FORMER soldiers in the Israeli Defence Force have come forward with claims of widespread abuses against the Palestinians amid what they say is a growing climate of "moral corruption".
A group of 300 ex-service personnel gathered together by the Breaking the Silence group made a series of damaging allegations about the behaviour of soldiers.
In public testimonies, the troops alleged the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) routinely carried out "deterrent gunfire" into Palestinian areas without a specific target and also used Palestinian civilians to investigate suspected bombs and as human shields during arrest operations.
The claims, which are beginning to filter into the Israeli media, contrast sharply with government assertions that the Israeli army is a "role model for the world" because of its particularly moral behaviour.
Major Sharon Finegold, an army spokeswoman, said: "The Israeli army is a role model for many armies in the world and we are pioneers in the war on terror."
However, while allegations of mistreatment made by Palestinians or human rights groups are dismissed by many Israelis as hostile, those from Israel's own soldiers, who undergo three years of mandatory military service, carry added weight.
What emerges from the testimonies is that far from being aberrations, abuses of Palestinian civilians are institutionalised and come from the highest levels of the army.
In one written account by a soldier who served in Ujah village, near Jericho in 2001, he describes the "suspicious object" procedure.
"If there is a suspicious object such as a pile of rocks in the road, we stop a Palestinian and send him to move the object while the soldiers hide behind cover," he said. "The Palestinian is considered unimportant since the object was put there by another Palestinian."
Breaking the Silence, which was launched a year ago, recently released testimonies showing that the Israeli army in 2001 had killed 15 Palestinian policemen as revenge for the killing of six soldiers.
Avichay Sharon, an activist in the group, said the incident reflected a pervasive "moral corruption" resulting from the occupation of Palestinian territory. "If it's sergeant at a checkpoint, he will slap people around," said Mr Sharon.
"If it's an officer, he will give crazy rules of engagement, if it's a brigadier-general it's giving rules in which tanks shoot into cities. Even the public becomes morally corrupt. What has happened here is a war on civilians, a war on civilian life, a war against women, children, men, against millions of people."
The Israeli army said it "welcomed" the claims by Breaking the Silence, insisting it was important to report behaviour that was not up to IDF standards.
"Unfortunately, they refuse to give us the names of soldiers, making it hard to investigate and get to the bottom of things in the cases they document," Major Finegold said.
She added: "Searches at 2am save the lives of Israeli civilians who would be the targets of suicide bombers. There has been a dramatic reduction in Israeli fatalities because of our going into the cities and arresting the masterminds of terrorism."