Six months after the Israeli military launched its controversial military offensive in Gaza, dozens of soldiers who took part in the fighting have come forward to tell troubling tales of using Palestinian as human shields, improperly using white phosphorus to try to set homes on fire, and needlessly shooting civilians.
In filmed testimony and 110-pages of testimony from 26 Israeli soldiers who fought in Gaza, the combatants create a stark portrait of the fighting that is now the focus of a United Nations human rights investigation.
The testimony was collected by Breaking the Silence and made available last week to several news outlets, including McClatchy Newspapers.
One soldier accused Israeli commanders of leading soldiers into a "moral Twilight Zone."
"Sometimes a force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian's shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield," said one Israeli soldier with the Golani Brigade. "Commanders said these were the instructions, and we had to do it."
Each Palestinian forced to work with the Israeli military was given the same nickname: Johnnie.
The testimony matches with that of nine Palestinian men who told McClatchy last winter that Israeli soldiers forced them into battle zones during the offensive in their northern Gaza Strip neighborhood.
One Palestinian, Castro Abed Rabbo, said Israeli soldiers ordered him to enter buildings to search for militants and booby traps before they sent in a specially trained dog with high-tech detection gear.
Two other Palestinian men told McClatchy that Israeli soldiers used them as human shields by forcing them to kneel in a field during a firefight as they exchanged fire with Gaza fighters.
"I was down on my knees and they fanned out in a 'V' behind me," Sami Rashid Mohammed, a Fatah-leaning former Palestinian Authority police officer, said in an unpublished interview in February. "It wasn't more than 10 or 15 minutes of shooting, but it was so scary."
The Israeli military says it can't check out the stories because Breaking the Silence concealed the names and dates of the incidents.
While the Israeli military has conducted several internal investigations that uncovered soldiers who stole from Palestinian homes, accidentally killed civilians and wrote spiteful graffiti on the walls of Gaza homes, Israeli officials have painted these as isolated incidents.
But the new testimony suggests that there were overarching policies that guided the soldiers.
"No innocents," one soldier said.
"We did what we had to do," he said. "The actual doing was a bit thoughtless. We were allowed to do anything we wanted. Who's to tell us not to?"
(Photo: Castro Abed Rabbo was one of nine Palestinians who told McClatchy last winter that Israeli soldiers used them as human shields.)