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In Mideast, crossfire more careless

A report yesterday said the Israeli army causes many 'avoidable' deaths.

As the body count rises and the conflict with Palestinians escalates to warlike proportions, there is growing criticism of how the Israeli army treats civilian casualities. In seven months of fighting, 12,000 Palestinians have been injured, and 471 have died. Eighty-four Israelis have died.

Responding to critics, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said 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."

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Despite such sentiments, the Israeli army is currently investigating only nine cases of suspected misuse of weapons against civilians, thereby treating casualties in the current intifada much differently than it did in the 1987-1993 intifada uprising, in which most Palestinians were unarmed.

Take the case of Ibrahim Abu Turki - a farmer and father of 13 who was shot by an Israeli soldier seven months ago. The army apologized to Abu Turki's family and launched an investigation.

But B'tselem, Israel's leading human rights group, says it has no indication that any of the nine investigations has been completed. The army did not respond to queries on the matter for

this article, though it did confirm earlier this month that there have been no findings in Abu Turki's case.

During the first intifada, 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 facing gunfire in "an armed conflict short of war." 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.

A draft report by an international commission headed by former US Sen. George Mitchell concluded that the Israeli army has caused many "avoidable" deaths. The final report was released yesterday morning. Pointedly, the Mitchell Committee also took the army to task for not conducting investigations of misuse of weapons.

Abu Turki was riding his donkey when he was shot, posing no threat to soldiers, according to Israeli and Palestinian accounts. While the army investigation proceeded, he was treated at a facility in Saudi Arabia, to little avail. His left arm and lower limbs were left paralyzed.

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The Mitchell Commission took issue with the army's new definition and its lack of self-scrutiny, saying that the uprising is expressed in a variety of ways, including stonethrowing and unarmed protests, and that participants in those actions must not be treated as terrorists.

"By reinstituting mandatory military police investigations, the government of Israel could help mitigate deadly violence and help rebuild mutual confidence," the draft report said.

But the army falls short even of the lower standards it has set for itself.

Clear-cut cases of misuse of weapons turn into protracted probes with no apparent resolution and no deterrent to further abuses. In February, army deputy chief of staff Moshe Yaalon said an investigation had been launched into the fatal shooting of Fatima Abu Jish, a young secretary at the Specialized Arab Hospital in Rafidya, near Nablus. Ms. 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 army cement blocks placed in the main road. The bullet went through the car's trunk and pierced her heart. 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." Yesterday, the army was unable to say what had come of the matter.

Nor did authorities reply to requests from the Foreign Press Association in Israel for investigations into army shootings of nine journalists during the course of the uprising.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz defended the army's shooting practices. "In a combat situation where there is violence, violence initiated by the Palestinian side, there is a price."

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." Mr. Arens said the number of investigations is small because "there have been very few cases of misuse of weapons."

But B'tselem staffer Noga Kadman argues 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," says Ms. Kadman "You can assume that this might cause deaths."

A reserve soldier, whose unit recently guarded Jewish settlements in Gaza, said that in contrast to their tours of duty before the intifada, soldiers this time were given the feeling that if their opening fire turns out to be a "mistaken identification," they will be backed up by their officers.

The soldier, who requested anonymity, said that in one near tragic-situation, troops in a tank were using night vision equipment incapable of differentiating between figures 50 meters from the perimeter of a settlement and figures only 20 meters away, inside a no-entry zone. In doubt, the soldiers opened fire and nearly killed Palestinian civilians who were 50 meters away, the reservist recalled.

In the reservists' view, one reason for the loosening of triggers 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."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor