An internal inquiry by the Israeli army into the killing of 12 Palestinian
civilians by its forces last week, including four fruit-pickers blown up by a
tank shell packed with thousands of darts, has cleared the soldiers involved.
Investigations by the Israeli army into the killing or maiming of Arab civilians
in the 23-month conflict have almost invariably resulted in whitewashes, but this
did not diminish the condemnation with which yesterday's findings were greeted
by Western sources, Israeli peace activists and Palestinian officials.
The inquiry said the "open-fire" orders that led the Israeli army to fire a
120mm air- burst shell packed with 3,000 flechettes (inch-long darts), at a Palestinian
family in their camp in a fig orchard in the Gaza Strip, were "appropriate". So,
too, were the orders given to the snipers who picked off four laborers in a West
Bank quarry on Sunday, allegedly because they saw them cutting a fence. And so
was the command issued to an Israeli death squad in a helicopter that killed two
teenagers and two children aged six and 10 in a botched assassination.
The inquiry found that in the first two of these cases, both on Palestinian-controlled
land inside the occupied territories invaded by the Israeli army, soldiers had
acted because they identified Palestinians who were behaving "suspiciously", including
being in an "unauthorized area" late at night, crawling towards an illegal Israeli
settlement and infiltrating Israeli agricultural land.
An Israeli army statement did not confirm or deny using a tank flechette round.
But The Independent has examined an X-ray of one victim. Darts were embedded
in his chest and stomach. The deaths of the children caused by the helicopter
missile strike, in the West Bank village of Tubas, were dismissed by the Israeli
army as "collateral damage" that was "probably caused by a technical malfunction".
The inquiry was ordered by the Defense Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who
complimented the Israeli army yesterday on its "thorough" work, a military statement
But Uri Avnery, an activist with the Israel pressure group Gush Shalom, said
the three incidents were "manifestly illegal actions". He added: "If the army
says its soldiers followed their standing orders, this shows their standing orders
are manifestly wrong, and responsibility for all these actions rests on the army's
One Western source declared himself to be "speechless" on hearing the outcome
of the inquiry, which he described as a cover-up. "Why bother to set up an inquiry
unless it is going to be thorough and impartial and unless the results will be
followed up. None of this is true in this case."
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