for-phone-onlyfor-tablet-portrait-upfor-tablet-landscape-upfor-desktop-upfor-wide-desktop-up

INTERVIEW-General links Israeli tactics to Gaza civilian toll

* Israeli commander says believes "innocents" killed

* Says any such incidents were exceptions, not policy * Chief of staff says soldiers will be held to account

JERUSALEM, March 23 (Reuters) - Israeli officers' efforts to protect troops from Palestinian fire during the war in the Gaza Strip may have contributed to unwarranted killing of civilians, a commander of the offensive said on Monday.

Already facing censure over the January war's death toll, Israel is under renewed pressure to defend its conduct after accounts by veterans surfaced last week suggesting there had been frequent and sometimes lethal disregard for the innocent.

Tzvika Fogel, a reserve brigadier-general who was mobilised to help oversee the 22-day campaign, described Israel's practice of deeming anyone who failed to heed orders to leave a combat zone as a potential Hamas guerrilla.

Soldiers still had to take a "reasonable" view that a person in their sights was a genuine threat before shooting, he said. But he added: "If you want to know whether I think that in doing so we killed innocents, the answer is, unequivocally, yes."

"It would be very dishonest of me if I told you that would have been impossible," he told Reuters in a telephone interview. "But if there were such incidents, they were exceptional. That wasn't the general mood or the policy."

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), which said it identified all the dead, says 1,417 Palestinians were killed, including 926 civilians, of whom 313 were children and 116 were women. Many died in bombardments from the air and by artillery.

The Israeli military has provided no such figures of its own. An Israeli think-tank with links to the armed forces has said PCHR's statistics show a disproportionately high number of those described as civilians were young men of fighting age.

Israeli media last week quoted soldiers reporting widespread disregard for the safety of Palestinian civilians. One said he heard of a sniper shooting dead a woman and two children who strayed from a route troops ordered them to follow. Military officials noted that that soldier was not an eyewitness.

Richard Kemp, a retired British army colonel who commanded forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, voiced understanding for Israel's tactics in Gaza but said its long-term credibility may hinge on bringing any violators of the laws of war to justice.

"I'm not unsympathetic to the idea that people sometimes behave outside the rules. Combat is a very strange situation. But I don't think you can say that because of that, you accept that the rules can be broken," Kemp told Reuters from London.

PRIORITIES

Fogel said: "If we have testimony that very clearly shows someone behaved inappropriately and did not do the right thing, I have no doubt there would be legal proceedings."

The chief-of-staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi also promised on Monday that soldiers would be held to account.

Yet Israel's military has rarely prosecuted personnel over killing civilians, despite ample allegations from Palestinians and human rights groups about such crimes.

Fogel listed Israeli field officers' priorities in the Gaza fighting as: "First, we bring our men back safe and sound. Second, we are determined to win. Third, we aren't murderers. We can't create a situation in which we fight without principles."

Like many Israelis, he blamed Islamist Hamas, which sees itself as locked in a holy war with the Jewish state, for inviting the Gaza bloodshed by battling within populated areas. Palestinians note that congested Gaza is penned in by Israel and neighbouring Egypt, with little refuge available for civilians.

Israel lost 10 soldiers in the war, as well as three civilians killed by the short-range rockets. The salvoes have resumed, albeit on a small scale, since Egypt brokered a truce.

Fogel said: "Had we finished this campaign with 100 dead troops and 10 tanks burning up, but won international recognition as the side that showed 'extraordinary morality', would our position be better today?" (Editing by Dominic Evans)

for-phone-onlyfor-tablet-portrait-upfor-tablet-landscape-upfor-desktop-upfor-wide-desktop-up