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September 16, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle
Israel Accused of Sham Probes in Military Killings
by Danielle Haas, Chronicle Foreign Service
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 mute.
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 2000.
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 West Bank.
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 nearby.
"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 militants.
"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 consumption."
ISRAELI HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP
Perhaps the biggest thorn in the military's side is the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
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 wide.
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 unacceptable."
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
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