JERUSALEM — After an internal investigation, the Israeli military said Wednesday that its soldiers had unintentionally killed dozens of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, but said there were no widespread abuses and declared that its soldiers never violated international law.
Innocent Palestinians were killed only as a result of "intelligence or operational errors," the Israeli investigation concluded.
"We didn't find one incident in which an Israeli soldier intentionally harmed innocent civilians," Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the Israeli military's deputy chief-of-staff, told reporters in announcing the findings.
U.S., Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups called the Israel Defense Forces investigation a cover-up and called on Israel to allow an impartial probe of the Gaza offensive.
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The military investigation examined charges that Israeli soldiers targeted civilians, killed medical crews trying to help wounded Palestinians, used white phosphorous shells in densely populated areas, needlessly demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes and attacked United Nations compounds.
After probing one of the most controversial incidents during the 22-day Israeli offensive in Gaza that began on Dec. 27, the investigation determined that soldiers accidentally targeted a Palestinian home packed with civilians and killed 21 people who were seeking refuge from the fighting.
The military said a "professional mistake" caused soldiers to target the civilians instead of a nearby house that they suspected was being used to store weapons.
In another case, the military said, soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian woman who apparently was attempting to return to her home, which Israeli forces had seized. The soldiers suspected that the woman might be a suicide bomber, but later determined that she was carrying no explosives.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the IDF statement "is an insult to the civilians in Gaza who needlessly died and an embarrassment to IDF officers who take military justice seriously." It added: "The IDF leadership is apparently not interested, willing, or able to monitor itself. We consider the IDF investigations announced today a cover-up for serious violations of international law."
According to Palestinian human rights researchers, more than 1,400 Gazans were killed during the 22-day Israeli offensive, and two-thirds of them were non-combatants.
The Israeli government has asserted, without providing supporting evidence, that many fewer civilians were killed in Gaza.
Thirteen Israelis, three of them civilians, were killed during the fighting.
The Israeli findings were released as U.N. investigators are preparing to investigate allegations that both Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, committed war crimes.
Hamas has been widely condemned for firing crude, unguided rockets at Israeli cities in violation of international law. In addition, Israel has accused Hamas of putting Palestinian civilians at risk by using homes, mosques, hospitals and apartment buildings as military compounds.
While Israel said its operation was intended to stop Gaza militants from launching the rockets, the offensive generated global condemnation.
Norway's chief prosecutors said Wednesday that they'd review a request from a group of attorneys to investigate Israel's top leaders for war crimes.
A special U.N. team, led by veteran South African war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, is preparing to investigate war crimes allegations in Gaza. Israeli media have reported that Israeli leaders won't cooperate with the U.N. investigation.
In a report released last month, Human Rights Watch accused the Israeli military of committing war crimes by firing white phosphorus shells and mortars at densely populated parts of Gaza.
However, the Israeli military reports released Wednesday challenged those conclusions.
The Israeli military admitted that a white phosphorus shell it fired set a central United Nations warehouse ablaze, but said that its soldiers were legally using the shells to create a smokescreen during fighting with Hamas militants.
During the fighting, Israeli forces hit several U.N. schools and offices.
In an apparent reference to a late-night Israeli air strike that killed three Palestinian boys who were going to the toilet while seeking refuge from the fighting in a U.N. school, the Israeli military admitted that it had targeted the school because it suspected that the boys were militants.
They said, considering the amount of fighting, the damage to U.N. buildings was "relatively limited."
Israeli investigators also examined allegations that soldiers repeatedly opened fire on medical teams and ambulances trying to help wounded Palestinians.
In all, Israeli human rights groups said, 16 Palestinian medics were killed during the fighting, and another 25 were wounded.
The Israeli report looked at seven cases and concluded that five were "Hamas operatives," though under international law, that wouldn't justify opening fire on the ambulances unless they were being used to transport fighters, arms or ammunition.
"Is it acceptable to kill an ambulance driver transferring innocent patients just because he is a member of Hamas?" said Hadas Ziv, the executive director of Israel's Physicians for Human Rights.
The Israeli military also dismissed allegations that it needlessly demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes and said it made sure that all the homes were empty before destroying them.
In one case reported by McClatchy, a Palestinian man said his critically wounded wife was crushed when Israeli soldiers brought down their building on top of her.
The Israeli military findings didn't address reports by McClatchy and others that Israeli soldiers opened fire on Palestinian civilians waving white flags and used Palestinian civilians as human shields.
The Israeli military said it's still looking into other allegations.