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Israeli Activists Urge Army to Probe Civilian Slayings
Published on Monday, December 31, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Israeli Activists Urge Army to Probe Civilian Slayings
by Tracy Wilkinson
 
JERUSALEM -- A 14-year-old boy throws a stone at a fortified army post in the Gaza Strip, and Israeli soldiers shoot him dead.

A cabdriver drops off a grocery sack left in his taxi, and troops riddle his body with bullets.

Three peasant women are killed by tiny darts that pierce their chests and stomachs when Israeli tanks shell their refugee camp. Fifteen months ago, the worst Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed in decades erupted, first at a disputed holy site in Jerusalem and then across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and in parts of Israel. From the start, Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organizations have charged that the Israeli army has often used disproportionate force in putting down demonstrations and retaliating for Palestinian attacks. More than 1,000 people have been killed, roughly three-quarters of them Palestinian.

While the army challenges the criticism, one thing is not in dispute: In case after case, the army has killed Palestinian civilians but has only rarely investigated the deaths or punished the soldiers and officers responsible.

Most killings are given cursory, on-site review and, if any fault is found, chalked up to justifiable error or the fog of war. Fuller inquiry is seldom pursued.

Top army commanders defend this approach and insist that theirs is a "moral army," able to examine its mistakes and learn from them.

"We don't want to kill [civilians]. First of all, it is not moral. Second thing, we know it is against our interests," Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the army's head of operations, said in an interview. But, he added: "This is not a police situation. It's almost a war."

Many Israelis, terrified by suicide bombers and fed up with months of violence, simply want the conflict to end and say they don't care what the army and government do to achieve that aim. A growing faction of hard-liners wants the army to act even more forcefully. To them, the idea of examining possible abuse is absurd.

Lately, however, a small number of influential Israelis--including the deans of the country's four leading law schools--have joined the chorus of criticism, worrying about the corrosive effect that ignoring abuse can have on the morale and discipline of the Middle East's most powerful military and on society as a whole.

By failing to conduct more than cursory investigations, these Israelis and other activists charge, the army is engendering a culture of impunity that stands in marked contrast not only to its own view of itself but also to its behavior during the intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"Something very sick has entered this system," said Ran Cohen, a legislator with the leftist Meretz Party and a former paratroop colonel who fought in the 1967 Middle East War and in Lebanon. "The Israeli [army] is indeed making a tremendous military effort, and there's no doubt that it increases the burden and the tension. But this should not justify lies and the loss of our moral values."

In the intifada that raged from 1987 to 1993 and ended with landmark Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, the standard practice was for the army to open a military police investigation each and every time a Palestinian was killed as a result of the actions of Israeli security forces.

The practice upheld a certain level of accountability, former army officers say, even if, in the opinion of human rights advocates, the investigations were flawed. More than 100 investigations a year were opened, the army says.

Now the nature of the conflict is very different. The first intifada was a popular uprising dominated by stone-throwing, and army troops routinely intermingled with Palestinian villagers because Israel then occupied all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There was less lethal violence and greater visibility of Israeli actions.

The current conflict has included popular protest--but also armed confrontations. The Israeli military leadership considers investigations to be a secondary concern when its men and women are fighting a veritable war.

"It's a whole different world," said Harel, the army operations commander.

"In the [1987-93] intifada, people were throwing stones at us. It's not nice, sometimes very dangerous. But it's like police work. . . . Now . . . is not police work. Mortar bombs. Shooting. Suicide bombers. Side charges. Car bombs. This is not [police work]."

Few cases have incensed human rights watchdogs like that of Khalil Mughrabi.

The 11-year-old Gazan boy was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers, the army acknowledges, as he took a break after a soccer match in July. He died, and two of his friends, ages 10 and 12, were wounded.

Internal army documents confirm that the troops--who earlier had come under Palestinian gunfire--fired "warning shots" in the direction of the children, using a high-caliber, tank-mounted machine gun, despite regulations prohibiting the shooting of heavy weaponry at children.

The case snowballed when the army accidentally sent the internal documents to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. The documents show that Chief Military Prosecutor Col. Einat Ron concluded that the soldiers had broken the rules and that the shooting was unjustified. But for public consumption, Ron overruled her own findings and said she saw no "just cause" to open a criminal investigation.

To B'Tselem activists and other critics, this was the smoking gun that showed the army's reluctance to investigate itself.

A review by The Times of several civilian deaths reveals a pattern of questionable Israeli military action and minimal inquiry into what went wrong, as well as little if any disciplinary action. The Israeli army has defined the current conflict in a way that loosens the rules of engagement and allows soldiers wide discretion in opening fire, often with tragic consequences:

* No longer able to work in Israel because of a ban on Palestinian workers, Radwan Shtyyeh drove a cab on West Bank roads near Nablus to earn a little money--20 or 30 shekels a day, not even $10.

On the day he was killed, his four children had asked him for new shoes. So he made another taxi run, carrying four passengers up a dirt road on the edge of his village, Salem, and depositing them so they could walk the rest of the way around a dirt-and-concrete barricade erected by the Israeli army.

But one of the passengers left a bag of vegetables in the cab. Shtyyeh, an amiable man described as wholly uninterested in politics, got out of the car, carried the bag up to the barricade and placed it in the road so the woman could retrieve it. Israeli soldiers halfway up a nearby hill, at least 50 yards away, opened fire. Bullets hit his upper body in at least eight places, according to his family, witnesses and a Palestinian coroner.

Two of his young sons, herding sheep in a nearby pasture, watched in horror as their father was killed, as did several other Salem residents.

"I went down to help, but the soldiers wouldn't let us get any closer," recalled Jihad Shtyyeh, a distant cousin and the first on the scene that afternoon of July 2. "He was still alive, saying, 'Help me, help me.' But the soldiers yelled at us to go away."

Radwan Shtyyeh, who was 37 and whose photograph shows a man with a small mustache and slightly goofy smile, left behind a 30-year-old widow, Amira, who is raising their children.

"Some of the people who worked with him in Israel told me that even the Israelis were upset when they heard he was killed," Amira said in her simple living room, where her husband's last pack of Imperial cigarettes sits in a glass display case. "He was a person who never made any trouble."

An army spokesman said the shooting was "tragic" but that the soldiers were on the lookout for roadside bombs and probably suspected that Shtyyeh was planting one. Requests to the army from B'Tselem for an official inquiry into the case have gone unanswered.

* Deep in the Gaza Strip, near the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis, an Israeli army outpost rises up from the scruffy sand dunes. It is a heavily fortified bunker. It is not likely that Imad Zareb and the other youths who were pelting it with stones Sept. 15 posed much of a threat.

That day, Imad, 14, and the others had attended the funeral of two Palestinians killed by Israeli fire. Breaking off from the burial procession as it entered the Khan Yunis cemetery, they headed for the nearest Israeli military structure, erected to protect Jewish settlers in Gaza, who are often attacked.

Witnesses said Imad was about 10 yards east of the outpost when Israeli soldiers opened fire with M-16 assault rifles. He died about four hours after he was shot and was buried the next day in the Khan Yunis cemetery.

No formal inquiry has been launched into this shooting. An army spokesman said the army was aware of "disturbances" that day but no Palestinian casualties.

* Rania Kharoufeh was terrified when Israeli forces invaded Bethlehem on Oct. 19. But the 24-year-old mother of two needed milk for her children. In a friend's car, she made a dash for the nearest corner market the next day.

The car came under fire, and Kharoufeh jumped out and took cover in a store. Within minutes, she was dead, killed by Israeli fire, according to her family and two witnesses.

Four days later, Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, the Israeli commander of troops in the West Bank, announced with confidence that Kharoufeh had been felled by Palestinian fire. He based his conclusion on a field investigation by men under his command, who questioned the soldiers present.

But a Times inspection of the site where Kharoufeh was killed showed big holes, clearly made by large-caliber ammunition, in the door facing Israeli positions. The Israelis' likely target, a unit of Palestinian police with small-caliber arms, would have been positioned down the street, on the other side.

There is no allegation that the Israeli forces targeted the young woman. But the army came under criticism from human rights organizations for using tanks and heavy weapons in a largely residential area. Palestinian gunmen who attempted to fight off the Israelis were also criticized.

Bethlehem's Roman Catholic-run maternity hospital, hit several times by Israeli fire during the same incursion, is suing Israel for damages.

* The family of Mousa George abu Eid, a Palestinian Christian, also plans to sue Israel. The 19-year-old high school graduate was one of several Palestinians shot in their homes in Bethlehem and the adjacent town of Beit Jala during the October incursion. Abu Eid, who friends and family said was a simple youth uninterested in politics, had taken refuge with his family on the lower floor of their two-story home as tanks rumbled into their neighborhood at 4 a.m. Oct. 19.

When the shooting subsided that night, Abu Eid and his father ventured upstairs to fetch sheets and blankets. In those moments, an Israeli sniper who had taken up a position next door shot and killed Abu Eid, family and witnesses said. The window shows a single, clean bullet hole. Abu Eid was hit in the neck.

These cases are not obscure. Most were reported at the time in Israeli, Palestinian and foreign news accounts and have been denounced by human rights or political activists. Several have been taken up by B'Tselem, which has collected testimony and demanded investigations, to no avail.

An estimated 800 Palestinians have been killed and more than 10,000 wounded in the last 15 months. Though many of those were combatants, at least 194 of the Palestinian dead were children, according to UNICEF. Among Israelis, whose population is nearly twice that of the Palestinians, about 250 people have been killed and 2,300 wounded.

Israel's army has officially classified the violence as an "armed conflict short of war," Col. Daniel Reisner, head of the military's international law division, said in an interview. The size and scale of clashes and casualties make the conflict a war, he said, but the status of the parties--the Palestinians technically do not have an army--means the confrontation falls short of formal war.

This "middle ground" definition has loosened the open-fire regulations, allowing a soldier to kill in many instances even when his life is not in danger, and created broad discretion over whether and how shootings should be investigated, Reisner and Deputy Chief Military Prosecutor Lt. Col. Liron Libman said.

The most common form of inquiry, they said, is a debriefing in the field after any incident in which a Palestinian is killed. The unit commander hears from his soldiers about what happened and whether anything went wrong. A commander can mete out discipline on the spot or send a soldier to a court-martial.

Reisner said there probably have been "dozens" of cases of both commander-level discipline and courts-martial, but he could not provide statistics because all such cases are grouped together and can include anything from a dress-code violation to a shooting.

In the most serious incidents, a criminal investigation by the military police is opened. This is considered the highest level of scrutiny and can lead to a trial of the soldiers or officers involved.

A total of 59 military police investigations have been opened since the start of the current conflict, of which 15 involve shooting incidents. From those investigations, three criminal indictments of Israeli soldiers have been handed down, according to figures released by the office of the military advocate general. Three cases have been closed without disciplinary action. No one has been sentenced.

One of the indictments involves two sergeants and a soldier who are currently on trial, accused of mistreating Palestinians at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron. Among other things, they allegedly stopped a Palestinian taxi in July and at gunpoint forced the driver to beat and slap the passengers.

A second case involves a captain in the reserves who in October allegedly ordered a soldier to fire a warning shot at a Palestinian man who posed no danger; the man was critically wounded in the head. The third indictment involves the case of a Palestinian woman killed by Israeli fire as she rode in a car.

Reisner said the vast majority of wrongful shootings are the result of negligence, not malice.

"You are allowed to make mistakes," he said.

But Yael Stein, the head researcher at B'Tselem, said the army has repeatedly violated humanitarian laws in its treatment of Palestinians. A failure to investigate, she said, encourages continued abuse. The opening of 15 probes, in the context of the thousands of people who have been killed and wounded, "is nothing," she said.

"If there are no investigations, then by definition, no one is watching," she said. "The issue of accountability is not rooted in this society."

Army officials point out a series of technical difficulties that impede investigations. In contrast to the earlier intifada, Israeli authorities rarely if ever have access to bodies--under Muslim tradition, bodies are buried quickly, without autopsy--and often do not have access to the site where a person was killed because it is under Palestinian control.

And the Israelis say the Palestinian authorities are wholly uncooperative when it comes to any sort of probe.

"Maybe they have something to hide. Maybe it's the general attitude against any cooperation with Israel. Maybe they don't have trust in our system--even when they'd have a vested interest in our taking a look," said Libman, the deputy chief military prosecutor.

Retired Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, who commanded troops during the first intifada, agreed that the nature of the conflict vastly complicates investigations of abuse. Still, he said, making an effort is vital.

"It is very important for the morale of the unit that is concerned, important for the discipline of the army as a military institution, and important that the army know what the soldiers are doing and whether they are acting according to the orders that they get," Mitzna, who is now the mayor of the port city of Haifa, said in an interview.

The Israeli army has also come under pressure to investigate the shootings of 40 journalists, most of whom were injured while working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for foreign media in the early weeks of the current conflict. In the vast majority of the cases, according to a study by Reporters Without Borders, the journalists appeared to have been hit by Israeli fire.

The army issued a report this month, saying it found no army culpability except in one case: the shooting of an unarmed female American photographer in Bethlehem last year. In that incident, in which an American ambassador personally pressed the Israeli prime minister for action, the commanding officer received a reprimand.

"The absence of concrete results in practically all of the cases does not suggest that the investigations were thorough and comprehensive," the Foreign Press Assn. in Israel said in a statement. "The message this delivers to soldiers is that preventing the shooting of journalists and punishing those who shoot them are not of utmost importance."

Ronen Shnayderman, another researcher with B'Tselem, argues that cases are investigated only when there is ample publicity. Shnayderman has sent letter after letter to the army requesting investigations of some of the most egregious cases. He has never received a positive reply, he said.

One case in which publicity apparently prompted the army to investigate at the highest possible level involved three Bedouin women who were killed when Israeli forces shelled the Gaza refugee camp where they lived.

Thousands of razor-sharp steel darts, known as flechettes, that were packed in a 120-millimeter shell were fired at the camp by Israeli tanks after Palestinians shot at the Israelis. In addition to the three women who died in the June 10 incident--Nassereh Malalha, 61, Salmiya Malalha, 37, and Hikmat Malalha, 17--several other women and children were injured.

An army investigation was ordered, but it came to nothing until a special military prosecutor was appointed after reports in the local press and complaints from Israeli politicians. The military attorney general, Brig. Gen. Menachem Finkelstein, is now handling the case--one of only two given such high-level review. The other case concerns a Palestinian man who was shot this year in front of his home during an Israeli raid on his West Bank village.

Cohen, the Israeli legislator, has frequently accused the army of trying to shirk its responsibility for civilian Palestinian casualties. The topic came up again at a recent meeting of the defense committee of Israel's parliament after the Nov. 22 death of five Palestinian schoolboys. They were blown up by an explosive device the army had planted in an area that was used by Palestinian gunmen to shoot at nearby Jewish settlements but was also a common path to the boys' school.

In a heated exchange with Cohen, the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, denied that the army was insensitive to civilian casualties.

"If that were true," Mofaz told the committee, "there would have been many more people hurt in the 10,000 incidents in which the army has been involved in the last 14 months."

Cohen, in an interview, said he is not interested in pointing fingers of blame or seeing soldiers in the brig. His concern is that the army, one of Israel's most vaunted institutions, loses what he and many Israelis see as its moral authority if impunity reigns.

"My cause is to try to save the values of ourselves and of our army," he said. "If we lose our values, we lose our power. If we lose our justice, we lose our case."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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