Evidence from Israeli soldiers forces inquiries into deaths of Palestinians

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The Independent Online

The investigations were opened after the "Breaking the Silence" organisation collected hundreds of testimonies from ex-soldiers. They wanted to talk for the first time about incidents from their military service during the second intifada that had disturbed or angered them.

In one testimony, a former staff sergeant in an elite unit claims a brigade commander told his men that "every kid you see with a stone, you may shoot him" on the grounds that a stone is a "murder weapon" and the commander had seen a woman being hit by a stone.

In a second case, a former first sergeant in another elite unit of the famous Golani Brigade told The Independent how a 16-year-old boy was shot dead in Nablus. He was picking up a stone to throw at troops less than three months after men in the unit had complained to officers that they lacked the non-lethal weapons or the clear rules of engagement needed to handle stone-throwing teenagers.

Some of the graphic descriptions have raised serious questions over whether the military's rules of engagement are drawn tightly enough to prevent avoidable civilian deaths.

One former naval captain has testified on video that, when he was in charge of a reconnaissance vessel off the coast of Gaza entrusted with bombarding militant and security-force targets in the Strip during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, he and other officers were briefed that he wanted at " least two terrorists every night". The former officer testified: " He said: 'I want two dead every night'."

Avichai Sharon, a spokesman for Breaking the Silence, served in an elite unit of the Golani and carried out arrests in the West Bank. He told how, on a mission in February, his squad was in an open-backed, partially armoured vehicle when a "pretty scary" incident of brick-throwing occurred. He said: "Two guys were sitting in the back ... [and] out of instinct started shooting. One was a machine-gunner, the other a regular sharpshooter. They took some shots. I have no idea whether someone was hurt out there ... We just continued driving. We didn't know if we hit someone or we didn't hit someone."

Mr Sharon continued: "We got back from that mission, back to base. We had a debriefing. If I remember correctly, it was with our squad officer. And we told him a lot of the guys said the rules of engagement are not clear enough in this kind of situation. That we don't have any rubber bullets or tear gas or any alternatives other than our lethal weapons to use; and if we had tear gas we would have solved all the problems."

He said the men "never got a reply" but that, in an incident two or three months later, the squad was surrounding a house, also in Nablus, when teenagers began throwing stones at their vehicle and a nearby tank. They were initially ordered to shoot in the air and, after the "regular game ... of cat and mouse", to shoot in the legs. "One of the guys securing the alley was standing at the corner. He shot. He aimed at one of the kid's legs and, at exactly the same second, the kid bent down to pick up a stone. Instead of getting hit in the leg, he got hit in the chest, over there."

Mr Sharon said the unit then heard on the radio that the boy ­ between 14 and 16 ­ had been killed. "And then we just went back. We finished our operation and continued our daily routine. There was no questioning. Of course, no one thought there should be any change in the rules of engagement or that there should be any kind of change in the equipment we use."

While charges by Palestinians of indiscriminate killing of civilians during more than four years of conflict from October 2000 are commonplace, it is only recently that former soldiers, encouraged by Breaking the Silence, have testified in this way.

Mr Sharon, whose organisation is calling for an independent public-inspection committee into the army, claimed last night that " these testimonies expose the heart and soul of what is going on in Israel's forces". He added that the rules of engagement for each operation were not written down but passed down orally.

An IDF spokesman said last night that the military prosecutor-general laid down clear procedures for investigating incidents in which persons "not involved in terrorism" were killed or hurt, and that there was a clear system in which field leaders, up to brigade commander, investigated each incident.

Although critical of some aspects of Breaking the Silence, the army had opened investigations into 17 incidents cited in their testimonies. The spokes-man said that one of his "qualms" about the organisation had been that it had come forward with its claims long after the incidents took place. Six of the investigations had been shelved for lack of evidence. He added: "The IDF operates within our democratic legal system and shares one and the same framework." He said its procedures were similar to those of the civil police.