Tourist's killer was in Israeli death squad

An Israeli officer accused of killing a young British tourist and wounding another says he was traumatised by his past membership of an army death squad which killed Palestinians. Patrick Cockburn finds little remorse for the trail of murder.
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The Independent Online
Daniel Okev, a reserve major in the Israeli army, is accused of shooting dead Max Hunter, 22, and seriously wounding his girlfriend Charlotte Gibb, 20, British hitchhikers whom he picked up in his car near Eilat last month. Until now, no reason had been given. But now Okev says that he was traumatised by his years as an executioner in the so-called Rimon unit.

Major Okev, 45, told a court in Be'er Sheva yesterday that he was psychologically disturbed as a result of his military experiences. He said: "I don't know how many people we shot, but there was action every night."

Rimon means grenade in Hebrew. It was formed in 1972 to work primarily in Gaza. The senior commanding general under which it operated was Ariel Sharon, now Israel's Minister of Infrastructure.

"I was a sergeant in the armoured corps when I was drafted into Rimon," Major Okev said. "They chose the best men from several units, which is how they reached me."Asked if he had personally executed people, Major Okev said he had not spent his years playing backgammon. He added that those who were shot were terrorists.

Asked if he felt badly about his military experiences Major Okev said that, on the contrary, he had felt very well. As an 18-year-old he was wined and dined and complimented by generals. He said Rimon members were trained to shoot by Dave Berkman, a professional American sharpshooter.

Immediately after the shooting Charlotte Gibb told The Independent how she and Mr Hunter had arranged to go to stay at a kibbutz near Tiberias in the north of Israel and were hitchhiking on 12 August from the southern resort of Eilat. She fell asleep and when she awoke the car had stopped.

"The driver lit a cigarette. We thought we'd have one too," she said. "Suddenly I saw yellow flashes. I thought this can't really be happening. He shot Max, then, before I could try to get away he shot me." Ten days later Major Okev was arrested at his house in Tel Aviv, after his red Peugeot car was traced.

What is known of Rimon confirms Major Okev's account of it as a death squad. A report in the Jerusalem weekly Kolha'ir quotes another member of the unit known as `H' as saying: "The typical case would be catching the person, telling him that he had two minutes to flee, or something like that. Sometimes they left his weapon with him. Later the report would say that he escaped and therefore they killed him. On the following morning you would hear on the news that `an Israeli force last night confronted an armed terrorist and when he tried to escape he was shot and killed'."

`H' says that the soldiers in Rimon never celebrated after eliminating a wanted man and that some members of the unit left because of the stress caused by their duties. Others talked with "the mental health officers. It had to be explained to the men all the time that what they were doing was right. We constantly needed legitimisation".

David Yiftach, Major Okev's lawyer, says that these experiences had affected his client's mind years later. Members of Rimon reportedly carried a book with the names of 200 suspects, some written in black and 50-60 in red. The soldiers in the squad knew that they were not expected to bring back alive those whose names were written in red, though they never received written orders to kill them.