doubt notion army would encourage abuse of civilians

Gafni rejects any notion that the army as an institution would encourage or tolerate the abuse of civilians in Gaza - even those who support Hamas.

"It does not mean that here and there, there isn't somebody (who) steps out of line," Gafni said. "You have to understand that I am not trying to cover up for if any case like that ever did happen. That's not the case. But I do understand that as a body built of so many individuals there might be a case of somebody stepping out of line. But that's called stepping out of line. That's not the norm."

Israeli human rights groups say an investigation by an independent body will be the only way to shed light on the truth.