Israel closes probe of Gaza incidents, denies they happened

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military announced Monday that it's closed its swift criminal investigation into two explosive allegations by its soldiers that army units intentionally killed Palestinian civilians during the recent offensive in Gaza.

After talking to soldiers who made the claims, Israeli military investigators concluded that the two incidents never took place and that the young men who made the allegations had embellished the stories during a seminar at a military preparatory school.

However, the military's conclusions are unlikely to put a damper on widespread calls for an independent investigation into wider allegations that the Israel Defense Forces committed war crimes in Gaza by killing Palestinian civilians waving white flags, using white phosphorus shells in densely populated neighborhoods, blocking medical crews from reaching injured Gazans, striking United Nations schools where refugees were seeking shelter and demolishing hundreds of homes after Palestinians had fled.

Israeli military officials said they were looking into other claims of wrongdoing, and they've vowed to discipline soldiers if necessary.

During the February seminar, soldiers who'd served in Gaza described a pervasive atmosphere in which they were encouraged to treat any Palestinian as a possible threat.

The testimony created an international furor when it was leaked to the news media earlier this month, prompting the Israeli military to open investigations into allegations that soldiers had gunned down a woman and child after an Israeli unit directed them to flee the combat zone and had killed an unarmed elderly woman.

“I simply felt that this was murder in cold blood,” one Israeli commander told the students.

Israeli military investigators said they'd tracked down the soldiers who made the claims and determined that they were based on rumors or embellished for the audience.

"It is unfortunate that none of the speakers at the conference was careful to be accurate in the depiction of his claims, and even more so that they chose to present various incidents of a severe nature, despite not personally witnessing and knowing much about them,” said Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, Israel’s military advocate general. “It seems that it will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the IDF and its soldiers . . . in Israel and the world."

In the first case, the Israeli military said that soldiers had opened fire on two suspicious Palestinians while a group of civilians was fleeing the area. No shots were fired in the direction of the Palestinian civilians, investigators concluded.

As for the second incident, investigators said that Israeli soldiers had shot and killed an elderly woman walking toward them who ignored orders to stop along with warning shots fired at the ground.

Israeli soldiers told investigators that they thought the woman might be a suicide bomber but that they didn't check afterward to determine whether she'd posed a real threat.

The Israeli offensive in Gaza lasted 22 days and killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, according to Palestinian human-rights researchers in Gaza.

The Israeli military contends that a majority of those killed in Gaza were militants, but it hasn't provided evidence to back its conclusions.

The United Nations, among others, has accused Israel of using Palestinian civilians as human shields. Human rights groups have criticized Israel for illegally using white phosphorus shells in densely populated neighborhoods. Israel also has faced international condemnation for shelling United Nations compounds in Gaza _ killing scores of Palestinians who were seeking refuge from the fighting _ and for demolishing hundreds of homes.

“I believe that there is a lot more to know about what happened,” said Yehuda Shaul, the executive director of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli watchdog group led by former Israeli soldiers that's collecting testimony from those who fought in Gaza. “What is very, very clear is that this is an attempt to cover up, to react very fast, to take charges off the neck.”

After the allegations emerged earlier this month, Shaul said, soldiers who were preparing to come forward with similar stories were threatened by their commanders not to speak out. Although it's against the law for Israeli soldiers to speak publicly, Breaking the Silence is talking to scores of soldiers who fought in Gaza for an extensive report that's expected to be released later this year.

In its own investigation of the allegations, the Associated Press reported last week that Israeli soldiers had ordered a group of Palestinian civilians to leave a battle zone and then opened fire on the group, killing a 2-year-old girl and a 27-year-old woman.

In February, McClatchy reported another incident in which Palestinian civilians said that Israeli soldiers had fired on them after they were ordered out of their neighborhood in the northern Gaza Strip.

Rashad Abu Saffi, a 60-year-old Gaza businessman, and his neighbor Hani Al Mabhooh said that Abu Saffi’s wife had been shot in the hip and that the two man had to drag the wounded woman through the empty streets until they reached a friend’s home.

Danny Zamir, the founder of the military academy where the soldiers spoke, said he had faith in the Israeli military's conclusions.

“I have a lot of confidence, and I know the IDF,” Zamir said. “They are very straight people and will check things very deeply.”