Israeli troops 'under orders' not to shoot Jewish settlers: Hebron massacre inquiry shocked by disclosure of army instructions

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The Independent Online
ISRAELI troops are under strict orders never to shoot at Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, even if they are killing Arabs, it emerged yesterday. Although it had been widely suspected that Israeli soldiers were under orders to be lenient with often-truculent settlers, this is the first time that rules of engagement have been spelt out in public.

The orders were described by Chief Superintendent Meir Tayar, Hebron head of the border police, a paramilitary force attached to the Defence Ministry, in testimony before the judicial commission of inquiry into the 25 February Hebron mosque massacre. It means that troops would not have been permitted under any circumstances to have opened fire on Baruch Goldstein while he was firing into crowds of Muslim worshippers.

The testimony stunned the five- member commission, and appeared to throw the military and political establishment in Israel into confusion. At first, some doubt was thrown on the witness' testimony, but later evidence only appeared to confirm it.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister and Defence Minister, who travels to Washington next week to seek US help to re-start the peace negotiations, refused to comment last night. But the testimony is certain to put Mr Rabin under new pressure to uproot settlements, and raises highly damaging questions about Israeli responsibility for the massacre, and about legal immunities granted to Jewish settlers.

Palestinian leaders and some liberal Israeli commentators last night said that the testimony should not have come as a surprise, in the wake of mounting evidence that the Israeli army has repeatedly failed to act against violent Jewish settlers who attack Palestinians, while opening fire on unarmed Palestinian stone-throwers.

'This only proves what we have always said - that there are double values on human life - settlers, literally, can get away with murder and are not accountable. People, as so often, do not believe us until it is too late,' said Hanan Ashrawi, former spokeswoman for the Palestinian peace delegation.

While the testimony was being heard, tension again mounted in Hebron as Palestinians protested and threw stones outside Beit Hadassah, one of the most militant Jewish settlements in the centre of the town.

The evidence came on the third day of the commission of inquiry, which has already been told of major security lapses on the night of the massacre by Israeli forces assigned to guard the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Chief Superintendent Tayar disclosed the existence of the order after first describing how guards assigned to the mosque were late arriving on duty. He said he would not have been able to prevent the massacre even if he had been present because of special open-fire rules in relation to Jewish settlers.

Pressed by the judges he said: 'Under no circumstances can he (a settler) be fired upon.'

Chief Superintendent Tayar then stated that the order had been issued by senior army officers following controversy last year over television pictures showing Jewish settlers in Hebron shooting at Palestinians.

He named a battalion commander, Meir Khalifi, as the man who gave the instructions, saying the orders were oral, not written.

Later, Major-General Shaul Mofaz, the army commander in the West Bank, said that if he had seen a Jew killing Arabs in the mosque he would have shot him. However, he did not deny the existence of the controversial order, saying he understood the principle behind it to mean: 'We do not shoot Jews. they are not the enemy.'

JERUSALEM - Binyamin Kahane, the son of the late anti-Arab Rabbi Meir Kahane, was jailed for nine months yesterday for an attack on police and joining an illegal gathering in 1991, Israel's Itim news agency said, Reuter reports. The Israeli magistrate, Amiram Sharon, in the town of Hadera passed the sentence on Kahane, 28, head of the militant 'Kahane Lives' movement formed after his father's assassination in New York in 1990.