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Seventy years after the outbreak of World War II, are German soldiers allowed to kill innocent civilians? This loaded question has been keeping one man awake nights - the new German defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. The young minister, all of 38, is in the middle of a knotty military, political and legal imbroglio that forced his predecessor and the German chief of staff to resign. Now it is threatening Chancellor Angela Merkel's government.

In Israel, it has been necessary to deal with these questions, nearly on a daily basis, for the past decade. What is the difference between war and guerrilla warfare? How do you distinguish between civilians and terror activists? Is it permissible to kill armed men? Or to bomb terror targets from the air if civilians will get hurt? And to what extent is the defense minister responsible for the army's failures?

The affair began months ago, on the night between September 3 and September 4. The commander of the German forces in Afghanistan, Col. Georg Klein, received reports that Taliban forces had positioned two stolen oil tankers a few kilometers from German soldiers. Klein, who feared the Taliban would blow up the tankers close to his men, decided on a quick response. At 1:49 A.M. he contacted his American army colleagues, instructing them to scramble two F-16s immediately and bomb the tankers. Two bombs, 227 kg. each, were dropped, and they destroyed the target entirely.

As happens in aerial strikes, civilians were hit. There is disagreement as to the precise number of Afghan dead, but most reports say about 140, including scores of civilians. These were Afghani civilians who were killed - some say "slaughtered" - in an attack from the air, on the command of the German army.

There is one thing on which all agree: This was the most deadly action involving the German army since World War II. At this point, the whitewash began. A war of versions broke out among the top military brass. The previous defense minister, Franz Josef Jung, claimed initially that no civilians had been harmed in the attack, only Taliban activists. Two months later, at the beginning of November, the new defense minister, zu Guttenberg, stood up for his predecessor and said the bombing was justified.

However, at the end of November, the picture changed after the big circulation daily Bild printed on its front page video pictures and an internal report proving the German army had long known that innocent civilians were killed - but had not bothered to reveal the fact.

Zu Guttenberg hastened to react and dismissed the German chief of staff and another top Defense Ministry official on the grounds they had kept from him information about the attack, including the number of fatalities. Next in line to pay a personal price was the former defense minister, Jung, who had been appointed minister of labor in the new Merkel government. He resigned after assuming responsibility for "a failure in the transmission of information" in the affair.

At the beginning of this month zu Guttenberg, revised his stance. A month after claiming the attack had been justified, he declared "it had not been militarily appropriate." He changed his position, he said, following ministry reports that cast new light on the attack.

The German media did not let the affair subside; further documents and reports indicated zu Guttenberg had known earlier that many civilians had been killed. In response the minister said he had been given contradictory figures and there were lacunae in the information so he did not have a full picture of the attack.

At the beginning of this month, the German media revealed documents from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the German army and the Red Cross; from the outset the bombardment was aimed not only at thwarting a possible attack on German soldiers, but also - in the words of the source - to slaughter Taliban activists. Slaughter - a term also applied to the Nazis' crimes - does not sound good in any country, and especially not in Germany.

Moreover, one report said the German army had requested - in vain - that the American planes use bigger bombs, which apparently would have caused many more casualties.

Extracts from the NATO investigation report in Der Spiegel are also causing considerable consternation in the German army. "It is hard to understand why the commander of the German forces focused on the Taliban and not only on the stolen oil tankers, which clearly posed the greatest threat to the soldiers," stated the report. The document describes how the American fighter pilots radioed they had identified a large group of people close to the oil tankers. The German commander told the pilots time was running out and demanded they bomb the target quickly. To dispel any doubt, the pilots asked: "Should we hit the tankers or the people?" You should kill the people, replied the commander.

Did the German commander deviate from his brief here? The full answer will have to be given soon by the Bundestag commission of inquiry that just began its work. In the coming weeks, the Defense Ministry will have to define the German army's mission in Afghanistan more clearly. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry will continue its talks with organizations in Afghanistan on monetary compensation for the families of causalities from the attack.

As defined by NATO, the German army's mission is "maintaining security" in Afghanistan, using "all necessary means" to do so. Until April, the German army observed an ironclad rule: Only if its soldiers were under attack or in imminent danger of attack was it allowed to shoot to kill.

However, the worsening fighting in northern Afghanistan has changed the rules of the game for the German soldiers. As the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung revealed, since April, the German army has allowed it soldiers "to prevent terror attacks" by targeting "people who are planning, preparing or abetting attacks or evincing hostile behavior."

Until the affair broke, zu Guttenberg was the rising star in the German political firmament. Young and charismatic, he was perceived as representing a different politics - direct, reliable and clean. He's tremendously popular, in part thanks to what the media describe as his "sex appeal." Nothing, it seemed, would thwart him from becoming chancellor of Germany.

Perhaps zu Guttenberg should have acted more cautiously; recent opinion polls show that 70 percent of the Germans are opposed to their army's participation in the NATO forces in Afghanistan. To his credit, he was the first cabinet minister in Germany who dared to call the situation in Afghanistan a "war" and to hold a mirror up to the German people that is uncomfortable for many of them.

It has been made clear to the citizens of Germany that for the first time since World War II, their army is participating in a real, daily war, one that is exacting victims and in which crimes are perhaps being committed - for which the price must now be paid.