JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Israeli military took the blame Wednesday for the deaths in Gaza of three daughters of a prominent Palestinian doctor during fighting in mid-January between Israeli troops and Hamas militants, the Israel Defense Forces said.
However, the military said the deaths were unintentional, and came as the Israelis were targeting suspects in the upper level of the doctor's home which they didn't know was his.
"Investigations were held on many levels in the IDF, with regards to the incident at the residence of Dr. Az A-Din Abu El-Eish," the IDF said in a written statement.
"The conclusions found that two shells were fired from an IDF tank, resulting in the deaths of Dr. El-Eish's three daughters," the statement says.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the doctor's niece also died, and another daughter, Shadar, 17, was seriously hurt in the shelling.
Haaretz said in its Wednesday issue that the doctor, a father of eight, lost his wife to cancer three months ago.
The doctor told CNN Wednesday: "From the first moment of this crime, I said I know the truth. I want to thank everyone who brought this report and this announcement, and who took responsibility for committing this crime of shelling my house with two shells.
"I want to thank those had the courage and the conscience to say the truth to himself and to the public. This gives hope and optimism for justice in this world."
He questioned parts of the IDF report. He said his home is located in Jebaliya, northeast of Gaza City, not in the Gaza City neighborhood of Sajaiyeh; there was no firing from his house; and he saw no pamphlets with Israeli warnings to evacuate that the military said it dropped.
The IDF could not be reached for an explanation o fthe discrepancies from their written statement.
In describing what preceded the deaths, the Israeli statement said a force from the Golani Infantry Brigade had been operating in Sajaiyeh for several days, engaging in combat with Hamas terrorist cells and identifying homes they believed were booby-trapped.
"On that Friday, the force came under sniper and mortar fire in an area laden with explosives and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The force identified and located the source of fire from a house adjacent to that of the doctor's, and in response, opened fire.
"During the counter-fire opened by the IDF forces, suspicious figures were identified in the upper level of Dr. Abu El-Eish's house and were thought to be spotters who directed the Hamas sniper and mortar fire.
"The commander of the force gave the order to open fire on the suspicious figures. It is from this fire that the three daughters of Dr. Az A-Din Abu El-Eish were killed."
Screams were heard from the direction of the house, and immediately the IDF force ceased fire, the IDF statement says. "Only later was it understood that this was in fact the house of Dr. Abu El-Eish."
The Israeli troops immediately arranged to have ambulances evacuate the injured through the Erez Crossing for emergency medical treatment in Israel, the IDF says.
According to the IDF, the physician was contacted several days before the incident and urged to evacuate his home, because of Hamas operations and the intense fighting taking place. Israel says it also dropped thousands of leaflets and issued warnings through the Palestinian media.
"The IDF is saddened by the harm caused to the Abu El-Eish family," the statement says, "but at the same time states that considering the constraints of the battle scene, the amount of threats that endangered the force, and the intensity of fighting in the area, the forces' action and the decision to fire towards the building were reasonable."
The results of the probe were approved by Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of the general staff.
When the doctor, whose name can also be written as Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, learned about his daughters' deaths, he called an Israeli news anchor who was a friend, and the anchor broadcast the call live during a prime-time show. The doctor was heard wailing and screaming on the phone.
The doctor is well-known to Israelis -- and well-liked, according to CNN's Nic Robertson.
The 55-year-old gynecologist received his medical degree in Israel, has worked in Israeli hospitals, treating Jews and Arabs, and speaks Hebrew. He has been highly visible because of his willingness to speak with Israeli media from his home in the Gaza City neighborhood of Sajaiya.
One Israeli, who said he heard the doctor speak earlier in the week, wrote on his blog that al-Aish spoke of "nothing but peace."
"I am sorry for his suffering. Most others offer their condolences, too," the blogger wrote. "So much Israeli TV avoids the civilian suffering in Gaza for fears much of it is Hamas propaganda. But doctor Abu al-Aish's plight has cut a penetrating incision into the public conscience here."
Last month, Israel's government approved a measure giving legal protection to military officers accused of war crimes during the recent Gaza raid, according to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.
Israel launched a 22-day assault on Hamas, the Palestinian movement that controls Gaza, on December 27 to stop rocket attacks on southern Israel. More than 1,300 Palestinians died during the air and ground campaign, and 13 Israelis were killed.
Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire in mid-January, and pulled its troops out by January 21. Despite the agreement, sporadic fighting continues.
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