Israel's military chiefs split over civilian shootings

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The Independent Online

A rash of cases in which Palestinians were killed or maimed as they went about their daily business is deepening divisions within the upper ranks of Israel's army over its conduct during the 15-week intifada.

A rash of cases in which Palestinians were killed or maimed as they went about their daily business is deepening divisions within the upper ranks of Israel's army over its conduct during the 15-week intifada.

Since the start of the new year there has been a series of incidents that have horrified human rights activists, who cite the shootings as furtherevidence that Israel is guilty of violating international law.

More than 300 Palestinians have been killed since the uprising began. Many were shot by Israeli troops on the basis that they represented a deadly threat because they were throwing rocks or petrol bombs. But the latest cases concern Palestinians who were killed in or near their homes, at work or on their way to work.

These include a 24-year-old Palestinian woman, Fatma Abu Jish, who died after a sniper shot at her car not far from the West Bank city of Nablus; a male nurse who was shot after straying into an Israeli-imposed no-go area while walking home in the Gaza Strip; a 70-year-old farmer who was shot dead while tending his fields, also in Gaza; a 10-year-old boy shot outside his home in Hebron; and - in the same town - a young woman who died indoors after Israeli troops fired on her home.

Among the most appalling incidents was an attack on a 50-year-old man at an Israeli checkpoint in Hebron, part of which was caught on video by an Associated Press cameraman and broadcast on Israeli television. The footage shows the unarmed man talking to Israeli soldiers; seconds later, he is on the ground, with his foot dangling by shreds of flesh, having been shot in the leg. Rather than rushing to treat the victim, the soldiers immediately descend on the cameraman, trying to cover the lens and demand to see his papers.

Until now, the Israeli army has largely brazened out international criticism of its repeated killing of Palestinians, although it went to elaborate lengths to try to escape blame for the televised death of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durra, one of the first victims.

But its response to the latest deaths adds to the evidence that some officers within the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are uneasy about their handling of the intifada, and believe that the army has used excessive force. Ha'aretz newspaper reported this week that the IDF was planning to make more use of reserves in the occupied territories, to replace exhausted trigger-happy regular soldiers. Military police investigations have been ordered into several of the most recent cases.

An IDF spokesman, Lt-Col Olivier Rafowicz, insisted that there had been "many" internal investigations in the past few months, and that action had been taken against soldiers who were found to have violated the rules concerning lethal force. "What about the Palestinian side?" he said. "None of them is ever suspended, arrested, or punished."

Human rights activists say that ignoring international law is endemic in the Israeli military. They point out that the armed forces have committed widescale abuses in the past three months - from systematic assassinations, to collectively punishing civilians by blockading them in their homes and tearing down their olive trees.

* Israel and the Palestinians are resuming high-level peace talks, officials from both sides confirmed yesterday. Israeli Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, cut short a trip to France and rushed home yesterday to resume peace talks, Israeli officials said.

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