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Accounts of War Crimes Raise Controversy over Israeli Military

By Doug Struck
The Baltimore Sun
JERUSALEM

When Arye Biro, a tough parachute commander nicknamed "the Prussian," described to a newspaper in cold detail his killing of Egyptian prisoners of war in 1956, Israel winced.

For a nation that believes its soldiers follow the rules of war so scrupulously that they term their restraint a "purity of arms," the retired brigadier general's unapologetic admission earlier this month to shooting more than 50 unarmed prisoners was chilling.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak this week said he thinks Israel ought to hold war crime trials of its soldiers who shot prisoners. Egypt has formally asked for an explanation of the incdents.

But more disturbing to many here was the controversy it has raised within Israel. The revelation has prompted a handful of other accounts of alleged atrocities by Israeli soldiers during its wars.

Those stories sully the public image of the military, perhaps the country's most revered institution. Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair is mulling over the possibility of prosecuting former soldiers, and Justice Minister David Labai has said he will appoint a high-level committee to deal with the issue.

At the center of the storm is a debate over why such incidents were not revealed before, and whether they should be revealed now.

"I would have preferred that nobody would have known anything. I would have preferred it be secret and all done behind closed doors," said Michael Bar-Zohar, who was a top spokesman for the army during the 1967 Israeli-Arab war and a former member of Parliament.

"We came to this country to live in a different society. Now all the sacred cows, the national symbols, are being systematically destroyed," he said. "If you destroy the symbols, you take away from Israel the uniqueness. You say we are exactly like any others."