Israeli Group: Army Used Reckless Force In Gaza

Israel is rejecting charges by human rights groups that its invasion of the Gaza Strip last winter included acts of excessive violence. An activist group called Breaking the Silence, recorded testimony from some Israeli soldiers who describe acts of gratuitous destruction and disregard for civilian life.

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Some Israeli soldiers who fought in last winter's war in Gaza have already told stories of excessive violence. Now, more than two dozen veterans of that military operation have added their voices to those testimonies, speaking anonymously of gratuitous destruction and a disregard for the lives of civilians. The Israeli military says it can't check what it calls vague and anonymous complaints.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Jerusalem.

PETER KENYON: On the videotape, the reserve first sergeant fidgets in his chair, his face concealed behind a digital blur. He struggles to convey to an audience that wasn't there how different Operation Cast Lead was from previous military actions.

For instance, after hearing years of condemnation of Palestinians for using inaccurate mortar shells against Israeli civilian populations, he was shocked to witness his own army using mortars and dangerous white phosphorous shells in densely populated residential areas.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) I recall a house fired at by an 81 millimeter mortar. I've never seen anything like it except on a dry run. The earth shook all the time. There were constant blasts. There was no need for such weapons as mortars and white phosphorous.

KENYON: Other soldiers told stories of using Palestinian civilians as human shields when entering houses. This reserve sergeant said his unit encountered no resistance as Israeli tanks opened fire and bulldozers destroyed everything in their path.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) The bulldozers were working all the time. They were razing orchards - took down lots of orchards and houses. Maybe they suspected there was a tunnel, or simply houses that were blocking our line of vision. So all through that week, D9 bulldozers were working nonstop.

KENYON: Human rights groups have charged that Israeli soldiers and Hamas fighters both committed war crimes in Gaza. The IDF has rejected all such allegations about its troops but has refused to cooperate with the U.N. investigation.

Yehuda Shaul, an IDF veteran and founding member of the group Breaking the Silence, says the more than 100 pages of testimony are anonymous because the soldiers fear retaliation from the military. But Shaul recalls, vividly, one story from a solider manning a post along the main north-south highway in the Gaza Strip.

Shaul says, one night, soldiers noticed a Palestinian walking up the road carrying a flashlight, and they asked permission to fire warning shots to scare the man away.

Mr. YEHUDA SHAUL (IDF veteran, Breaking the Silence): Company officer sees the reality, says guys don't shoot. Wait, you'll see. Even when the Palestinian's 100 meters from the house and they recognize very clearly that he's not armed, company officer says no and waits. Until the Palestinian reaches around 30 meters from the house - all the sharp shooters in the house fire at him. The next morning they send a dog, check the body. No explosives, nothing, just an old guy with a white t-shirt and a beard and a flashlight that was on at night was killed for no reason.

KENYON: An attempt by NPR to verify that story led to a Gaza farm field, where 48-year-old Amar Ayad(ph) recalls trying to piece together what happened the night his father, Abu Hanni Ayad(ph), was shot and killed on the street. He doubts he'll ever know exactly what happened, let alone why.

Mr. AMAR AYAD: (Through translator) It was three days into the war and maybe they ran out of food. When he was found, it's possible he was looking for food when he was shot. And then the next day or maybe two days later my mother went out after him and she was killed in the same way, not far from the same spot.

KENYON: From the few details that can be compared it seems unlikely that Amar's father was the same man described in the Israeli soldier's story. More likely, 85-year-old Abu Hanni Ayad and his 75-year-old wife were simply two more of the hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed in Operation Cast Lead whose stories will never be fully known.

In a conference call from Tel Aviv, IDF spokesperson Avital Leibovitch called the Breaking the Silence allegations too sketchy to be checked. And she said it was Hamas that put civilians at risk.

Ms. AVITAL LEIBOVITCH (Spokesperson, IDF): I can tell you that there was a very big emphasis on preventing hurting civilians. The problem was, if you can recall, that civilians were used. Civilian population centers were used, mosques were used, rooftops were used to launch rockets and so on.

KENYON: Yehuda Shaul says he hopes to renew the debate among Israelis over the IDF's moral and ethical standards. Analysts say at the moment Israeli leaders may be more concerned about the U.N. investigation led by South African Judge Richard Goldstone. His team's report could be submitted by late summer.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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