Human rights groups condemn the use of 'excessive and deadly force'

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Two of the world's leading human rights organisations accused Israel yesterday of using excessive force to control rioting across the occupied territories and in Arab towns.

Two of the world's leading human rights organisations accused Israel yesterday of using excessive force to control rioting across the occupied territories and in Arab towns.

The reports, published by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on the eve of an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission, both said many lives had been lost unnecessarily because of the methods used by Israeli forces. Amnesty also pointed to a failure on the part of both sides to investigate the events of the past three weeks.

Elizabeth Hodgkin, one of two members of the Amnesty team that visited Israel and the occupied territories between 4 and 13 October, said: "There may have been one or two points where Israeli soldiers had the right to return fire because they were fired on. But really there was practically no occasion that we visited that could not have been solved by other policing methods ... without the loss of life."

Ms Hodgkin said the team "found the mindset of the policing of demonstrations and riots in the occupied territories and in Israel was that of using military methods; that is to say, of eliminating an enemy, rather than policing methods of serving the community and preserving lives". She said: "On almost every occasion we saw an extremely rapid escalation to the use of firearms", and the scenes of demonstrations showed evidence of random shooting.

She criticised both Israeli and Palestinian authorities for failing to investigate the deaths and to take lessons from the events for future policing, and urged a review of riot control methods. "The failure of both sides to investigate has led to the kind of breakdown in the rule of law which is now leading to a greater deterioration."

In a more strongly worded assessment, Human Rights Watch said it had found "a pattern of repeated Israeli use of excessive lethal force ... in situations where demonstrators were unarmed and posed no threat of death or serious injury to the security forces or to others". It added: "Where gunfire by Palestinian security forces or armed protesters was a factor, use of lethal force by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) was indiscriminate and not directed at the source of the threat, in violation of international law enforcement standards.

"In Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the IDF regularly used rubber bullets and plastic-coated metal bullets as well as live ammunition in an excessive or indiscriminate manner.

"A particularly egregious example of such unlawful fire is the IDF's use of mediumcalibre bullets against unarmed demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in some instances ... against medical personnel. These military weapons, which inflict massive trauma when striking flesh, are normally used to penetrate concrete and are not appropriate for crowd control."

Today, the 53-nation UN Human Rights Commission will convene in emergency session - only the fifth such meeting in its history - to discuss the violence. Israel has described the meeting, requested by the Arab League, as "inopportune".

Arab members are expected to push for a mandate for UN investigators to travel to the region and for the session to determine the "initial responsibility" of the Likud party leader, Ariel Sharon, for the cycle of violence. His visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City - a holy site for both Jews and Muslims - is widely regarded as the catalyst for the violence.

Responding to the Amnesty report yesterday, Tuvia Israeli, Israel's deputy permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, said: "We tried to control an eruption of violence ... at the beginning trying to be restricted. Once it went out of control and there was shooting and Molotov cocktails, bottles thrown at civilians and soldiers, we had to react ... otherwise the violence would have gone further."