* Some say commanders told them to shoot first, worry later
* Israel says it tried to avoid civilian casualties
* Report speaks of huge blow to Gaza infrastructure
(Adds Israeli defence minister’s comments, paragraphs 11-12)
By Douglas Hamilton
JERUSALEM, July 15 (Reuters) - Israel rejects charges by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and U.N. agencies that its January invasion of the Gaza Strip inflicted civilian death and destruction on an unjustifiable scale.
Now, some of the Israeli soldiers who took part say they were urged by commanders to shoot first and worry later about sorting out civilians from combatants. Accordingly, they say, the force went into Gaza with guns blazing. In print and video testimony published on Wednesday by the activist group Breaking the Silence, the 30 soldiers say the Israeli army’s imperative was to minimise its own casualties to ensure Israeli public support for the operation.
"Better hit an innocent than hesitate to target an enemy," is a typical description by one unidentified soldier of his understanding of instructions repeated at pre-invasion briefings and during the 22-day operation, from Dec. 27 to Jan. 18.
"If you’re not sure, kill. Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad," says another. "The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places.
"In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents."
Israel’s Operation Cast Lead had the declared aim of forcing Islamist Hamas fighters to stop firing rockets at towns in southern Israel.
A Palestinian rights group says 1,417 people were killed, 926 of them civilians. The Israeli army put the death toll at 1,166 and estimated 295 dead were civilians. Israel said 10 of its soldiers and three civilians were killed.
Whole streets in parts of the Gaza Strip were razed to minimise the risk of Israeli casualties from small-arms attacks and booby-trap bombs. The United Nations says Gaza six months later is just beginning to clear 600,000 tonnes of rubble.
The Israeli military rejected criticism in the 112-page Breaking the Silence report as "based on hearsay". But it pledged in a statement to investigate any formal complaints of misconduct, saying its troops had respected international law during "complex and difficult fighting."
Responding to the report, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement: "The IDF is one of the most moral armies in the world and behaves in accordance with the highest ethical code."
He said any organisation with information critical of Israeli military actions "should bring it to me, as Israel’s defence minister, and to the government that directed the IDF to restore peace and quiet to communities in the south."
Soldiers in Israel’s largely conscript army have standing orders not to talk to the media. The report includes testimonies of 30 "who served in all sectors of the operation".
"The majority ... are still serving in their regular military units and turned to us in deep distress at the moral deterioration of the IDF (Israel Defence Force)," it says.
Their narratives "are enough to bring into question the credibility of the official IDF versions".
Except for a sergeant named Amir, the soldiers are anonymous and their faces digitally blurred. Transcribed statements can be viewed at www.breakingthesilence.org.il. The group said it had funding from Israeli human rights groups and the governments of Britain, the Netherlands and Spain, and from the European Union.
Soldiers describe a "Neighbour Procedure" in which civilians were forced to enter suspect buildings ahead of troops. They cite cases of civilians advancing in front of a soldier resting his rifle on their shoulder.
The report repeats charges — denied by Israel —- that white phosphorus was fired indiscriminately into Gaza streets. It cites "massive destruction was unrelated to any direct threat to Israeli forces" and "permissive" rules of engagement.
"We did not get instructions to shoot at anything that moved," says one soldier. "But we were generally instructed: if you feel threatened, shoot. They kept repeating to us that this is war and in war opening fire is not restricted."
To strip away cover for Hamas fighters, aerial bombardment, artillery, demolition charges and armoured bulldozers razed whole areas including gardens, and olive and orange groves.
"We didn’t see a single house that was intact ... that was not hit. The entire infrastructure, tracks, fields, roads, was in total ruin. The D-9 (bulldozer) had gone over everything," the report quoted a soldier as saying.
"There was a clear feeling, and this was repeated whenever others spoke to us, that no humanitarian consideration played any role in the army at present. The goal was to carry out an operation with the least possible casualties for the army."
Amnesty International has labelled Israel’s actions as "wanton" destruction and said it was "outrageously accusing the Israeli military of war crimes". (Editing by Richard Balmforth)