ANALYSIS Probe Into Gaza Op Allegations Comes Too Late

It is disappointing, if not surprising, to see the enthusiasm with which major news outlets adopt IDF claims.

One important development has already come from Haaretz's publication Thursday of soldiers' accounts of their Operation Cast Lead experiences. Military Advocate General Avihai Mandelblitt ordered two military police investigations into comments by Givati squad leaders at their alma mater pre-military academy about incidents in which they said Palestinian civilians were killed. Until now, the army has sufficed with operation probes and completely avoided any criminal proceedings.

Meanwhile, and as efficiently, the IDF took another measure: a hasty discredit campaign against the testimony and motives of academy chief Danny Zamir. By Thursday afternoon, the media had been told off the record that: 1. Zamir is a well-known territories-service refusenik (Partly true - he did refuse to serve in 1990, which did not interfere with his advancement in the reserves or position as head of the pre-military academy committee). 2. The texts indicate Zamir "guides" his pupils to release incriminating testimony (Problematic. The minutes of the discussion indicated that the soldiers reported their experiences willingly, although they are not proud of them). 3. Zamir hid the minutes from the IDF, but hastened to release them to the press.

This claim is, pardon me, nonsense, and the army backed off it in the evening hours. E-mail exchanges between Zamir and the chief of staff's office indicate that Zamir first notified the chief of staff on February 23. On March 5, he sent the minutes to an Ashkenazi staff member who had requested them. Unless the chief of staff's office has trouble opening "Word" files (and knowing Colonel Erez Weiner, this is unlikely), the army has known about the testimonies for two weeks.

The timeline raises another troubling question: Why wasn't the information transmitted immediately to the military advocate general? Funny that only media reports engendered actual action.

And now comes the most interesting claim: By the afternoon, the army could report that the investigation into the testimony regarding the shooting of a mother and two children had reached preliminary conclusions. Givati brigade commander Ilan Malkha summoned the squad leader who recounted the story, who admitted he had relied solely on rumors in the company. The soldier, needless to say, was not sent forth to offer his corrected version to the press.

One of the most important jobs of public relations experts is damage control in the event of an image crisis. It is still impressive to see the energy invested in that Thurday, but it is disappointing - if not surprising - to see the enthusiasm with which major news outlets adopted IDF claims, either because the information was reported by the competition or because the testimony doesn't fit the way "our IDF" is supposed to act.

The whole thing was accompanied by an intensive witch hunt for the sources, and an intimidation campaign against Oranim military prep graduates (the lefty Zamir has educated many decorated company commanders in the past decade).

But the story became the talk of the day in combat units. Officers who spoke with Haaretz consider the testimonies they read very credible. Others noted it is no coincidence that certain units (Givati and Golani) seem more prone to such suspicions than others (paratroops).

The speed with which the IDF opened investigations is praiseworthy. The investigations should focus on the credibility of the descriptions and the quality of senior officers' oversight of field operations.

In 2004, four years into the second intifada, two pessimistic predictions were published regarding the uprising's long-term implications. "I am certainly worried," said the first speaker. "Clearly, we are paying a price for this war. The officer's job is to protect the soldiers from their instincts, and explain to them the proper rules of behavior. Our problem is that the soldiers do not consider the problems while they are in uniform."

The second speaker shared his worry. "My greatest worry," he said, "is the loss of humanity due to the prolonged warfare."

The speakers? These are not two enemy-of-the-state journalists. The first speaker was then Chief of Staff (and current candidate for defense minister) Moshe Ya'alon. The other was his then-deputy, current Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.