Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday criticized an Israeli human rights organization for publishing an Israel Defense Forces soldier's testimony that troops used Palestinians as human shields during Operation Cast Lead last January, despite a 2005 High Court ruling outlawing the practice.
"Public criticism of the IDF is inappropriate," Barak said. "Any criticism, information or reservations about the army's conduct should be addressed to me as the Defense Minister of the State of Israel and to the Israeli government which instructed the IDF to reinstate peace and security in southern Israel."
The testimony of the Golani brigade soldier appears this week a collection of accounts published by Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects IDF soldiers' testimony on human rights abuses by the military. The Golani soldier gave similar testimony in a meeting with a Haaretz reporter.
The soldier says his unit employed a variation of the practice, the so-called "neighbor procedure," when it checked homes for Palestinian militants. He says he did not see Palestinians being used as human shields but was told by his commanders that this occurred.
The IDF Spokesman's Office, for its part, says that "the IDF regrets the fact that a human rights organization would again present to the country and the world a report containing anonymous, generalized testimony without checking the details or their reliability, and without giving the IDF, as a matter of minimal fairness, the opportunity to check the matters and respond to them before publication."
The soldier's allegations relate to IDF conduct during fighting in the eastern part of Gaza City. The soldier, a staff sergeant, says that in his unit and others, Palestinians were often sent into houses to determine if there was anyone inside.
"The practice was not to call it 'the neighbor procedure.' Instead it was called 'Johnny,'" the soldier said, using IDF slang for Palestinian civilians. The IDF employed this practice extensively during the second intifada, before it was outlawed by the High Court of Justice in 2005.
At every home, the soldier said, if there were armed occupants, the house was besieged, with the goal of getting the militants out of the building alive. The soldier said he was present at several such operations.
In an incident his commanders told him about, three armed militants were in a house. Attack helicopters were brought in. "They ... again sent the [Palestinian] neighbor in. At first he said that nothing had happened [to the armed men]," the soldier said.
"Again they brought in attack helicopters and fired. They again sent in the neighbor. He said there were two dead and one still alive. They then brought in a bulldozer and began to knock the house down on him until [the neighbor] entered." The soldier said he had been told that the only militant remaining alive was captured and turned over to the Shin Bet security service.
The Golani soldier also testified that his commanders reported incidents in which Palestinians were given sledgehammers to break through walls to let the army enter through the side of houses. The army feared that the doors were booby-trapped.
The soldier added, however, that although the unit commander justified the use of the so-called Johnny procedure, the commander said he was not aware that sledgehammers had been given to civilians or that weapons were pointed at civilians. The commander said the allegations would be looked into.
The soldier said he had heard of other instances in which Palestinian civilians were used as human shields. One time, for example, a Palestinian was put at the front of an IDF force with a gun pointed at him from behind. But the soldier said he had not seen this himself.
The IDF Spokesman's Office said in a statement that on initial consideration, a few of the allegations appear to be similar to allegations published several months ago after a lecture by officers to cadets at a pre-military academy.
"Now, too," the spokesman said, "a considerable portion of the testimony is based on rumors and secondhand accounts. Most of the incidents relate to anonymous testimony lacking in identifying details, and accordingly it is not possible to check the allegations on an individual basis in a way that would enable an investigation, confirmation or refutation."
The spokesman said the Breaking the Silence report suggests that the organization might not be interested in a reliable comprehensive examination of the allegations, "and to our regret this is not the first time the organization has taken this course of action. The IDF is obligated to examine every well-founded complaint it receives."
The spokesman also noted that allegations by Breaking the Silence containing specifics would be investigated.
"The IDF expects that every soldier and commander who suspects there was a witness to a violation of orders or procedures, and especially with respect to violations causing injury to noncombatants, will bring all of the details to the attention of authorized parties," the spokesman said.
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