Page last updated at 15:17 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 16:17 UK

Gaza soldier accounts 'hearsay'

Israel special forces during Gaza conflict
Heavy casualties during Israel's campaign have provoked criticism

Israeli military police have closed an investigation into soldiers' accounts of abuses committed in Gaza, saying they were based on hearsay.

An Israeli military college published the accounts, which included claims that soldiers fired on civilians and vandalised property.

The probe concluded that the stories were "purposely exaggerated".

Rights groups fear war crimes took place during the January assault which Israel said aimed to end rocket fire.

In a written statement, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said the investigation had focused on two stories which alleged that civilians had been fired on, but found the soldiers who told them were not direct witnesses.

In one of them, a commander was said to have ordered troops to kill an elderly woman walking on a road, even though she was easily identifiable and clearly not a threat.

"In fact, the soldier witnessed no such thing, and was only repeating a rumour he had heard," the statement read.

Sniper fire

Another account tells of a sniper killing a mother and children at close range whom troops had told to leave their home, when they misunderstood instructions about which way to walk.

Palestinians killed during Israeli military offensive in Gaza, 27 Dec to 18 Jan

Total dead: 1,166 (1,434)

Fighters: 710-870 (235)

Non-combatants: 295-460 (960)

Women: 49 (121)

Children under 16: 89 (288)

Sources: Israeli Defence Intelligence Research Dept (and Palestinian Centre for Human Rights)

"It was found that during this incident a force had opened fire in a different direction, towards two suspicious men who were unrelated to the civilians in question," the statement said.

The testimonies were published by the military academy at Oranim College. Graduates of the academy, who had served in Gaza, were speaking to new recruits at a seminar.

The statement did not comment on more general claims made about the rules of engagement and the attitude among soldiers.

"The climate in general... I don't know how to describe it.... the lives of Palestinians, let's say, are much, much less important than the lives of our soldiers," an infantry squad leader was quoted saying in reports carried in Israeli newspapers.

While academy director Dany Zamir told public radio that "[the testimonies] conveyed an atmosphere in which one feels entitled to use unrestricted force against Palestinians".

Testimonies, which were given by combat pilots and infantry soldiers, also included allegations of unnecessary destruction of Palestinian property.

"We would throw everything out of the windows to make room and order. Everything... refrigerators, plates, furniture. The order was to throw all of the house's contents outside," a soldier said.

Heavy civilian casualties during the three-week operation which ended in the blockaded coastal strip on 18 January have provoked an international outcry.

The IDF is conducting separate investigations into allegations raised by human rights groups on the basis of Palestinian testimony and evidence from the battlefield.

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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