During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed their property, say soldiers who fought in the offensive.

The soldiers are graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course at Oranim Academic College in Tivon. Some of their statements made on Feb. 13 will appear today and tomorrow in Haaretz. Dozens of graduates of the course who took part in the discussion fought in the Gaza operation.

The speakers included combat pilots and infantry soldiers. Their testimony runs counter to the Israel Defense Forces' claims that Israeli troops observed a high level of moral behavior during the operation. The session's transcript was published this week in the newsletter for the course's graduates.

The testimonies include a description by an infantry squad leader of an incident where an IDF sharpshooter mistakenly shot a Palestinian mother and her two children. "There was a house with a family inside .... We put them in a room. Later we left the house and another platoon entered it, and a few days after that there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sniper position on the roof," the soldier said.

"The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One mother and her two children didn't understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go and it was okay, and he should hold his fire and he ... he did what he was supposed to, like he was following his orders."

According to the squad leader: "The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him, closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away. In any case, what happened is that in the end he killed them.

"I don't think he felt too bad about it, because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to ... I don't know how to describe it .... The lives of Palestinians, let's say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way," he said.

Another squad leader from the same brigade told of an incident where the company commander ordered that an elderly Palestinian woman be shot and killed; she was walking on a road about 100 meters from a house the company had commandeered.

The squad leader said he argued with his commander over the permissive rules of engagement that allowed the clearing out of houses by shooting without warning the residents beforehand. After the orders were changed, the squad leader's soldiers complained that "we should kill everyone there [in the center of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist."

The squad leader said: "You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won't say anything. To write 'death to the Arabs' on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing: To understand how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It's what I'll remember the most."

The head of the pe-military course, Danny Zamir, told Haaretz yesterday that he did not know in advance what the soldiers would say at the gathering, and what they said "shocked us." He said that after hearing the soldiers, he told IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi about his fears of a serious moral failure in the IDF.

The chief of staff's bureau requested a copy of the transcript of the discussion, and Zamir provided it. This week Zamir met with the IDF's chief education officer, Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister, to discuss the matter. Zamir said he believed the army would take the matter seriously. "They do not intend to avoid responsibility," he said.

The IDF Spokesman's Office said: "As a result of the request of the head of the Rabin pre-military course, Mr. Danny Zamir, to the chief of staff's bureau, a meeting was held between Zamir and the chief education officer, Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister. The chief education officer described to the head of the preparatory course the processes of the operational and ethical inquiries being conducted by the IDF and the chief education officer's staff at all levels."

The chief education officer also described "the actions taken before during and after the operation to inculcate the soldiers and commanders with the moral aspects of the fighting."

The spokesman said that "Brig. Gen. Shermeister also made it clear that the IDF is now conducting intensive and comprehensive inquiries, and that commanders are encouraging discussion of these matters. The IDF has no supporting or prior information about these events. The IDF will check their veracity and investigate as required. The head of the preparatory course was also asked to pass on to the IDF any information he has so we can deal with it and investigate it in depth."