Israel's leading civil rights group harshly criticized soldiers for cruel behavior against Palestinians over the past year and complained about military policy that bans inquiries into most Palestinian deaths.
In its annual report released Tuesday, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel decried "unprecedented harm to innocent people, Palestinians and Israelis," during the third year of violence.
The report covers the period between June 2002 and June 2003. While also denouncing Palestinian terror attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis, the document's section on the West Bank concentrates on Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, citing military behavior at roadblocks, searches of villages and assassinations of suspected Palestinian militants.
The group charges that most of the civil rights violations by Israeli soldiers "arise not from any operational necessity, but from hard-heartedness of soldiers, who receive from above the message of utter disregard for the dignity, freedom and lives of innocent Palestinians."
In a written response, the military strongly rejected the claim. "The opposite is true," the statement said.
The group, know by its acronym ACRI, was founded in 1972 as a nonpolitical and independent body to protect human and civil rights in Israel and in the territories under Israeli control, according to the group's Web site.
Hundreds of Palestinians were killed during the past year, the report notes, but only a handful of inquiries were opened, all concerning Jewish settlers suspected of violence.
The group alleges that the military prosecutor follows a policy of refusing to investigate "deaths that occurred during warfare," a term that covers most of the fatal incidents.
The military countered that some such cases are investigated, but indictments are filed only if there is criminal evidence against a soldier.
The ACRI report complained about the behavior of soldiers at West Bank roadblocks, which were set up shortly after the violence erupted in September 2000 to keep Palestinian attackers and bombers out of Israel. It claimed they have become institutionalized centers of mistreatment of Palestinians.
Besides daily humiliation, some Palestinians have died as a result of the roadblocks, the report charges. Some roadblocks permanently cut roads.
"While a healthy person can somehow make his way across," the report says, "a pregnant woman or a sick person cannot, and an ambulance cannot cross from the other side."
Though the military has pledged several times to allow urgent cases to cross roadblocks unimpeded and a procedure for that exists, the civil rights group charges that "the procedures are not implemented, and in many cases, people in need of medical attention do not cross."
The military said that soldiers at roadblocks "face difficult problematic dilemmas" and violations are investigated.
The ACRI report also alleged that Israeli soldiers randomly searched houses south of Hebron in the middle of the night, causing great destruction.
Another practice is to park an armored personnel carrier next to a house and race its engine, sending clouds of exhaust smoke into the house to choke the residents. The report says one such "smoking" was captured on videotape.
"Absence of a response from the military, and failure to prosecute soldiers for such malicious behavior, sends a message to the soldiers in the field of ignoring or looking away from these acts, which have absolutely nothing to do with security needs," the report alleges. The military said an investigation is underway.
The civil rights group also takes the military and the government to task for targeted killing of suspected Palestinian militants, complaining that many innocent civilians have been killed in the operations.
During the year covered by the report, "the military assassinated 80 Palestinians. In at least 20 cases, the military accepted responsibility. In the operations during the period, 90 women, children and innocent men were killed and more than 300 innocent people were wounded."
The military said that harm to civilians is an unfortunate but inevitable part of the fight against terrorism.
On the Web:
Association for Civil Rights in Israel: http://www.acri.org.il/english-acri/engine/index.asp
Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press