TEL AVIV (Feb. 17)
An incident in which Israel Defense Force soldiers attempted to bury four Arab youths alive was “totally unacceptable by IDF standards and any civilized norms,” a ranking IDF officer said Tuesday.
“Whoever was responsible for this will be punished accordingly,” Maj. Gen. Ehud Barak, the IDF deputy chief of staff, told foreign news correspondents at a lengthy briefing Tuesday.
But the general defended the overall conduct of IDF soldiers dealing with unrest in the administered territories. By and large they have responded appropriately and professionally to rioters under difficult and unusual circumstances, he said.
He admitted that “deviations and irregularities have occurred” and vowed they would be punished, “not for the benefit of the foreign press, but to uphold the standards of our army.”
Barak also said Jewish settlers in the territories have behaved so far with self-control and restraint. There have been some deviations “and we will treat these cases accordingly,” he said.
But the general, a former chief of military intelligence, was less than optimistic about prospects for a return to normalcy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While the situation has been “relatively calm” in the past few days, the territories continue to “simmer” and new riots could erupt at any time “due to trivial events here” or to events abroad, he said.
SAYS RIOTING IS INDIGENOUS
Barak stressed that the Arab uprising was indigenous, not directed by external sources, and said it stemmed from accumulated frustrations, political, economic and personal, especially in the overcrowded refugee camps.
The rioting, which began last Dec. 9 and has continued almost unabated since then, could just as easily have been triggered “six months later or two weeks earlier,” he said.
He spoke of a nascent Palestinian leadership that operates not on a regional basis but is concentrated locally, in towns and villages where individuals have some control over immediate events.
Nevertheless, their “coordination has been improving bit by bit for a long time,” he said.
Barak maintained that “there’s no well-defined hierarchy with widely accepted leaders who decide what should or shouldn’t be done. It’s far more a matter of intuition and common sense.”
He could not give an exact number of people leading and inciting the riots. His wide-ranging estimate was “several hundred people, or perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 young people are active.”
‘WIDESPREAD VIOENT UPRISING’
In short, the IDF “is confronting a widespread violent uprising led by a nucleus of activists who have the support of the masses,” the deputy chief of staff said.
He said the rioters have refrained so far from using lethal weapons, using rocks and bottles instead, not because of instructions from the Palestine Liberation Organization or other Arab groups abroad.
“There are few weapons for sure,” and the population in the territories has not resorted to them because of “the high risk” of casualties to themselves, he explained. They also do not want to detract from “the genuine accomplishments” that the rioters have achieved both here and abroad, Barak said.
He put the number of Palestinian casualties since the disturbances began more than two months ago at 53 killed and several hundred wounded. He said about 200 Jews have been injured, most of them only slightly.
Barak was questioned closely about the burial alive of four Arab youths in Kafr Salim village, near Nablus, on Feb. 5. An army bulldozer piled earth over the four, who allegedly participated in rioting and stoning. They were rescued by villagers after the IDF left the scene.
Barak said the two soldiers known to have participated in the incident are a sergeant major and another non-commissioned officer. He said he did not know if an IDF officer was present at the time, but if so, he too would be punished.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Tuesday that he understood no officer was at the scene.
There have been several cases of irregularities, Barak said, and “some have been investigated, others will be investigated.”
But pressed to specify what exactly constitutes excessive and illegal use of force, the general replied, “I really believe there is no possible way to put every possible situation on a complicated blueprint. There is no simple way to suppress violent riots without using force. It is far more complicated than it might seem from a well-heated briefing room like this one.”
Finally, the deputy chief of staff stressed that the IDF would continue to use force when and where justified in order to put down riots. He noted, however, “We do not believe there is a reason to beat innocent people in their homes.”