Israel Defense Forces investigations into last month's offensive in the Gaza Strip indicate the army could face significant difficulties justifying the scale of destruction of civilian homes during the fighting. A military source involved in the investigation told Haaretz, "It's clear to us that in a small portion of the combat sectors immeasurable damage was caused, and that is very difficult to justify from a legal perspective, particularly if such justifications are called for in legal proceedings with international organizations."

In the course of fighting, the IDF destroyed hundreds of houses in different sectors, and Palestinian sources estimate several thousands of houses suffered damage. Some of the homes were struck as a result of aerial strikes, others during ground fighting in densely-built urban areas.

Still others were damaged by bulldozers or in controlled explosions according to the orders of battalion and brigade commanders on the ground. However, those making the decisions were often not the brigade commanders themselves, but support staff such as operational commanders.

Senior commanders attached to units operating in Gaza last month said IDF bulldozers were in high demand during the fighting, and brigade commanders often pushed for their units to be granted such vehicles.

Last week Channel 2 reported that according to estimates produced by the security establishment, about one-third of those killed during the fighting were "uninvolved civilians," a figure which Palestinian sources put much higher.

The IDF believes this is a reasonable figure given the scope of combat, and that is roughly in line with casualty figures resulting from U.S. operations in Iraq and those of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In most of the legal proceedings surrounding civilian casualties, the army intends to argue they represent "collateral damage," namely unavoidable consequences of an enemy hiding among civilian populations, or of mistakes in directing fire, such as in the well-publicized strike that claimed several members of the Abu al-Aish family in the Jabalya refugee camp.

Still, the massive destruction of houses is harder to justify in legal terms. Investigations reveal that in many instances, commanders ordered the destruction of houses obstructing a "line of sight" from an IDF position, or because commanders believed certain buildings could be used to endanger their own safety.

In other instances, houses were destroyed after explosives or Kalashnikov rifles were discovered there, even when it could have been possible to conduct a controlled explosion causing limited damage.

In dozens of instances, houses were destroyed on suspicions (which turned out to be unfounded) they concealed smuggling tunnels underneath. An official in the IDF legal apparatus said justifying such operations will be exceedingly difficult.

On other occasions, there appear to have been discrepancies in the scope of destruction between different combat sectors, apparently as the result of differences in senior officers' command methods.