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Israel Shuns Investigation of Army Killings

by Ben Lynfield

444 Palestinians killed in about eight months
(IPS) JERUSALEM -- When it comes to investigating soldiers for suspected weapons misuse against Palestinians, the wheels of Israeli military justice grind slowly, if at all.

In February, army deputy chief-of-staff Moshe Yaalon said an investigation had been launched into the fatal shooting of Fatima Abu Jish, 22, a medical secretary at the Specialized Arab Hospital in Rafidya, near Nablus.

Abu Jish was shot in the darkness from a distance on her way home from work while sitting in the back seat of a car driven by her brother-in-law. The vehicle had turned off a dirt road used by Palestinians to circumvent a barricade. The bullet went through the trunk, entered her back and pierced her heart.

"A year ago, she told me you must marry and have children, I'll do the work to support the family," recalls Abu Jish's sister, Rose.

Asked about the case in February, Yaalon at first defended the soldier, saying he had shot at the vehicle's wheels, but then admitted the soldier was "in the wrong." As of May 23, the army was unable to say what, if anything, had come of the matter.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon boasted recently: "I don't know any other military force in the world that has the kind of moral values we have. We are greatly saddened by every loss of life."

But allegations by Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups that the Israeli army uses excessive force, endangering the lives of Palestinians, are a central issue in the current confrontation. This is because the core demand of Palestinians is for international protection from Israeli forces.

Scrutiny of the army intensified last week with publication of a report by an international commission headed by former U.S. senator George Mitchell, which says Israeli forces caused many "avoidable" deaths. Pointedly, the report also took the army to task for not conducting investigations of misuse of weapons. It did not, however, endorse the demand for dispatching international forces.

There have been more than 444 fatal shootings of Palestinians and about 15,000 wounded since the uprising. Eighty-eight people have been killed on the Israeli side.

B'tselem, Israel's leading human rights group, says that most of the army shootings were in situations that was not life threatening.

The case of Abu Jish is one of only nine probes into misuse of weapons launched since the uprising began. B'tselem says it has no indication that even a single investigation was completed. The army did not respond to queries on the matter for this article.

Self- righteous mood currently prevailing in Israel
During the 1987-1993 first intifada uprising, which was mostly unarmed, the army launched investigations into each instance of a Palestinian dying at the hands of a soldier in an incident which, according to its definition, did not involve terrorism.

The army has said the change in policy is because troops are now engaged in "an armed conflict short of war." Thus, it argues there is no need for investigations due to the very existence of casualties on the other side, unless there is suspicion of a "serious deviation" from the norms of behavior.

The Mitchell Commission took issue with the army's new definition and its lack of self-scrutiny, saying that stone-throwers and unarmed protesters must not be treated as terrorists.

Re-instituting mandatory military police investigations, "the government of Israel could help mitigate deadly violence and help rebuild mutual confidence," it said.

Since October, authorities have not responded to requests from the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel for investigations into shootings of journalists.

The most recent of nine cases of journalists being shot, according to the FPA, at close range, when there was no exchange of fire and where the journalists were identifiable as such came last week when French journalist Bertrand Aguire was shot in the chest. He was wearing a safety vest and was not seriously injured.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, defended the army's shooting practices. "We are in a situation of combat. In a combat situation where there is violence, violence initiated by the Palestinian side, there is a price. If they stop the violence, they won't get hurt."

Moshe Arens, a former defense minister and a legislator for Sharon's Likud party, rejected the Mitchell Commission findings about the army, saying: "I don't think they really know, they didn't have a chance to investigate in detail." Arens said the number of investigations is small because "there have been very few cases of misuse of weapons."

But B'tselem's Noga Kadman says that by not opening or concluding investigations, "the message is that soldiers can do whatever they want and not be punished and enjoy total immunity."

"You can assume that this might cause deaths," says Kadman.

A reserve soldier, whose unit recently guarded Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, said in an interview that soldiers were given the feeling that if their opening fire turns out to be a "mistaken identification," they will be backed up by their officers.

In one near-tragic situation, soldiers manning a tank were using night vision equipment that could not differentiate between figures 50 meters away from the perimeter of a settlement or those only 20 meters away, inside the designated no-entry zone. In doubt, the soldiers opened fire and nearly killed Palestinian civilians who were 50 meters away, the reservist recalled.

In the reservist's view, part of the reason for the shoot first, ask questions later mentality is a self-righteous mood currently prevailing in Israel. "The feeling is that we offered them so much in the peace negotiations, they rejected it, we are right, we are united in our cause, we have more room for misbehavior," he said.

Musi Raz, a member of Knesset from the left-wing Meretz opposition party, added: "During the past 34 years of occupation, Israelis got used to viewing Palestinian lives as less important than theirs. Now, in a situation of fighting, when they kill you, and you kill them, it's natural that the value of Palestinian lives is getting even lower. And to say that it's natural does not mean that it isn't bad."

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Albion Monitor May 28, 2001 (

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