RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to the Middle East, where Israel and Hamas militants recently battled in the Gaza Strip. There were eyewitness accounts on NPR and other media outlets of heavy civilian casualties and of the Israeli army destroying neighborhoods. The army says it's investigating, even as some Israeli soldiers are coming forward with their own accounts of what they describe as needless civilian deaths and highly permissive rules of engagement. Some soldiers say they were encouraged by military rabbis to see the operation as a kind of holy war. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Accounts in the Israeli media make it clear some Israel Defense Force field commanders did not see Gaza civilians on the battlefield as a priority. This is from a report on Israel's TV Channel 10 of an Israeli officer briefing his soldiers right before they enter the Gaza fight.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) If we are suspicious of a building, we take down the building. If there is someone suspicious in a house, we shell the house. If a person is walking towards us unarmed and continues to walk even though we fire in the air, this person is dead. No indecision. The mistakes should be with their lives, not ours.
WESTERVELT: The Israeli newspapers Maariv and Haaretz published transcripts of interviews with soldiers who fought in Gaza, conversations that were leaked to the papers by the director of an institute that prepares soldiers for military service. One account has a sniper shooting an elderly Palestinian woman. In another, a Palestinian woman and her two children were told by the army to flee their house and go right. They misunderstood and went left. An Israeli sniper shot and killed all three.
Mr. YEHUDA SHAUL (Israeli Army Veteran): You get a sense at this time some people and some high commanders felt that this time they can really, you know, cross lines that before weren't crossed.
WESTERVELT: Yehuda Shaul, an Israeli army veteran, has interviewed more than 20 soldiers who fought in the recent Gaza war. He's director of a veterans group called Breaking the Silence. Shaul says testimony he has taken is remarkably similar to what was recently leaked to the Hebrew papers.
Mr. SHAUL: Some soldiers from some units who led this operation in the front, basically when they received the briefing, it was - guys, we're entering in, everything that moves, everything that is a threat, everything you are afraid of, you shoot.
WESTERVELT: Shaul says some of the soldiers he's interviewed also say they destroyed civilian property and homes, actions that seemed to have little or no tactical purpose or necessity. Some soldiers, he says, called it gratuitous and stupid.
Soldiers interviewed by the Military Institute and Breaking the Silence also allege the army's chief rabbi used an inflammatory religious and nationalist rhetoric to encourage soldiers to see the Gaza attack as a sacred fight to expel non-Jews from Jewish land.
The rabbi's office passed out booklets during the war that among other things urged soldiers not to show mercy to the enemy. The army's chief rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Ronsky, is from Itamar, a West Banks settlement with a history of right-wing activism. Former soldier Yehuda Shaul says the picture that emerges is of a chief military rabbi promoting the fight in Gaza as a holy war.
Mr. SHAUL: It's more than a holy war. You know, there was testimony of one of the guys who came to us - he's a religious reservist who, you know, there's a rabbi who approached him; he spoke in the terms of the forces of light against the forces of darkness, a very religious and messianic language, you know. Of course it's disturbing.
WESTERVELT: The Israeli army says some in the chief rabbi's office have been reprimanded for the booklets. Overall the army calls the misconduct allegations anecdotal and uncorroborated.
Major AVITAL LEIBOVICH (Israeli Army Spokeswoman): As far as we're concerned, these are hearsay unless our investigation will prove otherwise.
WESTERVELT: Israeli Army spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovich says operation Cast Lead, as the army called it, was a complex attack in a packed urban area where the enemy, Hamas, hid among civilians. She argues the Israeli army took extraordinary steps to try to warn Gaza civilians to stay out of harm's way, even if it meant relinquishing the element of surprise.
Major LEIBOVICH: Hundreds of thousands of leaflets, nearly a million phone calls were made to different homes, and you know, when you call a person and you tell him that in the next 48 hours you will be reaching his neighborhood, then you are actually giving away your plans. Show me another army that makes so many phone calls.
Mr. FRED ABRAHAMS (Human Rights Watch): What good is a warning when people cannot leave the combat zone? People in Gaza had no place to go.
WESTERVELT: That's Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch. A report out today by the group alleges the Israeli army illegally and recklessly fired white phosphorus artillery shells over civilian areas of Gaza, killing and wounding non-combatants.
Mr. ABRAHAMS: For us the evidence points to war crimes.
WESTERVELT: Army spokeswoman Leibovich vehemently denies the charges by Human Rights Watch, but says the army is conducting an internal probe into the use of white phosphorus.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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