More criticism of Israel's conduct in Gaza

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Israel says it is investigating a report that one of its soldiers may have been captured outside an army base. There is no confirmation as yet. Still it's been a difficult for the Israeli military. Today the group Human Rights Watch released a highly-critical report. It accused Israeli soldiers of shooting and killing 11 Palestinian civilians who were waving white flags. It claims that that happened during last winter's war against Hamas in Gaza. Israel calls the report flawed and biased. Linda Gradstein has the story.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: At a news conference in Jerusalem today Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, laid out the allegations.

JOE STORK: What stands out about these incidents and about these deaths is the fact that the victims were standing, or slowly walking, in many cases at the orders of IDF soldiers and holding white flags on sticks or otherwise waving t-shirts whatever. The universal symbol of surrender, of no hostile intent, of being unarmed and so forth.

GRADSTEIN: One of the cases involved the Abed Rabbo family in Gaza. The mother Umm Souad described the deaths of her daughters.

UMM SOUAD: [SPEAKING ARABIC]
TRANSLATOR: Right in front of me Israeli soldiers shot my eldest daughter. Then they shot the little one Amal and then Samar who was in front of her.

GRADSTEIN: Human Rights Watch's Stork says these cases raise serious questions about the conduct of the Israeli defense forces. An Israeli Army spokesman said Israel is carrying out its own investigation into more than 100 incidents where Israeli soldiers are suspected of violating the army's code of conduct. But Human Rights Watch researcher Bill Van Esveld says the IDF investigations are not thorough enough.

BILL VAN ESVELD: We contacted most of the witnesses and victims that we spoke to in this report just a few days ago and in none of those cases had the IDF, or any Israeli authority, tried to be in touch with them to ask them what happened. In other words the IDF is claiming to be investigating these incidents but has made no effort to talk to any of the witnesses on the Palestinian side who might have seen what had happened.

GRADSTEIN: This report is the latest in a series of investigations criticizing Israeli army conduct during last winter's fighting though Human Rights Watch has also accused Hamas of misconduct for firing rockets at Israeli civilians. A recent report form an Israeli group called breaking the silence accused IDF soldiers of using Palestinians as human shields and the United Nations Commission is expected to issue its own report next month. Israeli officials sharply rejected today's Human Rights Watch report and army statements said soldiers receive unambiguous orders not to open fire on civilians. An Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev questioned the report's methodology.

MARK REGEV: Human Rights Watch is relying on testimony from people who are not free to speak out against the Hamas regime. Human Rights Watch comes in, they leave. Who is there before, during, and after watching everything that they're doing, watching the people they're interviewing in? And as a result I'm afraid that people who speak out against the Hamas regime, who speak out against their tactics, it's a problem for them.

GRADSTEIN: The number of civilians killed during last winter's fighting remains in dispute. Both sides say about 1200 Palestinians were killed but Palestinian officials say 900 of them were civilians. Israeli officials say the number is closer to 300. Thirteen Israelis, 10 of them soldiers, also died in the fighting. For The World I'm Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem.