In war, mercy is often the second casualty
The Israeli military behaved generally well in the latest war, but there were still war crimes committed by individual soldiers and even units (as one may expect to find in many wars). The question that must be asked is whether the cruelty and criminal behavior is suficiently systemic that would make the Israeli government liable for war crimes.
Gideon Levy in Haaretz says it is systemic, but I believe he pushes too far. The occupation creates these sort of atrocities after awhile and the occupation of the West Bank and indirect occupation of Gaza are what need to stop. And the systemic demolition of homes of Palestinians, which has overtones of religious- and mobster-style terrorism (visiting retribution on the families), needs to stop completely. Such actions help fuel the atmosphere of terror among the Palestinian people.
Still, in response to Levy, the fact that only half the casualties (the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights says more like 65%*) were non-military and non-government forces civilians, in an attack that was in a densely populated area, shows some restraint that most nations, even our own, might not have been able to achieve. I don't say this with any pride, however, as the whole situation sickened me. For the Hamas leadership was continually pursuing a policy that went well beyond simply ending the occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, but actually threatened Israel's very existence. It refused to negotiate any real peace, talking only of cease fires and then in December saying there would be no more cease fires--only more war. The response they received was what they themselves demanded: more war.
Nonetheless, this article in the New York Times this morning gives us some reason to believe Gideon Levy may be right, but for somewhat different reasons. It appears that in the past two decades, there may have been a religious, nationalist impulse growing inside the Israeli military that undermined some of the ethical walls Israeli soldiers previously labored under in their military actions. The nationalist impulse is what drives the criminal behavior, but the religious overlay provides moral authority to commit those crimes.
In a war, truth is often the first casualty because the leaders in a war feel they need to lie about the violence that is about to unfold. Mercy is the second casualty following immediately behind and sometimes concurrently with the lies. The religious overlay to a nationalist impulse dehumanizes soldiers into believing there is justice in killing unarmed civilians. This religious overlay removes our moral hesitation and opposition to unncessary and unprovoked killing. Those who believe religion creates morality should also admit that human-led organized religion can also undermine the authority of morality. And those who support their nation ought to be humbled by any occupation of another people that undermines that nation's moral values.
* The Centre may well have included Hamas leaders in some of the civilian numbers, per this report from CBS News.