JERUSALEM -- The issue is like a wound that is torn open again and again, with
no chance to heal. And the discourse around it might as well be a dialogue of
The issue -- violence committed by the Israeli military against Palestinian
civilians -- is one of the most sensitive in the Middle East conflict and has
cropped up with alarming regularity since the current intifada began in September
Palestinian officials, eyewitnesses, the Israeli army and its soldiers routinely
produce varying versions of the events, which metamorphose into a war of words
that is soon forgotten with the next round of bloodshed.
The latest case in point is an inquiry set up into the Sept. 1 killing by Israeli
soldiers of four Palestinian stoneworkers on a Jewish-owned plot of land in the
Five days later, military investigators declared that the open-fire orders
issued in that incident and in two others in which eight Palestinian civilians
died last month were appropriate.
The stoneworkers were deemed guilty of "suspicious behavior" and found in possession
of clubs, axes and several wire cutters -- a possible indication that the four
intended to attack a nearby Jewish settlement.
But Palestinians say siblings Hasam and Hisham Halika, 32, relative Atiyah
Halika, 21, and Ala Ayedah, 20, were guilty of nothing except sitting together
in the parking lot of their factory at the end of the night shift until they were
taken away by soldiers.
They insist that the official Israeli investigation -- like others before it
-- is a sham that obfuscates more than it clarifies.
Responding to the findings, Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said it
was "shameful for Israel not to bring to justice those who kill innocent children,
innocent mothers in cold blood."
Erekat was referring to the other two incidents covered by the probe: An Aug.
29 tank attack on a house in a Gaza Strip Bedouin community in which four members
of a family died, including a 4-year-old boy; and a missile attack two days later
on a car driven in the West Bank by a man whom Israel identified as a Palestinian
militant, killing the driver, two teenagers in the vehicle and two children playing
"They want to cover up all these crimes," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, spokesman
for the Palestinian Authority. "The problem is that the more they cover up, the
more they give a green light to more killing of Palestinian civilians. Then there
is more retaliation for those killings, and we will continue this vicious cycle."
For its part, the Israeli military admits no intentional wrongdoing, stressing
that its soldiers are often in dangerous combat situations and targeted by Palestinian
"Alongside the fighting, the soldiers make every effort to avoid harming unarmed
civilians and avoiding as much damage as possible to their areas," the army said
in a recent statement.
Inquiries, military police investigations and a military court system form
what it says is an effective infrastructure for dealing with violations by soldiers
and clarifying accounts of events.
The military has set up some 30 inquiries into soldier shootings of civilians
since the start of violence, while military police have opened over 100 investigations
into various complaints against troops. The army says that at least eight soldiers
have been indicted due to such probes.
"I think that the army has proved that it knows how to handle exceptional cases
(of violations), rare as they are," former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz said in
an article in the Maariv newspaper earlier this year.
That assertion is disputed not only by Palestinian officials but by several
human rights groups.
They say that the number of soldiers who have been prosecuted is paltry, and
that even those who have been charged with lesser offenses are not prosecuted
to the full extent of the law.
"We have never heard of any result from these panels created after the killing
of Palestinian civilians," Erekat said after the latest findings were announced.
"The calls (by Israeli political officials) for investigations are meant for media
ISRAELI HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP
Perhaps the biggest thorn in the military's side is the Israeli human rights
In a report earlier this year, B'Tselem charged the army with conducting a
"policy of immunity" that shielded soldiers guilty of a range of offenses. Those
included "flagrant disregard for the immunity granted to medical personnel," abuse
of firepower and misuse of weapons such as flechettes -- an anti-personnel weapon
that releases thousands of metal darts in an arc 300 meters long and 90 meters
Under criteria set forth by the Judge Advocate General's office, formal investigations
occur only in cases where there is "suspicion of serious violation of the binding
rules of conflict."
And the military has refused to explain the guidelines governing open-fire
orders, saying only: "Hostile elements will take advantage of them in order to
harm our fighting forces."
Limor Yavne, a B'Tselem spokesman, said of the army's approach, "It would have
to seem like a whitewash. (Prior to) the intifada, the army investigated every
case of a Palestinian death in the West Bank and Gaza. We weren't necessarily
happy about the results, but they at least did try to pay attention.
"Since the intifada began, they claim that since it is a situation of armed
conflict they are not obligated to open cases. So that basically says that they
do not really want to look at these incidents."
PRESSURE FROM THE PRESS
Yavne says that the investigations that do take place are "usually because
of pressure from a rights organization or the press, . . . are very superficial
and based only on soldier testimony, not Palestinian witnesses."
He concluded that soldiers now "feel that they have free rein do to whatever
they want . . . without risking serious punishment.
"During Operation Defensive Shield, there were more cases of soldiers looting
(Palestinian homes) than any time past."
Yavne said he did not believe troops consciously intend to kill civilians.
"It's more . . . carelessness for Palestinian lives and property on the ground.
They don't have any incentive to investigate these issues seriously because
it means bad press for them."
B'Tselem has been criticized for focusing on Israeli misdeeds without calling
to account Palestinian security forces, which do not open similar investigations
of infractions by their personnel.
Yavne responded, "I don't expect the same standards from the Palestinian Authority.
We at B'Tselem, who are Israelis and served in the Israeli army, feel part of
a democratic society, and the way things are with the investigations is totally
Late last year, lawmaker Ran Cohen of the left-wing Meretz party presented
five cases in which five Palestinian policemen and three women were killed in
incidents where soldiers were suspected of violating open-fire regulations. He
denounced the subsequent probes as superficial and "an attempt to cover up."
Today, however, Cohen reflects the Israeli left's disillusionment with the
search for peace, saying, "Unfortunately, we do not find that the Palestinian
side sets up any inquiries into suicide bombings. So compared to that, I am very
satisfied with my army."
The army has issued apologies and statements of regret in instances where soldiers
have been found to act in error.
Critics say that is better than nothing, but it fails to address what they
consider the deeper causes of the violations -- a military leadership indifferent
to abuses and an untenable occupation of Palestinian areas.
Citing the army's June bombing of a residential area in Gaza that killed 14
civilians as well as Hamas militant Salah Shehadeh, Nahum Barnea of the Yedioth
Ahronot newspaper noted that Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon and air force commander
Dan Halutz later justified the attack and blamed faulty intelligence for the high
civilian death toll.
He accused them of "a wave of arrogance, crudeness and verbosity," and of making
irresponsible statements that sent the wrong message to rank-and-file soldiers.
"In the warfare the (army) is engaged in . . . there will always be mishaps,
" Barnea wrote after the recent civilian deaths. "Still, it seems something very
troubling is happening here, something that is a lot more than the apologetic
word 'mistake.' "
LAWFUL USE OF ARMS -- OR WHITEWASH?
An example of what the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem calls an Israeli
army investigative whitewash is the case of Khalil al-Mughrabi.
The 11-year-old was playing soccer with a group of children in the Gaza Strip
town of Rafah on July 7, 2001, when a burst of gunfire hit him in the head, killing
him and wounding two of his friends, aged 10 and 12.
A military spokesperson gave this description of the incident: "Dozens of Palestinians
rioted . . . and endangered soldiers' lives. The soldiers acted with restraint
and control, and dispersed the rioters by using means for dispersing demonstrations,
and by live gunfire into an open area distant from the rioters."
Khalil happened to be in the open area. Witnesses cited by B'Tselem said the
children finished playing around 6:45 p.m. that day and sat down next to or on
mounds of sand near the fence that marks the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt.
At 7:10 p.m. or so, Khalil was shot in the head. According to the children,
the shots came from an Israeli military observation tower about one kilometer
away. The firing continued, striking two other children.
Suleiman Muhammad Salameh al-Akhras, 13, an elementary school pupil, recalled,
"We didn't hear (the shooting) until Khalil (was hit). He . . . fell down immediately.
His head burst and parts of it flew toward the children who were near him. The
terrible sight . . . shocked me so much that I couldn't speak for six hours."
B'Tselem requested that the military police investigation unit open a probe
of the incident. On Nov. 8, the army -- without offering specifics -- informed
the group that since the soldiers had acted according to regulations, an investigation
was not necessary.
B'Tselem says that internal documents it obtained from the office of the Military
Advocate General revealed that the military "covered up the incident . . . and
issued a false statement regarding the circumstances of the death."
The document, it added, raised "the grave concern that cover-ups and falsifications
are considered acceptable practice by the Military Advocate General's office."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle