Israeli troops describe vandalism, humiliation and unnecessary deaths in Gaza campaign

AN increasingly disturbing picture of the Israeli army's conduct in the Gaza war has emerged, with new witness accounts from some of its troops describing wanton vandalism to Palestinian homes, humiliation of civilians and loose rules of engagement that resulted in unnecessary civilian deaths.

The second set of revelations of military conduct within a week has set off soul-searching and alarm in a country where the forces are widely revered.

They have also echoed Palestinian allegations that Israel's assault did not distinguish between civilians and combatants, at a time when some international human rights groups contend Israel violated the laws of war.

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The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which conducted a survey of casualties, says a total of 1,417 people, including 926 civilians, were killed during the 22-day offensive.

Israel has disputed the findings, saying that most of the dead were legitimate targets.

The Israeli government has insisted it did all it could to prevent civilian casualties, but last week the army ordered a criminal inquiry into its soldiers' reports that some troops killed civilians, including children, by hastily opening fire, confident the relaxed rules of engagement would protect them.

The inquiry was based on testimony from soldiers involved in Gaza, published in a military institute's newsletter and leaked to two newspapers.

According to one account, an Israeli sniper killed a Palestinian woman and her two children after they misunderstood an order and turned the wrong way.

In another account, an elderly woman was shot dead while walking on a road. The soldier who described the incident, identified only as "Aviv", said it was not clear whether the woman was a threat.

"I simply felt it was murder in cold blood," Aviv said, according to the transcript. "The order was to take that woman out."

Aviv said he felt an attitude among soldiers that "inside Gaza you are allowed to do anything you want, to break down doors of houses for no reason other than that it's cool. To write 'Death to the Arabs' on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can," he said.

The army said it had no additional comment beyond the earlier announcement of the inquiry.

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