JERUSALEM — The Israeli army's chief prosecutor on Thursday announced an investigation into the killings of Palestinian civilians during Israel's military incursion into Gaza earlier this year as soldiers' testimony about the operation triggered a public furor.
The soldiers' accounts, carried by two major Israeli newspapers on Thursday, cast doubt on repeated statements by the Israel Defense Force that it had taken every effort to spare the lives of civilians during the 23-day operation.
In one instance, an Israeli sharpshooter killed a Palestinian woman and her two children when they inadvertently took a wrong turn after being released from detention in their own home, Haaretz and Maariv reported, quoting a soldier who'd fought in Gaza.
"The platoon commander let the family go, and told them to go to the right. The mother and the two children didn't understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof that they had let them go . . . " said an infantry squad leader, whom the papers didn't identify by name or unit in their Thursday editions.
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"The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away."
The soldier was one of a number who testified on the Gaza operation at a conference on Feb. 13 at the Yitzhak Rabin military academy at Oranim Academic College. The head of the school, Danny Zamir, told Israeli radio that he was shocked by the findings and reported them to the army, which had requested copies of the transcripts.
Haaretz also quoted another unnamed squad leader as reporting that a company commander had ordered troops to shoot and kill an elderly woman who was walking on a road about 100 yards from a house the company had taken over.
A military spokesman, who asked not to be identified by name because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, told McClatchy that "very few" of those speaking at the conference had actually fought in Gaza.
In its terse announcement Thursday, the IDF said Chief Advocate General, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit had ordered the Criminal Investigation Division of the IDF Military Police to "investigate the claims made regarding alleged actions of soldiers during Operation Cast Lead," the name Israel gave the operation. The IDF said that Mendelblit ordered the investigation after receiving the transcripts Thursday morning.
Until now, the IDF hasn't indicated it was actively pursuing allegations of potential war crimes by Israeli forces in Gaza.
McClatchy's Dion Nissenbaum reported on Jan. 27 that Israeli troops had killed two young girls who were carrying white flags as they tried to escape their home in Ezbt Abed Rabbo, a Gaza neighborhood overlooking the border with Israel shortly after Israeli ground forces moved in on Jan. 3.
Nissenbaum reported on Feb. 2 that Israeli troops forced a Palestinian at gunpoint to walk through a battle zone to see whether militants targeted by Israel were dead or alive. McClatchy informed the IDF of the allegations contained in its stories prior to publication, and the IDF responded that it was investigating "a variety of allegations."
A coalition of Israeli human rights groups Thursday urged Attorney General Menahem Mazuz to establish an independent investigation into Israeli actions in Gaza. "Such an investigation is critical following the revelation of soldier testimonies concerning the killing of innocent Palestinians revealed this morning in Haaretz," the group said, noting that the testimony parallels accounts given by Palestinians.
Israeli forces launched the campaign in Gaza on Dec. 27, with the stated aim of ending rocket fire by Gaza militants into southern Israel. Some 1,400 Palestinians died, many of them civilians, in the course of the air campaign, and the ground incursion that followed — and rocket fire resumed after Israeli force departed.
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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