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Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday welcomed the military advocate general's decision to discontinue the inquiry into soldiers' accounts of alleged misconduct and serious violations of the army's rules of engagement during Operation Cast Lead.

"I was very happy to learn about the military advocate general's report, in which he addresses the extensive rumors that have considerably damaged the IDF's image both at home and abroad," Barak said during a tour of the Northern Command.

In a press release issued Monday the army said that Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit instructed the Military Police Investigation unit to close the case after a preliminary investigation into the testimonies revealed that they "were based on hearsay and not first-hand experience."

"There is no other army in the world that is as introspective as the IDF, that scrutinizes its conduct in such a genuine and serious way after an operation," Barak continued. "I'm happy these as the results [of the investigation], and that once again our claim that the IDF is the most moral army in the world ? top commanders and low-ranking soldiers alike ? has proved truthful."

On Monday, Brig. Gen. Mendelblit said it was unfortunate that the soldiers, who discussed their Gaza experiences in private on Feb. 13 at a military academy session which was later leaked verbatim to the media, had been careless about accuracy.

"It will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals [of the armed forces] in Israel and the world", his statement said

The probe was launched earlier this month after IDF soldiers were quoted as telling a military cadet academy that combat troops in Gaza fired at unarmed Palestinian civilians and vandalized property during Operation Cast Lead. The army has barred those soldiers from speaking to the press. The allegations first surfaced in the media on March 19.

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.

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.

IDF investigators said the soldier who alleged that a comrade was given orders to shoot an elderly woman had not witnessed such an event and "was only repeating a rumor he had heard". They noted, on the other hand, that a woman who approached troops and was suspected of being a suicide bomber had been fired upon repeatedly to try to stop her advancing at them.

The Israeli human rights groups B'Tselem, Yesh Din, Physicians for Human Rights and others issued a statement Monday saying "the speedy closing of the investigation immediately raises suspicions that [it] was merely the army's attempt to wipe its hands of all blame for illegal activity..."

The groups said the allegations should be investigated by a non-partisan body.