JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israeli soldiers in the Gaza war were told to shoot first and worry about the consequences later and used Palestinian civilians as human shields, an activist group said in a report on Wednesday.
The testimony of some 30 soldiers -- all unnamed -- shows that the massive destruction wreaked on the Palestinian territory was "a direct result of IDF (Israel Defence Forces) policy," said the Breaking the Silence group, made up of veteran troops.
Soldiers regularly used civilians as human shields during the December and January conflict, one said: "To every house we close in on, we send the neighbour in, the 'Johnnie'."
Another said his commander told him of instances when "the force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian's shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield."
Instructions received before battle led to trigger-happy soldiers, civilian deaths and massive destruction in the densely populated and impoverished enclave, soldiers said.
"No one said 'kill innocents,'" said one. "But the instruction was that for the army, anyone there is suspect and should be taken down."
"I understood... that it's better to shoot first and ask questions later," said another.
"The goal was to carry out an operation with the least possible casualties for the army, without it even asking itself what the price would be for the other side," said a third.
"The difficult thing about the atmosphere was the negligible value placed on human life. People didn't seem to be upset about taking human lives," said one soldier.
Others spoke of massive destruction.
"Houses were demolished everywhere... We didn't see a single house that was not hit... It looked awful, like in those World War II films where nothing remained. A totally destroyed city."
Many houses were demolished as part of a "day after" policy, which meant "taking down a house... (whose) single sin is the fact that it is situated on top of a hill in the Gaza Strip," said another.
One soldier related an incident in which his commander told troops not to fire warning shots at a man approaching their position at night until he was some dozen metres (yards) away.
"Suddenly a burst of fire is heard from upstairs.. The old man gave such a scream as I'll never forget as long as I live... The commander comes downstairs, glowing, 'here's an opener for tonight'."
When they checked on the man the next morning, they saw "the guy was clean, nothing on him. Except for a torch in his hand, a white shirt and a long beard. A 50-60-year-old man lying on the road."
While one commander would not let his soldiers break anything in a house and another unit cleaned up after themselves, others engaged in vandalism.
"In one house we entered, I saw guys had defecated in drawers... I remember a filthy drawing in a children's nursery... I really felt ashamed.. and so do guys who were with me."
The army said that "a considerable amount of the testimony in this report is... based on hearsay and word of mouth" and "anonymous and lacks any identifying details that would allow the IDF to investigate, confirm or refute it.
"The IDF is committed to investigating any claim, supported by facts, that is brought to its attention."
Defence Minister Ehud Barak in a statement urged that all complaints be sent to him and repeated that the Israeli army "is one of the most moral in the world" -- a phrase often used by the top brass in response to criticism.
More than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the 22 operation.
More from McClatchy on this story.