JERUSALEM - After weeks of describing Israel's policy toward the Palestinian uprising as one of "restraint," officials and the Israeli press are beginning to report that soldiers have at times used unnecessary force.
Two Israeli newspapers carried prominent articles this week in which sources inside the Israeli military accuse soldiers of using excessive force against the Palestinians. One paper, Haaretz, quoted an unnamed senior officer as saying, "Nobody can convince me we didn't needlessly kill dozens of children."
And a senior Israeli source acknowledged to foreign journalists yesterday that soldiers sometimes had committed mistakes while under pressure or threat to their lives, or had misinterpreted orders.
This new self-criticism comes as Israel is using a variety of quiet channels with the Palestinian leadership in a bid to restart peace talks, even though fighting continues to rage in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. One of the heaviest exchanges of fire in weeks occurred late Tuesday into early yesterday, leaving five Palestinians dead, including four Palestinian policemen and a leader of Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist resistance group.
Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen and security officers engaged in a fierce gunbattle into early yesterday in the Khan Younis area of the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli army said the exchange began Tuesday after Palestinians fired into a school inside the Jewish settlement of Neve Dkalim.
In the battle, one of the heaviest to date pitting soldiers against Palestinian security forces, four Palestinian policemen were killed and more than two dozen Palestinian civilians were wounded.
In a separate incident in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Abbas al-Aweiwi, 26, a leader of Hamas.
More than 300 people have been killed and thousands injured in 10 weeks of the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting in decades. Most have been Palestinians, although Israelis-particularly soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza - increasingly have come under fire in recent weeks.
Until lately, Israeli officials have insisted that their soldiers were taking pains to limit casualties, and only fired when faced with a serious threat to themselves or to Israeli civilians.
Though organizations such as the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights have criticized Israel heavily for the excessive use of force, the Israeli press has tended to emphasize the army's version of events.
While foreign news organizations focused their attention on major flare-ups, the only daily scrutiny of actions by the Israeli military came from Palestinian human rights groups, which sent field monitors into the worst trouble spots. Their reports seldom mentioned Palestinian provocations.
Last week, the respected Israeli human rights group B'tselem rebutted a number of the army's claims in a lengthy report that concluded that "Israel bears primary responsibility for human rights violations in the occupied territories over the past two months."
The report said that most of those killed or wounded were unarmed and that Israel had used excessive force in dispersing demonstrators, "disproportionate to the danger faced by soldiers and in violation of [the army's] open-fire regulations."
Noting that more than one-third of those killed were under age 18, the B'tselem report said that "the primary reason for the death and injuries suffered by children is Israel's policy." The report also faulted Palestinian authorities for failing to keep children away from demonstrations where they faced great danger.
In response, the army said the rights group had judged its actions according to standards that should be applied to police enforcing law and order, not to soldiers engaged in "armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority." The army's actions should be measured by standards "appropriate for a situation of warfare," it said.
But two of Israel's most prominent newspapers, Haaretz and Maariv - quoted critics inside the military establishment.
Haaretz defense correspondent Amos Harel wrote that the army's policy "passes through many nodes before it reaches the bottom of the chain - the soldier on patrol or manning a roadblock - and there it is interpreted with excessive severity."
The article said "key members of the defense establishment are increasingly convinced that Israel has been frequently using excessive force against the Palestinians. Operations - under limited supervision - may cause irreversible damage to already fragile relations with the Palestinian Authority."
In the few cases that have been seriously investigated, the article said, "a picture quickly emerges of negligence, disregard of procedure, and even itchy trigger fingers."