Despite evidence of Army abuses, Israel sticks to iron-fist policy

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Tuesday he intends to set up an appeal court for Palestinians convicted by military tribunals in the occupied territories. The move, recommended earlier this month by Israel's Supreme Court, would for the first time give legal recourse to residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas under Israeli military rule for more than 20 years.

Mr. Rabin's announcement came amid mounting evidence of excessive violence used by some Israeli Army troops in quelling Palestinian unrest.

But neither the announcement - nor a continuing investigation Tuesday into the latest allegations of Army brutality - gave any sign that defense officials are rethinking the officially declared policy of controlling Palestinian unrest through beatings. Critics in Israel and overseas have blamed the official policy of beatings for unleashing violent impulses in many soldiers against innocent and defenseless detainees.

The incident being investigated Tuesday occurred 12 days ago in the West Bank village of Salem. Local residents accuse soldiers of using a bulldozer to bury alive four Palestinian youths after a riot. The teen-agers were unconscious when dug out by villagers and hospitalized. Two soldiers have since been arrested.

Defense officials have repeatedly maintained that such excesses constitute ``aberrations'' of a policy aimed at subduing rioters and violence.

But visits to hospitals and towns in the occupied territories reveal a far more systematic pattern of beating - often involving innocent bystanders, or persons already detained and handcuffed.

According to many observers, the evidence points, at best, to a breakdown in the transmission of official policy to lower command levels in the field. Critics question whether the senior Army command is in sufficient control of its troops.

Gen. Amram Mitzna, military commander of the West Bank, insists that he has driven home the strict orders to soldiers and commanders. But there are persistent reports of mid-level commanders ordering soldiers to go into homes, seize young men, and beat them in order to frighten the population into submission.

There is also evidence of a lack of awareness by the senior command of excesses committed by soldiers. On more than one occasion, the Army has learned of the excesses from journalists who witnessed the incidents or heard about them from Palestinians. General Mitzna learned of the burial at Salem village days after it occurred - and only after it was reported in the local and foreign press.

In the occupied territories, those bearing signs of beatings, including broken limbs, are older men and women who say they were beaten on the street or after being taken from their homes. Many say they were not involved in any violence. In at least two cases, the soldiers have reported being ordered to go into homes at night and beat young men. Some villages and towns bear signs of vandalization by troops: broken windows in homes and cars, smashed television sets, and broken furniture.

A delegation of the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights - an independent group which has studied the medical aspects of human rights cases in 20 countries - said it had found evidence of ``an uncontrolled epidemic of violence by the army'' during its visit to hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza.

Members of the group said they had seen repeated cases of broken limbs, indicating that severe beatings ``cannot be considered aberrations, and they come closer to being the norm.''

One critic of the beating policy, leftist Knesset member Yair Tzaban, this week called on soldiers to disobey ``illegal orders'' such as those to break bones or beat people at random. Rabin said such calls were a recipe for anarchy.

An additional issue of controversy is punishment of Army offenders. Mitzna has said that ``a few'' soldiers guilty of improper behavior had been courtmartialed, but no details have been released regarding their punishment. Other soldiers have been dismissed from their units or denied home leave.

Critics say that Mitzna is showing lenience which will only lead to more excesses by troops.

``The line troops must know clearly that their commanders and the government will not tolerate this kind of behavior,'' said Dr. Leon Shapiro, a member of the Physicians for Human Rights delegation.

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