IDF to Probe Troops' Testimony on Civilian Deaths During Gaza War

The military advocate general ordered the Israel Defense Forces yesterday to launch two official inquiries into soldiers' testimonies of alleged misconduct and serious violations of rules of engagement during Operation Cast Lead.

Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit instructed the Military Police's investigation unit to open the probes after graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course said they had witnessed troops firing at unarmed civilians and vandalizing property during the Gaza fighting.

In response to the expose - published yesterday in Haaretz, the full version of which appears in today's Week's End section - Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he "is sure the IDF will examine the matter with all seriousness."

"We have the most moral army in the world," Barak told Israel Radio. "I spent dozens of years in uniform, I know what happened in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and I say to you that from the chief of staff down to the last soldier, the most moral army in the world stands ready to take orders from the government of Israel. I have no doubt that every incident will be individually examined."

This is the first time Mendelblit has ordered a criminal inquiry to be opened. The unusual step was taken in light of the allegations including two specific incidents in which civilians were killed in clear violation of the rules of engagement.

The incidents in question were described by squad leaders in the Givati Brigade. One of them involved an IDF sharpshooter mistakenly shooting a Palestinian mother and her two children. In another, a company commander ordered an elderly Palestinian woman to be shot and killed.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir told Haaretz yesterday: "The testimonies are grave and disconcerting. I hope an in-depth, transparent investigation is opened immediately. These are accounts that pull the rug up from underneath our values."

According to Hadash chairman Mohammed Barakeh: "These testimonies make Barak indictable for war crimes, and disqualify him for another term as defense minister. The political and military establishments must be indicted for war crimes."

MK Aryeh Eldad of the right-wing National Union party said: "The Israeli left and the Arabs are apparently unable to tolerate a war in which it is almost entirely Arabs who are killed, and they clearly prefer a situation in which Be'er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod are fired on and IDF soldiers are killed."

Danny Zamir, the head of the pre-military course, said he would refuse to give the army the names of the soldiers who spoke of their combat experiences.

"We will continue supporting our people. I gave the chief of staff the relevant materials, and we will assist the army in any way we can. But I haven't given names, nor do I intend to," he said. "I believe an internal IDF investigation must focus on the problems with the army's standards, and not on the people who carried out the acts."