JERUSALEM (AP) âÄî The Israeli army on Monday closed an investigation into alleged killings of civilians during its offensive in the Gaza Strip, saying soldiers’ testimonies were based on hearsay, “purposely exaggerated” and not supported by facts. Allegations of wrongful shootings emerged from some soldiers speaking in a closed-door meeting at a military prep school. Their accounts, along with their reports of vandalism in Palestinian homes, were published by Israeli media earlier this month. The army’s chief prosecutor angrily accused the soldiers of harming Israel’s international image. “It will be difficult to evaluate the damage done to the image and morals of the Israel Defense Forces and its soldiers … in Israel and the world,” Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit said. Human rights groups accused the military of carrying out a biased and hasty inquiry that ignored key evidence and urged an independent body be formed to investigate Israeli army activity in Gaza. One case involved the killing of an elderly woman by a rooftop sniper, and the second described a sniper fatally shooting a mother and two children who had entered a no-go zone, according to a transcript of the testimony obtained by The Associated Press. The soldiers’ accounts set off soul-searching in a country where the military is widely revered. They also echoed Palestinian allegations that Israel’s assault did not distinguish between civilians and combatants, and fueled assertions by some international rights groups that Israel violated the laws of war. Israel used unprecedented force during the three-week operation, launched against Gaza’s Hamas rulers last December to halt eight years of rocket attacks on Israeli border towns. After a week of aerial bombardments, the military launched a two-week ground offensive. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including more than 900 civilians, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which published a list of names of the dead. Israel has said the toll was lower, and the “vast majority” of the dead were militants. But it did not publish a list to support the assertion. In announcing the findings Monday, the army said the soldiers’ testimonies “were purposely exaggerated and made extreme, in order to make a point” to those attending the closed session. In the case of the elderly woman shot by a sniper, the soldier “was only repeating a rumor he had heard” that she was gunned down without provocation, the army said. Maj. Yehoshua Gutler, legal assistant to the military’s advocate general, said the elderly woman was wearing bulky clothing and the soldiers had reason to believe she was a threat after intelligence reports showed “Hamas was going to use an elderly woman as a suicide bomber as they had in the past.” The woman continued to advance despite repeated calls to stop and warning shots fired in the air, and soldiers had “no choice” but to shoot, Gutler said. A second soldier had reported a sniper shooting a woman and two children but later clarified his statement to say it was “an incident that he had not witnessed,” according to the findings. Gutler said the investigation showed that the family “was not fired at and not put in peril at any stage and left the premises unharmed.” Gutler said a soldier had instead fired at militants in the opposite direction. In a joint statement, nine Israeli rights groups said the decision to close the investigation without bringing charges “only strengthens the need for the attorney general to allow for an independent nonpartisan investigative body to be established in order to look into all Israeli army activity” in Gaza. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the investigation showed that Israel possesses “the most moral army in the world.” However, Danny Zamir, the military prep school director who urged the inquiry, said it did not address other incidents that raise serious ethical questions, such as the wanton destruction of Palestinian homes. The army still needs to deal with “the whole way that we and our comrades … treated .. property, houses, holy books,” he said, calling for better training in the military. In a tour of Gaza last week, the AP saw evidence of vandalism and destruction in Palestinian homes commandeered by the Israeli military. Graffiti in Hebrew was scrawled on walls, trash littered the floors and makeshift sniper holes were stuffed with cloth or plastic in several homes. The case of a 33-year-old resident of the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun bore some similarities to the soldiers’ accounts. Abir Hijeh told the AP she was in a group of civilians that came under Israeli fire after soldiers yelled at them to turn around when they headed the wrong way after being expelled from their homes. Hijeh’s 2-year-old daughter and a 27-year-old neighbor were killed in the incident, which was confirmed by two area hospitals and a second witness. The military has not directly commented on this case, but said all possible deviations from army rules would be investigated. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said it is investigating a number of cases in which civilians came under fire while trying to leave the war zone. Senior researcher Fred Abrahams said the group has so far confirmed six separate cases involving the deaths of 10 Palestinians. He said some shootings apparently were the result of a breakdown in communication between army units. “I don’t believe there was a policy to shoot at civilians,” he said. “But even the cases of miscommunication must be thoroughly investigated because we have the outlines of a pattern.” ____ AP correspondent Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.