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Probe ends of alleged army killings in Gaza

The chief military prosecutor says that soldiers who reported that army snipers killed Palestinian civilians in Gaza had no firsthand knowledge. Israeli rights groups call it a whitewash.

March 31, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Israel's military closed an investigation Monday into allegations that army snipers killed two women and two children during its incursion into the Gaza Strip, saying soldiers making the claims had witnessed no such shootings.

The stories caused an outcry in Israel and abroad after Israeli newspapers published them March 19. In one case, the alleged victim was an elderly woman walking on a road; in the other case, it was a woman and her two children who turned the wrong way, into a no-go zone, after troops had ordered them out of their home.

Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, the chief military prosecutor, announced the criminal probe after the soldiers' accounts surfaced. On Monday, he said he had decided not to file charges because "crucial components of their descriptions were based on hearsay and not supported by specific personal knowledge."

The soldiers, who spoke last month in a closed-door meeting at a military preparatory school, made careless remarks that harmed the army's image "in Israel and the world," the prosecutor said.

Israeli human rights advocates called the investigation a whitewash. They said the military had yet to respond to abundant evidence presented weeks ago in other alleged cases of unwarranted killings of civilians during the winter assault.

"The speedy closing of the investigation immediately raises suspicion that [it] was merely the army's attempt to wipe its hand of all blame for illegal activity," said a statement by nine Israeli rights groups. They called for an investigation by a nonpartisan body.

Israeli officials concede that the army used overwhelming force in the mostly urban battlefield to halt rocket fire by Hamas militants. But they dispute the claim that most of the dead were civilians.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights has published a list of 1,417 Palestinians killed during the 22-day assault in December and January and identified 926 of them as civilians. The army issued its own count last week -- 1,116 Palestinians dead, 295 of them civilians. It did not provide a list of names.

Thirteen Israelis were killed in the conflict, including civilians hit by Palestinian rockets fired into Israel.

But journalists and rights groups documented many cases in which civilians came under Israeli fire while trying to get out of harm's way.

Bill Van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the New York-based group had so far documented six cases involving the deaths of 10 Palestinian civilians. The Times interviewed multiple witnesses in one of those cases, that of a 47-year-old woman shot dead in the village of Khozaa on Jan. 13 while waving a white flag and trying to lead a group of women and children to safety.

Other investigations into army conduct during the offensive are continuing, the army said.

Danny Zamir, who led the discussion among the Gaza veterans and leaked a transcript, said he accepted the army's conclusions in the cases of alleged killings.

But he faulted its report for not addressing allegations that soldiers vandalized Palestinian homes. And he said he worried that the army's handling of the probe would discourage other soldiers from speaking out on abuses.

Ofer Shelah, who reported on the soldiers' stories of the deaths of the two women and two children for the newspaper Maariv, said most readers who responded were critical of the decision to publish them. He said the reports would do little to alter Israelis' perception that the army conducted itself well in Gaza.

"There was such a craving in the Israeli public for the army to succeed that you're not going to change their mind, not with these stories or anything else," he said.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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