JERUSALEM — Israeli combat soldiers have acknowledged that they forced Palestinian civilians to serve as human shields, needlessly killed unarmed Gazans and improperly used white phosphorus shells to burn down buildings as part of Israel's three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip last winter.
In filmed testimony and written statements released Wednesday, more than two dozen soldiers told an Israeli army veterans' group that military commanders led the fighters into what one described as a "moral Twilight Zone" where almost every Palestinian was seen as a threat.
Soldiers described incidents in which Israeli forces killed an unarmed Palestinian carrying a white cloth, an elderly woman carrying a sack, a Gazan riding a motorcycle, and an elderly man with a flashlight, said Breaking the Silence, a group formed by army reservists in 2004.
Any Palestinian spotted near Israeli troops was considered suspect. A man talking on a cell phone on the roof of his building was viewed as a legitimate target because he could've been telling militants where to find Israeli forces, the group quoted soldiers as saying.
"In urban warfare, everyone is your enemy," said one soldier. "No innocents."
The 110-pages of testimony — along with 16 video clips — of interviews with 26 unnamed Israeli soldiers offers the most comprehensive look inside a military campaign that's become the subject of an unfolding United Nations war crimes investigation.
The Israel Defense Forces dismissed the report.
IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said Tuesday that the IDF now is conducting dozens of investigations into troop conduct during the Gaza operation and that more than a dozen cases led to police investigations.
In April, the IDF announced it had concluded five high-level investigations, including one into the use of phosphorus to burn down buildings, and cleared itself.
Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, said the report didn't identify the soldiers by name because at least half the men quoted were young conscripts who could be jailed for speaking to the media. He agreed, however, to name the units and where they were operating in several instances.
Two soldiers from the Givati brigade who served in Zeitoun told the story of shooting an unarmed civilian without warning him.
The elderly man was walking with a flashlight toward a building where Israeli forces were taking cover.
The Israeli officer in the house repeatedly ignored requests from other soldiers to fire warning shots as the man approached, the soldiers said. Instead, when he got within 20 yards of the soldiers, the commander ordered snipers to kill the man.
The soldiers later confirmed that the man was unarmed.
When they complained to their commander about the incident, the soldiers were rebuffed and told that anyone walking at night was immediately suspect.
Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights attorney who reviewed the testimony, said the stories reflected a "dramatic change in the ethos" of the Israeli military that portrays itself as the most moral army in the world.
"What we are seeing now is a deterioration of our moral values and red lines," Sfard said. "This is a dramatic change in heart and values."
Israel launched the 22-day military offensive on Dec. 27 in a bid to destabilize the Hamas-led government and deter Palestinian militants who've fired thousands of crude rockets and mortars at southern Israel that have killed 12 people in the past four years.
Nine Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza during the fighting, four of them by friendly fire.
By contrast, Palestinian human rights groups and Gaza medical officials said that 1,400 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, were killed by Israeli forces. The Israeli military has questioned that figure, but hasn't made its own analysis available for review.
Breaking the Silence identified other specific instances in which Israeli forces carried out highly questionable practices.
According to the soldiers, the Israeli military fired white phosphorus mortars and artillery shells to set suspicious buildings ablaze and destroyed scores of Palestinian homes for questionable reasons. The white phosphorus supplied by the U.S. is supposed to be used to illuminate targets or provide smoke cover for advancing troops.
"Phosphorus was used as an igniter, simply make it all go up in flames," one soldier said.
A second soldier — said by the reservists' group to have been in a tank brigade stationed in the Atatra neighborhood — told Breaking the Silence that at least one officer fired unauthorized white phosphorus mortars because it was "cool."
The use of white phosphorus to destroy buildings was part of a larger campaign to demolish parts of Gaza to make it more difficult for Palestinian militants to fire rockets at Israel, the soldiers said.
One soldier, who served in an infantry reserve unit of the Negev Brigade near Netzarim, said they were repeatedly told by officers to raze buildings as part of a campaign to prepare for "the day after."
"In practical terms, this meant taking a house that is not implicated in any way, that its single sin is the fact that it is situated on top of a hill in the Gaza Strip," said one soldier.
"In a personal talk with my battalion commander he mentioned this and said in a sort of sad half-smile, I think, that this is something that will eventually be added to 'my war crimes," he added.
In the Ezbt Abd Rabbo neighborhood, Israeli combatants said they forced Palestinians to search homes for militants and enter buildings ahead of soldiers in direct violation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that bars fighters from using civilians as human shields.
"Sometimes a force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian's shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield," said one Israeli soldier with the Golani Brigade. "Commanders said these were the instructions, and we had to do it."
Each Palestinian forced to work with the Israeli military was given the same nickname: Johnnie.
The story was confirmed by four other Israeli soldiers who seized control of the Gaza neighborhood, but declined to speak on the record, Shaul said.
The testimony matches with that of nine Palestinian men who told McClatchy last winter that Israeli soldiers forced them into battle zones during the offensive in their northern Gaza Strip neighborhood.
One Palestinian, Castro Abed Rabbo, said Israeli soldiers ordered him to enter buildings to search for militants and booby traps before they sent in a specially trained dog with high-tech detection gear.
Two other Palestinian men told McClatchy that Israeli soldiers used them as human shields by forcing them to kneel in a field during a firefight as they exchanged fire with Gaza fighters.
"I was down on my knees and they fanned out in a 'V' behind me," Sami Rashid Mohammed, a Fatah-leaning former Palestinian Authority police officer, said in an unpublished interview in February. "It wasn't more than 10 or 15 minutes of shooting, but it was so scary."
One of the Israeli soldiers interviewed described the offensive was necessary.
"We did what we had to do," he said. "The actual doing was a bit thoughtless. We were allowed to do anything we wanted. Who's to tell us not to?"
One Israeli reservist said a brigade commander gave them stark orders as they were preparing for combat.
"He said something along the line of 'Don't let morality become an issue; that will come later,'" the soldier said. "He had this strange language: 'Leave the nightmares and horrors that will come up for later — now just shoot."
"You felt like a child playing around with a magnifying glass, burning up ants," another Israeli soldier said. "A 20-year-old kid should not be doing such things to people. . . . the guys were running a 'Wild West' scene: draw, cock, kill."
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this article from Jerusalem.)
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