Israeli troops violated medical ethics-rights group

(Adds comments by PHR official, paragraphs 6, 12-13)

JERUSALEM, March 23 (Reuters) - An Israeli human rights group said on Monday the military violated medical ethics codes during its Gaza offensive, the latest accusation against the conduct in combat of Israel's military.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR) described alleged incidents which "reveal that not only did the (military) not evacuate besieged and wounded families, it also prevented Palestinian (medical) teams from reaching the wounded".

PHR's report followed accusations by other human rights groups and Palestinians that Israel's actions during the 22-day offensive in the Palestinian coastal enclave, controlled by the Islamist Hamas group, warranted war crimes investigations.

The Israeli military said the High Court had dismissed a petition PHR lodged on Jan. 19, a day after the offensive ended, and that the allegations were still being investigated.

PHR quoted figures issued by the World Health Organisation which showed 16 Palestinian medical personnel were killed by Israeli fire during the offensive and that 25 were wounded while performing their duties.

Zvi Bentwich, a PHR board member, said this was "a reflection of what we consider unclear orders from above to the soldier on the field". He said the Israeli military was "almost indiscriminately shooting at such teams".

PHR said Israeli forces attacked 34 medical care facilities, including eight hospitals during the assault that Israel waged with the declared aim of halting cross-border rocket fire.

The Israeli military said its forces were instructed to "act with the utmost caution in order not to cause harm to medical vehicles and medical facilities".

"Accordingly, there were various instances where (Israeli) forces refrained from operating in an area due to the presence of medical vehicles or teams," the spokesman's office said.


PHR report said there were cases in which the military did not allow the evacuation of injured civilians for days, while leaving others without food or water for "considerable periods".

The military said Hamas fighters had "methodically made use of medical vehicles, facilities and uniforms in order to conceal and camouflage terrorist activity, and in general used ambulances to carry terror activists and weapons."

Bentwich said his group had not encountered a single instance during the Gaza offensive of Hamas and other militants using medical vehicles to transfer weapons.

"Basically it reflected a general approach to medical institutions, incriminating them without actually testing that or putting that into more careful scrutiny," said Bentwich.

Last week, Gaza war veterans gave their accounts in the Israeli media of the killing of civilians and alleged that there was deep contempt for Palestinians among the ranks.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak responded to those accusations by repeating Israel's description of its forces as the most moral in the world. The military said its judge advocate-general had ordered an investigation of the alleged incidents.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) has put the Palestinian death toll during the war at 1,434 -- 960 civilians, 235 fighters and 239 police officers. Israeli officials have disputed the figures. Thirteen Israelis were killed.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Samia Nakhoul