By Tim Butcher
Israeli soldiers were guilty of serious abuses against Palestinian civilians after their rules of engagement were loosened during the recent Gaza offensive, according to soldiers who took part.
Speaking anonymously to Breaking The Silence, a long-established Israeli human rights group focusing on the behaviour of the armed forces, 26 soldiers listed a series of abuses committed during Operation Cast Lead.
Instead of being told to make sure that any human target was a genuine threat, soldiers said their officers ordered them at times to shoot whenever they felt threatened.
Civilians were also used as human shields by Israeli soldiers, who would force them at gunpoint to provide cover even though there was a risk of being hit in crossfire.
And large numbers of Palestinian houses, factories and other properties were deliberately destroyed without any direct military justification.
The accusations were consistent with the findings of journalists inside Gaza after Israel finally let them in after barring normal access during the three-week offensive which opened on Dec 27.
They echoed the findings of other human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which found the behaviour of the Israeli army fell below international standards for combat.
More than a hundred Palestinians died for each of the 13 Israelis killed during the offensive, which was designed to stop constant rocket fire from inside Gaza at the towns of southern Israel and to close off resupply tunnels into the territory from Egypt.
Most of the Palestinian deaths were civilians. “We were told soldiers were to be secured by firepower,” one of the troops is quoted as saying by Breaking The Silence.
“The soldiers were made to understand that their lives were the most important, and that there was no way our soldiers would get killed for the sake of leaving civilians the benefit of the doubt.”
The army added would investigate all accusations of breaches in the rules of warfare, although critics say it has organised “cover-ups” in the past.