Monday, July 28, 2003

This Guardian article had me shaken this morning. Quite disturbing if it rings true. Here are some excerpts. It describes some as collateral damage, some as indiscriminate shooting, some as purposeful targets.

The numbers are staggering; one in five Palestinian dead is a child. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) says at least 408 Palestinian children have been killed since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000. Nearly half were killed in the Gaza strip, and most of those died in two refugee camps in the south, Khan Yunis and Rafah. The PCHR says they were victims of "indiscriminate shooting, excessive force, a shoot-to-kill policy and the deliberate targeting of children".


The army offered a senior officer of its southern command to discuss the shooting of these six children over a period of just 10 weeks earlier this year. The military told me I could not name him, even though his identity is no secret to the Israeli public or his enemies; it was this officer who explained to the nation how an army bulldozer came to crush to death the young American peace activist, Rachel Corrie.

"I want you to know we are not a bunch of crazies down here," he says. At his headquarters in the Gush Khatif Jewish settlement in Gaza, the commander rattles through the army's version of the shootings: either the military knew nothing of them, or the children had been caught in crossfire - a justification used so frequently, and so often disproved, that it is rarely believed. But three hours later, after poring over maps and military logs, timings and regulations, he concedes that his soldiers were responsible - even culpable - in several of the killings.

The Israeli army's instinctive response is to muddy the waters when confronted with a controversial killing. At first, it questioned whether Huda was even shot. I described for the soldiers the scene in the classroom with blood rippling up the wall behind the child's desk.

"I don't know how this happened," says the commander. "I take responsibility for this. It could have been one of ours. I think it probably was."

The killing of Haneen is clearer in the commander's mind. "We checked it and we know that on the same day there was shooting of a mortar," he says. "The troops from the post shot back at the area where the mortar was launched, the area where the girl was killed. We didn't see if we hit someone. I assume that a stray bullet hit Haneen. Unfortunately." Doesn't he think that simply shooting back in the general direction of a mortar attack is irresponsible at best? He says not. "You cannot have soldiers sitting and doing nothing when they are shot at," he says.


He may concede his soldiers are responsible for shooting Huda and Haneen, but he denies their responsibility for the slaying of Rahman, the nine-year-old shot while hanging the flag at the security fence. "We saw the children, we saw them for sure. They always demonstrate in this area after funerals. But I don't have any report from the troops on our shooting on this occasion," he says. "We have rules of engagement that we don't shoot children."


The killing of Ali and wounding of his five-year-old brother is particularly disturbing because the commander admits there was no combat and the boys were the focus of the soldier's attention. The Ghureiz house lies on the very edge of Rafah. At the bottom of the street, an Israeli armoured vehicle and guard posts sit in the midst of a "no-go" area of tangled wire, broken buildings and mud. On the other side is the Egyptian border. "There were three kids. They were playing 50m from the house," says Ghureiz. "The Israelis fired two or three bullets, maybe more. No one could have made a mistake. They were only 100m from the children. I don't know why they did it. Ali was shot in the face immediately below his left eye. It was a big bullet. It did a lot of damage," he whispers.

"This is the first I've heard of this," says the commander. "According to the log, in the afternoon there were children trying to cross the border. The tower fired five bullets and didn't report any children hurt. Usually with children this age, we don't shoot. There is a very strict rule of engagement about shooting at children. You don't do it." But Ali is dead. "They [Palestinian fighters] send children to the fence. An older guy, usually 25 or so, gives them the order to go to the fence, or dig next to it. They know we don't shoot at children. If one of my soldiers goes out to chase them away, a sniper will be waiting for him."

Fences usually mark defined limits but, as with so much in the occupied territories, the rules are deliberately vague. There is an ill-defined ban on "approaching" the security fences separating Gaza from Israel or the Jewish settlements. "We have a danger zone 100 to 200m from the fence around Gush Katif [settlement]. They [the Palestinians] know where the danger zone is," the commander says. But many houses in Rafah and Khan Yunis are within the "danger zone". Children play in its shadow, and many adults fear walking to their own front doors.

"We have in our rules of engagement how to handle this," the commander says. "During the day, if someone is inside the zone without a weapon and not attempting to harm or with hostile intent, then we do not shoot. If he has a weapon or hostile intent, you can shoot to kill. If he doesn't have a weapon, you shoot 50m from him into something solid that will stop the bullet, like a wall. You shoot twice in the air, and if he continues to move then you are allowed to shoot him in the leg."

The regulations are drummed into every soldier, but there is ample evidence that the army barely enforces them. The military's critics say the vast majority of soldiers do not commit such crimes but those that do are rarely called to account. The result is an atmosphere of impunity. Israel's army chief-of-staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, claims that every shooting of a civilian is investigated. "Harming innocent civilians is firstly a matter of morals and values, and we cannot permit ourselves to let this happen. I deal with it personally," he told the Israeli press. But Yaalon has not dealt personally with any of the killings of the six children reported on here.

The army's indifferent handling of the shootings of civilians has even drawn stinging criticism from a member of Ariel Sharon's Likud party in the Israeli parliament, Michael Eitan. "I am not certain that the responsible officials are aware of the fact that there are gross violations of human rights in the field, despite army regulations," he said.

The case of Khalil al-Mughrabi is telling. The 11-year-old was shot dead in Rafah by the Israeli army two years ago as he played football with a group of friends near the security fence. One of Israel's most respected human rights organisations, B'Tselem, wrote to the judge advocate general's office, responsible for prosecuting soldiers, demanding an inquiry. Months later, the office wrote back saying that Khalil was shot by soldiers who acted with "restraint and control" to disperse a riot in the area. However, the judge advocate general's office made the mistake of attaching a copy of its own, supposedly secret, investigation which came to a quite different conclusion - that the riot had been much earlier in the day and the soldiers who shot the child should not have opened fire. The report says a "serious deviation from obligatory norms of behaviour" took place.

In the report, the chief military prosecutor, Colonel Einat Ron, then spelled out alternative false scenarios that should be offered to B'Tselem. B'Tselem said the internal report confirmed that the army has a policy of covering up its crimes. "The message that the judge advocate general's office transmits to soldiers is clear: soldiers who violate the 'Open Fire Regulations', even if their breach results in death, will not be investigated and will not be prosecuted."

Towards the end of the interview, the commander in Gaza finally concedes that his soldiers were at fault to some degree or other in the killing of most - but not all - of the children we discussed. They include a 12-year-old girl, Haneen Abu Sitta, shot dead in Rafah as she walked home from school near a security fence around one of the fortified Jewish settlements. The army moved swiftly to cover it up. It leaked a false story to more compliant parts of the Israeli media, claiming Haneen was shot during a gun battle between troops and "terrorists" in an area known for weapons smuggling across the border from Egypt. But the army commander concedes that there was no battle. "Every name of a child here, it makes me feel bad because it's the fault of my soldiers. I need to learn and see the mistakes of my troops," he says. But by the end of the interview, he is combative again. "I remember the Holocaust. We have a choice, to fight the terrorists or to face being consumed by the flames again," he says.

The Israeli army insists that interviews with its commanders about controversial issues are off the record. Depending on what the officer says, that bar is sometimes lifted. I ask to be able to name the commander in Gaza. The army refuses. "He has admitted his soldiers were responsible for at least some of those killings," says an army spokesman who sat in on the interview. "In this day and age that raises the prospect of war crimes, not here but if he travels abroad he could be arrested some time in the future. Some people might think there is something wrong here."


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