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Facing Daily Gun and Bomb Attacks, Soldiers Now Face Charges of Abuse

August 28, 2001
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During the more than 11 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence, there have been cases where Israeli soldiers have crossed the line.

Last week, for example, an Israeli military court indicted four soldiers from the elite Shimshon Brigade on charges of abusing Palestinians residents from the Hebron area.

According to the indictments, on July 23 the soldiers forced nine Palestinian passengers out of two taxis, slapped them around, used a helmet to hit one of them in the face and beat others with their fists. The soldiers also allegedly smashed the cars’ windows and slashed their tires.

That case is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Lior Yavneh, an official with the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

“The number of cases which are being investigated is very small, and the investigations themselves are very superficial,” Yavneh told JTA.

Eleven months after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, the Israel Defense Force has investigated 12 cases where soldiers allegedly abused Palestinian civilians.

B’Tselem argues that the actual amount of abuse is much higher.

“The case of the Shimshon soldiers was the only one that received serious treatment by army investigators,” said Yavneh, “and that was only because it was exposed in the press.”

Accused by many Israelis of pro-Palestinian bias, B’Tselem uses Palestinian investigators to collect evidence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but claims that every testimony is cross-checked.

As in the first intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993, the media have often brought cases of abuse to public attention.

In 1987, people were shocked by CBS-TV footage that showed Israeli soldiers beating a group of Palestinians near the West Bank city of Nablus.

The incident occurred shortly after then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin instructed soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian rioters.

It was one of the first times the Israeli public saw that defeating the intifada might have a moral cost.

Unlike the previous uprising — when the Palestinians lacked the machine guns, mortars and grenades they have used in recent months — this time around the Israeli public has given little attention or sympathy to reports of abusive conduct by Israeli soldiers.

This may be because there have been too many Israeli casualties during the past 11 months to leave room for sympathy, or because most Israelis believe the Palestinian leadership consciously chose violence after rejecting an Israeli peace proposal that met virtually all of the Palestinians’ demands.

In addition, Palestinian atrocities — like the lynching of two Israeli reservists who wandered into the West Bank city of Ramallah, or the murder and mutilation of two Israeli boys found hiking near their West Bank settlement — have convinced many Israelis that no matter what excesses IDF soldiers might commit, the Palestinians are much worse.

One who doesn’t accept that logic is Gideon Levy, who writes a weekly column for Ha’aretz about the plight of the Palestinian population that is harshly critical of Israeli policy.

Last weekend, the paper published a letter to the editor by one reader who claimed that he skips Levy’s column because he does not want to read about the plight of the enemy.

Meanwhile, the IDF is taking steps to prevent abuse of Palestinian civilians, though officials admit they’re fighting an uphill battle.

“It’s not simple,” said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafcowitz, an army spokesman, “because everywhere in the West Bank we are facing terror attacks, car bombs, sometimes suicide bombers.”

Rafcowitz said the army does not wait for human rights groups to file a complaint before ordering an investigation. However, according to B’Tselem, this is precisely the case.

B’Tselem investigators likewise contend that Palestinians are not inclined to file complaints with the Israeli authorities because they do not believe there ever will be an investigation.

The case of the Shimshon soldiers is considered the worst case of abuse brought to court since violence began last September. It is also the first in which the IDF has pressed criminal charges against soldiers.

“The IDF reviews such events very seriously and is investigating the incident to the full extent of the military law,” according to an IDF communique.

In response to allegations of abuse, Israel’s army chief has ordered more supervision at military checkpoints.

Saying that Israeli soldiers must behave morally, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz last Friday ordered that an army officer, an Arabic-speaking military liaison officer and a police officer be stationed at checkpoints across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In addition, IDF officials say they have launched an education campaign aimed at preventing abuse.

The delicate relation between IDF soldiers and the Palestinian population involves far more than the extreme cases of abuse.

At army roadblocks intended to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into Israel, daily confrontations and long delays leave ordinary Palestinians feeling irritated and humiliated.

Maya Blum of Jerusalem belongs to “Women in Black,” a human rights group that has demonstrated for years against Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

She recently joined female volunteers standing watch at roadblocks around Jerusalem to check how soldiers treat Palestinian civilians.

“By and large, I was pleasantly surprised,” Blum said. “The soldiers listened to us, and sometimes we served as interpreters between the soldiers and the Arabs, preventing unnecessary confrontations.”

But this may be the exception rather than the rule.

Ha’aretz recently quoted high-ranking army officers who said that the publicized incidents of abuse are only “the tip of the iceberg.”

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