TEL AVIV (Sep. 18)
Public opinion is swinging overwhelmingly in favor of Chief of Staff Gen. Raphael Eitan in the controversy over his reduction of the prison sentence imposed by a military tribunal on a former paratroop officer convicted of murdering four Lebanese civilians during Israel’s invasion of south Lebanon in March, 1978. Since Sheli MK Uri Avneri demanded Eitan’s resignation for allegedly lying about the case, petitions and messages of support for the general have been pouring in.
Eitan appeared today before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee where Mapam MK Meir Talmi raised the question of why he reduced the sentence of former Lt. Daniel Pinto from eight to two years. But the committee did not take up the matter. On the suggestion of former Premier Yitzhak Rabin, a leader of the opposition Labor Party, it was decided to defer discussion until Defense Minister Ezer Weizman returns from Washington.
The Pinto case was obscured by military censorship until last weekend when foreign newspapers published a version of the events that led to his conviction. That version, accepted by the courts which tried the 24-year-old paratrooper in closed session, was presented to the Knesset by Avneri last July.
But it was deleted from the Knesset record due to the sensitive nature of the subject. Supporters of Eitan now accuse Avneri of leaking the story to newspapers abroad in violation of security Avneri has denied this. But the tide of public opinion has turned rapidly against the Knesset member and his small, leftist faction.
SUPPORT FROM VARIOUS SECTORS
Support for Eitan has come from groups of reserve officers, retired senior officers, paratroopers, including a legendary war hero, Meir Har-Zion, from various student groups in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and others. Local authorities in the Jezreel Valley sent messages of encouragement to Eitan. The student organization at the religious-oriented Bar Ilan University is collecting signatures on a petition in his support.
Similar petitions bearing the signatures of hundreds of students and paratroopers have already appeared. Some circles are demanding on investigation of who leaked details of the Pinto case to foreign correspondents.
Pinto was convicted of torturing four Lebanese civilians under interrogation in Ein Baal village and then killing them. The courts rejected his claim that he acted in self-defense. Eitan, in reducing his sentence, said he accepted the officer’s version but reversed himself several days later, saying he accepted the court’s guilty verdict. Nevertheless, the Chief of Staff maintained that the circumstances warranted the reduced sentence. Avneri charged that Eitan was fully aware of the gruesome nature of Pinto’s crime.
Meanwhile; it was announced today that Eitan will visit the U.S. shortly to meet with senior American officers and tour military bases and military industry plants.