Page last updated at 12:16 GMT, Friday, 27 March 2009

Israel army punishes Gaza soldier

Israeli soldier on tank near Gaza (file pic)
Israel frequently insists it has the world's most moral army

An Israeli soldier was removed from the combat area after he shot a Gazan woman in the leg "by mistake" during the recent offensive, military sources say.

The soldiers were firing in the air and urging a group of Palestinians who looked "suspicious" at the time, the military said.

It appears to be the first officially confirmed case of disciplinary action over troops' actions in the conflict.

The Israeli forces' conduct has been heavily criticised.

A statement from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said there had been a warning of a suicide attacker in the area where the incident occurred.

The soldier was an infantryman from the Givati Brigades, and has been demoted and put on probation, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Colonel Herzi: 'In almost every house we found rifles, grenades, RPGs'

Correspondents say the case is a relatively minor one in comparison to some of the allegations that have been levelled at Israeli forces - that they shot at civilians carrying white flags, used heavy firepower and white phosphorous indiscriminately, and failed to allow evacuations of wounded civilians.

Several international rights experts and organisations have raised concerns that both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants may have committed war crimes during the 22-day conflict.

'Relaxed rules of engagement'

The punishment comes a week after several soldiers were quoted anonymously in the media saying troops had killed Palestinians, including women and children, by hastily opening fire under relaxed rules of engagement in Gaza.

Other soldiers, however, have said they believe the claims are unfounded, or apply to a tiny minority within an otherwise professional military.

Few of the officers who fought in Gaza have come forward to answer such charges, partly because they fear being identified and being arrested if they travel abroad.

But the commander of a paratroopers brigade, one of the most senior commanders in Gaza during the operation, told the BBC on Thursday his soldiers "succeeded in hardly harming civilians" during demanding urban warfare.

Air strike during Gaza campaign (13.01.09)
Israel has been criticised for using heavy firepower

"We don't have even one incident in that we killed or harmed uninvolved civilians in the street," said Commander Herzi, whose full name cannot be given because of Israeli military censorship.

He said the soldiers entered "thousands" of homes in Gaza. "Almost in every house we found rifles, grenades, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades)," he said.

They also saw Hamas militants moving from house to house carrying white flags to pose as civilians, he added.

He blamed Hamas for exposing civilians to danger by using civilian institutions for cover:

"When you find in a backpack, a blue backpack with logo of the UN on the backpack, an IED, (improvised explosive device) you understand how cynical, how far they go," he said.

The IDF say 1,166 Palestinians were killed during the conflict, of whom 709 were "terror operatives". A Palestinian rights group says the toll was 1,434, including 960 civilians, 235 fighters and 239 uniformed police.

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