Israeli 'indiscriminate' use of weapons questioned

Saturday, three Palestinians were killed with flachettes.

The damage spread widely in this tiny Palestinian community, as befits the Israeli weapon that killed three civilian women Saturday night and deepened the mistrust that is hanging over efforts to reach a durable Middle East cease-fire.

The weapon was a tank shell packed with flachettes: small, deadly darts that spread out in an arc of dozens of meters with such force that they can penetrate concrete blocks.

The use of the weapon in populated areas, which the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem says violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, highlights the continued risks faced by Palestinian civilians despite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's declaration late last month of an Israeli cease-fire.

Israeli army chief of staff Gen. Shaul Mofaz says that the deaths here were possibly the result of "a mistake in which they used the wrong range. It is night, it is dark, you are fired upon, and it is possible to make a mistake."

The unabated mistrust and only partially reduced violence means that the contacts the two sides are maintaining through CIA Director George Tenet, currently visiting the region, have more to do with their relations with Washington than any inherent belief that a lasting cease-fire will actually come about. The two sides are far apart on Israel's demand that the Palestinian Authority re-arrest dozens of militants from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which Israel holds responsible for bombing attacks and who were freed at the start of the uprising eight months ago. The PA is refusing to make the arrests.

"If the Israelis are killing our people daily, are we supposed to make arrests?" asks Industry Minister Saadi Krunz. "What would we say to our people? Will the Israelis arrest the soldiers responsible for killing these women? Do they do anything to stop these killings?"

Dore Gold, an adviser to Mr. Sharon, says that the arrests are the "litmus test" for a de-escalation. "We are working to help Tenet have his best shot to make the cease-fire work. And if it does not work, it will be because of [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat, not Tenet."

According to a report published Sunday in Ha'aretz, flachette shells have been banned in the West Bank by Yitzhak Eitan, the local commander, because of the risk they pose to civilians.

Here in al-Hadabe, near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, blood-stained sheets were visible in the shack that housed Nasra Malalha, Samia Malalha, and Hekmat Malalha, the first fatalities since Mr. Arafat declared the cease-fire. Around the structure, 1-1/2 inch flachettes were stuck in a rock, wooden planks, a tree, and a television antenna.

Muawiya Hassanein, the physician in charge of emergency services at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, said: "There were more than a dozen nails in each one." Two other people were wounded by nails, he said.

Dr. Hassanein said he first saw cases of flachette injuries in February and has offered treatment for them in four instances of Israeli shooting since then.

The residents of al-Hadabe, bedouin refugees from what became southern Israel in 1948, raise livestock for a living. At least three animals, too, have been killed.

B'Tselem staffer Lior Yavne says of the weapon: "The laws of war do not explicitly prohibit it, but when it is used in a populated area, it is the equivalent of indiscriminate fire. This is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention."

In the perception of Israeli leaders, flachettes are not the issue. The army yesterday said it would not comment on the types of weapons soldiers were using. Officials say that continued Palestinian mortar and shooting attacks, as well as the injury that led to the death yesterday of an infant son of Jewish settlers, fly in the face of Arafat's declaration of a cease-fire 10 days ago. The killing of the Malalhas, which is being investigated by the army, was touched off by Palestinian gunfire, they say.

Sheikh Sueleiman Abu Abdul-Rahman, a mosque preacher in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, said while touring al-Hadabe that international observers are exactly what is needed. "What happened here was a big crime," he said.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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