Guerrillas to face new onslaught by Israelis

Defence Minister sends in crack army units to combat Tanzim gunmen, while damning report attacks 'shoot-to-kill' tactics
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The Independent Online

After bombarding Palestinian towns with missiles from tanks and combat helicopters, shooting dead a scores of civilians, and flattening apartment blocks and orchards, Israel's army says it now plans to go on the offensive - and "take the initiative" against Tanzim gunmen.

After bombarding Palestinian towns with missiles from tanks and combat helicopters, shooting dead a scores of civilians, and flattening apartment blocks and orchards, Israel's army says it now plans to go on the offensive - and "take the initiative" against Tanzim gunmen.

The new tactic was announced by the deputy defence minister, Ephraim Sneh, as two human rights groups published damning statistics showing the scale of the killings committed by Israeli soldiers during the month-long intifada.

Israel's armed forces plan to use special squads trained in counter-guerrilla operations against the Tanzim, the armed militia of Fatah, and other gunmen in the occupied territories who have been firing at Israeli army positions and at Jewish settlements. The squads would be "effective and smart" and "no innocent civilian will be killed," said Mr Sneh.

His words - underscoring a similar threat from Israel's armed forces chief of staff, General Shaul Mofaz - failed to reassure the Palestinians, who recall Israel's repeated use of undercover assassination squads. The development was "really threatening and a real sign of escalation," said Saeb Erekat, a former Oslo negotiator for Yasser Arafat.

The conflict is taking on the appearance of a low-level war with a strong undercurrent of sectarian killings motivated by revenge and ethnic hatred. The latter took a nasty new twist yesterday, surfacing - to the alarm of Israelis - in Jerusalem itself. A gunman, believed to be Palestinian, shot dead an Israeli security guard with a bullet to the head outside the National Insurance Institute in the city's eastern Arab sector. A second guard was badly injured.

The outrage in Israel at these deaths was compounded by the news that the bound, stabbed body of an Israeli man had been found near the Jewish settlement of Gilo on the edge of south Jerusalem. A Palestinian guard from a Jerusalem hospital was being treated after being shot by a man thought to be a Jewish settler.

With no prospect of a successful ceasefire - the Sharm el Sheikh agreement was still-born - the signs are that the sectarian bloodletting will only increase, with tit-for-tat lynchings. But most of the killing in the past month has been by Israeli soldiers, using M-16s, steel-coated rubber bullets, and high-powered sniper rifles. Btselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, said that 95 Palestinian civilians had now been killed by the Israeli security forces, plus a further 14 security men and 13 Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

An analysis of the injuries of the dead by Palestinian doctors - working with American Physicians for Human Rights - has found that almost half of the dead were shot in the head or neck, several from the back, while the other half were shot in the chest or stomach.

"This is a very clear indicator that the Israeli army is shooting to kill. They decide which of the demonstrators they want to kill and then they act as assassins," said Dr Mustafa Barghouthi, the president of the Union of Palestinian Medicial Relief Committees, which has been collecting data on the victims. It also found that nine out of 10 were killed by live ammunition - including "dum-dum" style exploding bullets, used by Israeli army marksmen.

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