WASHINGTON - Israel's leading human rights monitor in the occupied territories is calling on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to fully investigate and take strong action against troops engaged in the degradation, humiliation or beating of Palestinian civilians.
In a new report published Monday, B'Tselem recounts the abuse and humiliation inflicted on five Palestinian men, aged 19-24, by four soldiers at a barbershop in Hebron December 3, stressing that such incidents "occur daily" without any action taken by the IDF to investigate or discipline those involved.
For more than one hour after they entered the barbershop, the soldiers almost casually humiliated and beat the men before using them as "human shields" to fire their guns at young stone-throwers who had initially gathered to see what was happening, says the report.
"This grave incident is only the tip of the iceberg," according to B'Tselem. "Cases of 'punishment' and abuse of Palestinians by IDF soldiers in the Occupied Territories occur daily," the group said, adding that the IDF must discipline soldiers who engage in relatively common acts of harassment.
The new report comes as the Palestinian al-Aqsa intifada is well into its third year, and most of the populated centers of the West Bank have been reoccupied by Israeli forces. Since the intifada began at the end of September, 2000, more than 1,700 Palestinians and about 700 Israelis have been killed in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and retaliation.
Conditions in the occupied territories have worsened dramatically over the same period with up to 75 percent of Palestinians in the territories living below a poverty line of US$2 a day, and close to 15 percent of Palestinian children chronically malnourished, according to a recent study by the United States government.
"The economic situation in the territories is growing worse," according to a column by Ben Caspit in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv Monday. "The number of those working is swiftly decreasing, the number of hungry mouths is growing correspondingly. The latest worrisome phenomenon is prostitution. It is flourishing and spreading," wrote Caspit.
Hopes for forward movement on a peace process that could bring a relaxation in travel and other restrictions on the Palestinian population have been set back following a decision by the administration of President George W. Bush --over objections of its "Quartet" partners, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations --to freeze peace moves at least until after Israel's elections in late January.
It is against this background that B'Tselem issued its report about the incident in Hebron which, according to the group, has still not been investigated by the IDF.
Based on testimony by the victim and eyewitnesses, the report stated that during the brutal search by soldiers of the five men in the barbershop, two were ordered onto barber's chairs where they were taunted with an electric razor, and smothered with shampoo and hair. When one of the victims resisted, he was hit in the face with a pail, kicked and told he would be shot.
As children in the neighborhood were drawn to the commotion, they began throwing stones at soldiers outside. A soldier then took one of the victims to the middle of the street, propped his gun on the victim's shoulder, and began firing into the air. Eventually, other soldiers did the same with three of the other victims. After about one hour, the soldiers left the area with the men's identification cards which were later recovered on a road near the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba.
In another report published last month, B'Tselem documented a decline in the IDF's use of Palestinians as "human shields" following an injunction by the Israeli High Court last August. In the new report, however, the group said the practice has continued and charged that the IDF has chosen to investigate only the most serious cases and has failed to follow up on more common cases.
"As long as the army refuses to send an unequivocal message that any violence, abuse, or degradation of Palestinian civilians is absolutely forbidden, and that any soldier who violates this prohibition will be punished, acts of the kind described in this report will continue to occur," B'Tselem concluded.
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