By Ethan Bronner, New York Times, March 20, 2009
JERUSALEM — In the two months since Israel ended its military assault on Gaza, Palestinians and international rights groups have accused it of excessive force and wanton killing in that operation, but the Israeli military has said it followed high ethical standards and took great care to avoid civilian casualties.
Now testimony is emerging from within the ranks of soldiers and officers alleging a permissive attitude toward the killing of civilians and reckless destruction of property that is sure to inflame the domestic and international debate about the army’s conduct in Gaza. On Thursday, the military’s chief advocate general ordered an investigation into a soldier’s account of a sniper killing a woman and her two children who walked too close to a designated no-go area by mistake, and another account of a sharpshooter who killed an elderly woman who came within 100 yards of a commandeered house.
When asked why that elderly woman was killed, a squad commander was quoted as saying: “What’s great about Gaza — you see a person on a path, he doesn’t have to be armed, you can simply shoot him. In our case it was an old woman on whom I did not see any weapon when I looked. The order was to take down the person, this woman, the minute you see her. There are always warnings, there is always the saying, ‘Maybe he’s a terrorist.’ What I felt was, there was a lot of thirst for blood.”
The testimonies by soldiers, leaked to the newspapers Maariv and Haaretz, appeared in a journal published by a military preparatory course at the Oranim Academic College in the northern town of Tivon. The academy’s director, Dany Zamir, told Israel Radio, “Those were very harsh testimonies about unjustified shooting of civilians and destruction of property that conveyed an atmosphere in which one feels entitled to use unrestricted force against Palestinians.” The revelations caused an immediate uproar here, with some soldiers and reservists saying they did not recognize the stories being told as accurate.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that he believed such incidents to be exceptions, adding, “The Israeli Army is the most moral in the world, and I know what I’m talking about because I know what took place in the former Yugoslavia, in Iraq.”
On Friday, Haaretz published much more extensive, although not complete, excerpts from the soldiers’ testimonies. It said the names of the soldiers had been changed and that some details regarding the units involved had been left out.
The lengthier accounts showed something of a religious and cultural divide between the witnesses who spoke and the soldiers whose actions they were describing and criticizing. One complained that the soldiers were being fed religious propaganda by the army’s rabbi and that they thought they were waging a holy war. "The whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war," a soldier who was called Ram was quoted as saying.