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15 July 2009 

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Group of Israeli Soldiers Says Military Used Reckless Force in Gaza

15 July 2009

In this 10 Jan 2009 file photo, Palestinians react after hearing news that their mother had been killed in Israeli shelling in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip
In this 10 Jan 2009 file photo, Palestinians react after hearing news that their mother had been killed in Israeli shelling in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip
About 30 Israelis who served in Israel's offensive on militants in Gaza six months ago say the army pushed them to use reckless force against Palestinian civilians. Israeli defense officials rebuffed the accounts, saying the army operated according to the highest moral code.

Avihai Stollar is part of the non-governmental organization in Jerusalem called "Breaking the Silence," made up of former soldiers who advocate moral behavior in the Israeli military. Stollar interviewed a number of the soldiers who took part in Operation Cast Lead, Israel's 22-day offensive on Islamist militants in Gaza earlier this year. All those interviewed are unidentified.

He tells VOA the soldiers' testimonies are disturbing.

"They were continuously told that they shouldn't worry about civilians. Even when they asked, they were told by their generals, by their commanders, that this time they don't have to worry about civilians," said Stollar.

In a publication released Wednesday in Jerusalem, the group quotes one soldier as saying his unit used Palestinian residents of Gaza as human shields. He says Israeli soldiers would put rifle barrels on a person's shoulder while advancing into a house with the person in front of the soldier, acting as a shield.

The Israeli military says the Israeli army acted according to the highest moral standards.

The Israel Defense Forces accused the group of defaming and slandering the army and its commanders. It said the group did not give the military a chance to investigate the allegations before taking its findings to the media.

IDF spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibowitz says essential facts are missing from the testimonies.

"There are no dates. There are no locations mentioned. There are no ranks of the people, let alone the first letter of their names, nothing," said Leibowitz. "No factual basis and therefore we cannot investigate anything."

Leibowitz says soldiers or reservists should not fear retribution for coming forward with their accusations.

"When was the last time that you [saw] an IDF soldier going to prison because of his opinion? We are a democracy," said Leibowitz.

Breaking the Silence's Avihai Stollar says testimonies indicate to him that the brutality that some soldiers describe was the result of the spiritual preparation that soldiers received from rabbis.

"They told the soldiers that it's a holy war, that it's like the days of the Bible: the Palestinians are the nemesis of the Jewish people, and that we have four main enemies: the Israeli Arabs, Iran, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas," said Stollar.

Israeli army officials have said some rabbis went too far in the briefing and materials they provided to soldiers. They say those rabbis have been reprimanded.

The aim of Israel's 22-day operation in Gaza was to take out Islamist militants who have been firing homemade rockets at communities in southern Israel for years.

Palestinian officials and international human rights organizations - using figures provided by Palestinian sources - say 1,400 people were killed in Gaza during the Israeli offensive.

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