Two Israeli soldiers have come forward to describe how they took part in what they say was an officially ordered "revenge" operation to kill Palestinian police officers among them several unarmed men.
In graphic testimony, one soldier has confessed that he "really enjoyed" a chase in which he shot an unarmed Palestinian in the head who was trying to escape during a series of reprisal raids ordered the day after the killing of six Israeli soldiers in an ambush by militant gunmen three years ago.
In what may be the first inside account of such an operation, the soldiers from two reconnaissance units say they were among troops ordered by their commanders to "liquidate" the police officers at a series of Palestinian West Bank checkpoints even though they were given no evidence they had been involved in the killing of the Israelis.
The raids were among a series of ground and air attacks which, in all, killed 15 Palestinians 12 of them policemen in and around Nablus and Ramallah 24 hours after the six Israeli soldiers were killed at a military post in the village of Ein Arik, west of Ramallah, at the height of the intifada.
One soldier, who took part in the attack on a Palestinian post at Deir es Sudan said they had lain in wait after finding the position empty when they arrived in the middle of the night.
"The idea was simply to kill them all. Whenever they arrived, we would kill them, regardless whether [they were]armed or not. If they were Palestinian policemen, they were to be shot. The order was given and our six opened fire."
The soldier, from the Yael Reconnaissance Troop, said that their [naval] squad commander had told them: "We are going to kill six Palestinian policemen somewhere, revenging our six they took down". He added: "On my question 'what did they do?' the answer was there was a suspicion that the terrorist who killed our six came through that [Palestinian] checkpoint. Suspicion, but no concrete evidence. But I was told: 'it doesn't matter; they took six of ours, and we are going to take six of theirs.'"
The soldier said that, after hitting and wounding two of the Palestinians as they tried to run away, the soldiers continued to fire, as one ran into a corrugated metal shed and another into a cemetery. After they sprayed the shed with bullets, a gas cylinder in it caught fire. "We had a killed policeman, another one in this burning inferno, and a third one, escaping. We ran after him into a graveyard ... stood on the surrounding wall and shot at him. We killed him too."
The soldier said that no fire had been returned by the Palestinians and added: "Later we understood, that not one of them ... was armed." He added that he had inspected the "completely smashed" body of the man in the graveyard after shooting at it to "confirm the kill" and that it was of "a guy in his mid-50s or 60s, very old."
The accounts were originally given to the "Breaking the Silence" group of young former soldiers which is critical of methods used by the army in the occupied territories.
One of the group's spokesmen, Avichai Sharon, a former member of the crack Golani Brigade, claimed the operations on 20 February 2002 were ordered "from high" including the Ministry of Defense and added: "In my eyes, this is a very harsh example of crossing the moral and human boundaries."
He said it indicated that "we are not a defense force any more but a tribe which avenges in blood. As an Israeli, I fear this."
He said the soldiers, whose testimony appears in today's Maariv, had not been named "for legal reasons".
Describing another attack on the same day at the Beit Ha Mitbachayim checkpoint on the eastern edge of Nablus in which fire was returned by Palestinian police the other soldier, from the Tzanchanim Paratroop Reconnaissance Unit, said that the order to shoot at Palestinians had given by the unit commander and the brigade commander, a Brigadier Cochavi, had been present at the time.
He said the policemen were ones who normally would have been warned by Israeli liaison officers about any military operations due to take place in their area.
The Israeli Defense Forces said last night that checkpoints attacked on the day in question had included ones where Palestinian police had "actively assisted ... terrorists" by facilitating their passage. The IDF had been instructed by the "political echelon" to change its mode of operation. It had been decided that the IDF would "hunt down all those involved in terror" including members of the Palestinian security apparatus until the PA prevented such attacks. As Israel released 400 Palestinian prisoners yesterday, Dov Weisglass, senior aide to Ariel Sharon, indicated the dismantlement of illegal settlement outposts a demand by the US would have to wait until after Gaza disengagement.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.