Israel says Palestinians were killed 'by mistake'

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The Independent Online

Israel admitted yesterday that its forces made a mistake when they shot dead five Palestinian policemen, who were ambushed at a West Bank checkpoint on Monday.

Israel admitted yesterday that its forces made a mistake when they shot dead five Palestinian policemen, who were ambushed at a West Bank checkpoint on Monday.

The Israeli soldiers who carried out the attack ­ which caused a furore in the Arab world ­ were looking for members of the Palestinian security organisation Force 17, a senior government spokesman revealed. "The minute it was clear there was a mistaken identity, we launched an investigation," said an aide to the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

The Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, expressed regret, although he stopped short of categorically admitting that it was a blunder. "If it is a mistake, I'm sure it wasn't done by intention. Unfortunately, war has its own terrible costs," he said.

The admission is embarrassing for Israel and especially its army, which refused to comment yesterday but which earlier conceded that the troops who carried out the killing did not come under fire. But the killings raise more fundamental questions about the conduct of the Israeli military, whose officers were recently given more scope to act without consultation with the government. The admission suggests the troops killed the wrong men because of an intelligence foul-up.

Israeli officials make no secret that the army liquidates those it believes to be engaged in hostilities against Israel. Human rights groups ­ and the Palestinians ­ have repeatedly pointed out that extra-judicial killings are an abuse of international humanitarian law and could amount to a war crime.

Palestinians described the killing of the five policemen ­ gunned down in a tin shed near Ramallah ­ as a military assassination. Negotiators from the PLO cited the case in their written response to the Mitchell report, whose findings they and the US State Department are promoting as a possible "road map" towards a truce.

The Palestinian submission points out that attacks on people "considered activists, or allegedly involved in encouraging resistance to Israel's occupation, clearly contravene" Articles 51, 75, and 85 of the Protocol to the Geneva Convention 1977 ­ unsigned by Israel ­ which "considers such attacks grave breaches and war crimes".

Yesterday, the Palestinians produced a policeman who said he survived the massacre. Ahmed Annajar said the Israelis never approached the outpost but shot from nearby hills and buildings. He survived by crawling into a hole in the ground. "This was an assassination, a military operation," he said.

The affair comes as international pressure mounts on Israel over its rejection of one of the key recommendations in the Mitchell report, a freeze on settlement building. The US revealed yesterday that Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, had tried to arrange a meeting this month with Yasser Arafat.

But in the region, the misery continued. A 14-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip yesterday, and both sides spent the day mourning the dead ­ four Palestinians and one Israeli ­ from Tuesday's violence.

Later, Israeli helicopters fired rockets at a police building in Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp. Palestinian police officials, requesting anonymity, said at least 10 people were wounded at the security forces compound in the camp where about 60,000 Palestinians live.

The front wall of the second storey, housing the Preventive Security Services, collapsed. A statement from the Israeli military said it would "continue to fight Palestinian terror".