ALONG THE ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER — When Israeli soldiers saw a suspected suicide bomber riding a bike towards them, they moved quickly. As the man ducked into a building for safety, Israeli soldiers said they used a bulldozer to bring the walls down on top of him.
When armed Palestinians popped out of a tunnel and tried to attack, Israeli troops said they used tank fire and a bulldozer to decimate the militants.
In fight after fight and neighborhood after neighborhood, Israeli soldiers are bringing more aggressive tactics to the Gaza Strip battlefields.
In interviews earlier in the week with embedded pool reporters and Wednesday with a McClatchy reporter along the Gaza Strip border, Israeli troops said a freer military hand has given them a decisive edge over outgunned Palestinian militants in the 19-day-old conflict. They also said they were surprised by the relatively light resistance from Hamas fighters.
From the hospital beds in southern Israel to an artillery unit along the Gaza border, nearly a dozen soldiers told McClatchy that Israel had to deliver an unprecedented blow to ensure that Hamas militants don't resume their rocket attacks when the fighting ends.
"You can't be lenient," said O., a 29-year-old Israeli reservist who declined to give his full name because soldiers can be disciplined for talking to reporters without explicit permission. "We're using a lot more firepower, and the orders for engagement are less strict."
One significant change this time is that Israeli soldiers don't have to go as far up the chain-of-command before opening fire, said O.
The Israeli military declined to comment on what battlefield rules it has given to soldiers. Whatever the case, Israel's military strategy has succeeded so far in keeping Israeli deaths to a minimum. So far, nine Israeli soldiers have died fighting in Gaza, and four of them were victims of friendly fire.
"We came in very strong," said Yehuda, a battalion commander with Israel's Givati infantry regiment. "Our doctrine is to take over our assigned positions, purging any resistance and then fanning out as required, repeating the process."
Israel's rules of engagement may be protecting its own soldiers, but they're exacting a high price from Gaza civilians.
Nine Israeli human-rights groups called on Wednesday for a war crimes investigation into what they called the Israeli military's "wanton use of lethal force" against Palestinian civilians and widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure.
In 19 days, Israel has killed more Palestinians than in any single year this decade. More than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli attacks, according to the Gaza health ministry, nearly 40 percent of them women and children. Even at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, Israeli soldiers never killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in an entire year.
Marc Garlasco, the senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch, said the Israeli military strategy was "far more aggressive" than ever.
"Israel holds itself up as the most moral military in the world," said Garlasco, who's a former senior Pentagon intelligence analyst. "The test they put for themselves is if they are going to follow the Geneva Conventions to the letter of the law and make sure that civilians are spared from unnecessary harm."
Israeli soldiers said the military is doing more than most armies to protect civilians. The Israeli military said it has placed thousands of calls to Palestinians to warn them that their homes, buildings or neighborhoods were going to be bombed. And the military has dropped thousands of flyers carrying similar warnings for Gaza residents.
"I don't want to kill women and kids, but I want my family to be safe," said a 20-year-old member of an Israeli artillery unit who declined to give his name.
Most of the soldiers blamed Hamas for staging attacks from crowded Gaza neighborhoods, a strategy that Israeli soldiers said had forced them to make difficult choices.
"With all the regret over the harm to innocent people, I'm not prepared for a soldier of mine to get killed because of a terrorist who is hiding in a house with civilians," an unnamed Israeli officer told Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "Hamas brought this on its own civilians."
If there's been any major surprise for Israeli soldiers in Gaza, it has been the relatively weak resistance they've faced from Hamas.
For months, Israeli intelligence had warned that Hamas was using its elaborate network of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt to smuggle in advanced weapons, such as medium-range rockets and anti-aircraft missiles.
Gaza militants have fired more advanced rockets at southern Israeli cities. Soldiers said, however, that they haven't faced Hamas fighters armed with significant new weapons.
"We expected it was going to be much more difficult," said S., an Israeli army sergeant who was injured on Tuesday when he pushed open a booby trapped door while searching homes in the Gaza Strip.
Sitting on his hospital bed with a broken wrist and burns across half his face, S. said Hamas had failed in its efforts to emulate Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon who'd put up a surprisingly effective fight against Israeli forces in 2006.
"You can't compare it," he said. "Hezbollah is a much more organized army. Hamas, they usually run away."
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