TEL AVIV (Reuters) - An internal investigation by Israel's armed forces into the conduct of the Gaza Strip war has found no evidence of serious misconduct by troops, who acted within international law, a general said on Wednesday.
International human rights groups have cast doubt on the impartiality of such internal probes and demanded that Israel open itself up to independent investigations.
"The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) operated under the international law and according to a very high standard of professionalism and moral standards," Major-General Dan Harel, deputy chief of staff, told a news conference called to deliver results of a probe into five sets of war crimes allegations.
"We didn't find one incident in which an Israeli soldier intentionally harmed innocent civilians," Harel said.
Israeli forces launched the December-January campaign with the aim of stopping Palestinian cross-border rocket and mortar fire from the Hamas-controlled coastal territory.
According to a Palestinian rights group, 1,417 Palestinians, including 926 civilians, were killed in the fighting. Israel says the Palestinian death toll was 1,166, a minority of them non-combatants. Israel lost 10 soldiers and three civilians.
Israel has further been censured for using artillery shells containing white phosphorous, which can cause severe burns, and for leaving several Gazan residential areas devastated.
Harel said Hamas had deployed its fighters in densely populated civilian areas, set booby traps in houses and mined streets, making widespread structural damage unavoidable.
Israeli forces fired white phosphorous shells in open areas to mark targets and, in one case, to burn bushes concealing Palestinian gunmen. But smoke shells used to protect advancing troops from ambushes contained only small amounts of white phosphorous and did not pose a fire risk, the military said.
Military investigators uncovered several "operational and intelligence mistakes" by Israeli forces, Harel said. In one case, a bomb that was meant for a militant's house was misdirected to a neighbouring building, killing 21 civilians.
An Israeli commander said that his soldiers, having received intelligence warnings of an attack by a female suicide bomber, killed a Palestinian woman who was walking towards their post and did not heed orders to halt. She proved to be unarmed.
"In cases where we could, we interviewed Palestinians through the coordinating offices," a senior Israeli official said. "But you cannot, at the end of the day, reach each and every Palestinian. This is not a normal situation."
Harel said the probe's findings would be passed to the military judge advocate-general, who would decide whether to order courts-martial. Such trials have been rare in Israel.
According to the senior Israeli military official, several soldiers are under separate investigation "on suspicion of using their weapons in a manner not in keeping with regulations."
Human Rights Watch, which has documented war crimes allegations against Israel, was sceptical about the probe.
"Based on what we have so far, we are very concerned that this is going to be a whitewash," said Bill Van Esveld, a researcher with the New York-based group.
A spokesman for Hamas, the Islamist group that refuses to recognise the Jewish state, dismissed the findings, saying Israel "cannot be both criminal and judge at the same time."
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)