Israeli court accuses its soldiers of stoning and humiliating civilians

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The Independent Online

Israel's army has brought criminal charges against several of its own men for the first time since the start of an 11-month conflict in which its soldiers have shot dead hundreds of Palestinian protesters, beaten civilians, fired on journalists and threatened diplomats.

A military court has indicted four men from the Israel Defence Forces' Shimshon Brigade – permanently stationed in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – on charges of beating, stoning and humiliating Palestinians and smashing up their vehicles.

The case is shocking, even by the grim standards of the intifada, which has seen horrific human rights abuses by men in uniform on both sides. The four soldiers are not only accused of abusing Palestinian civilians, but of forcing a group of young Arab men under the threat of death to stand against a wall and beat each other up while they watched.

The alleged attack, on 23 July, was unearthed by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, and has drawn an unusually swift and decisive response from the Israeli authorities. Since the start of the intifada, Israel has suspended the practice of holding mandatory investigations by its military police whenever a Palestinian in the West Bank or Gaza – other than guerrillas involved in attacks – is killed by an Israeli soldier.

Yesterday, Israeli troops in Gaza shot dead an 11-year-old boy who was throwing stones: the odds are overwhelmingly against the army taking any action against the soldier who pulled the trigger.

Human rights activists have received almost daily complaints of beatings by soldiers, and a mountain of evidence has emerged of Israeli troops shooting unarmed civilians, abusing Palestinians at checkpoints and doing nothing to stop settlers from attacking Arabs and their property.

Among the complaints levelled is one from the Foreign Office over an incident in which British officials travelling through the West Bank were stopped by a patrol and forced out of their vehicle at gunpoint. And yet many complaints have been ignored, and there have been fewer than a dozen official investigations. Those that have been launched have tended to drag on for weeks.

But the Shimshon Brigade case has yielded a different response from the army, producing indictments in less than a month. The men also face charges of trying to obstruct justice by co-ordinating their testimony, and lying to their brigade commander and Israeli police investigators.

Ya'el Stein, B'Tselem's research director, said: "We are very happy to see the army is taking this case seriously, but this is part of a phenomenon which we see all the time. We send them many cases about beatings and they do not do anything. They should not be treating this as an isolated incident."

B'Tselem's findings make shocking reading. Khaled Mershed Hassan Rawashdeh, a 36-year-old taxi driver, told its researchers that the soldiers ordered them to beat each other in pairs. He said: "They threatened to shoot anyone who didn't do it, and whoever wanted to be a martyr just had to disobey that order. So we began to beat each other with our fists in the head and the face ... This lasted for about 10 minutes. Then they told one of the men to beat us one by one. He refused, but the soldiers threatened to kill him on the spot."

A spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces, asked about the indictments, denied there had been a change of policy. "In this case we had more materials with which to bring an investigation and get results."

* Two Palestinians were killed yesterday while resisting Israeli soldiers who had entered Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank city of Hebron. Witnesses said Palestinian gunmen had surrounded troops in one area of the city.

The Israeli army said later it was withdrawing after briefly entering to destroy houses that had been used to fire on Jewish settlements below. An army spokeswoman said men from the Abu Sneineh neighbourhood had shot at and wounded an 11-year-old settler boy.

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