IT was late afternoon last Aug. 22 when four Israeli soldiers, members of the elite Givati brigade, began the routine patrol that has jeopardized their careers and raised serious questions about the Army they serve. Exactly what happened that day is being slowly pieced together in a tiny courtroom just north of the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, where troops cope with the worst violence of the 14-month Palestinian uprising.
What's clear is that after being caught in a stone-throwing incident in Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp, the four broke into the residence of three suspected protesters. The soldiers then beat the suspects' father, Hani al-Shami. He died hours later. After a preliminary investigation, Army prosecutors put the soldiers on trial for manslaughter.
This trial is drawing wide attention, in part, because it is the first one of soldiers accused of beating a Palestinian to death.
Just as significant, though, is the suggestion emerging from the trial that such beatings, while officially banned under most circumstances, may actually constitute unofficial Army policy, urged on soldiers from the highest echelons of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
``Official policy is based on written orders,'' says Uzi Azmon, one of three attorneys defending the Givati soldiers accused in al-Shami's death. ``What we're seeing is that the oral orders are different. The [four Givati] soldiers acted according to an order that goes all the way up the chain of command to the top levels of the IDF.''
The Givati case has produced a steady stream of allegations implicating senior Army officers in the beatings policy.
``These charges have been raised before, but there's never been so much damning evidence,'' says one trial source who requested anonymity.
Regardless of its outcome, the trial is shaping up as a major embarrassment for the Army. Either the case will demonstrate that the IDF has failed to enforce regulations that prohibit beatings for the purpose of intimidation or punishment. Or it will indicate that such beatings are the result of an unofficial policy framed by ranking Army officers.
Nominally, the trial is focused on the question of whether the four Givati soldiers, three privates and a corporal, actually killed al-Shami.
Prosecutors say that after subduing his wife and two teen-age daughters, the four soldiers turned to al-Shami, using rifle butts and a broomstick and at one point jumping onto his fallen body from a bed.
In their defense, the soldiers say the beating was meant only ``to make him collapse,'' and that al-Shami died as a result of injuries inflicted by other soldiers after he was taken to an Army compound in Jabaliya later that evening.
The defense has been shored up by several witnesses including Yoav Homri, a reservist on duty at the compound. Mr. Homri testified last week that that al-Shami was one of several Palestinians who, brought to the outpost, bound, and blindfolded, were beaten by 10 soldiers ``using boots and weapons aimed at all body parts including the stomach and back'' for at least two hours.
The defense has also been buttressed by persistent allegations that the kind of beatings that led to al-Shami's death and which now put 300 Palestinians in hospitals each month, according to Israeli Knesset member Dedi Zucker, are not merely a problem of soldiers run amok but of an Army that encourages, or even orders, the use of excessive force.
One Israeli military source insists that Army policy prohibits beatings except to ward off an assault or to end a violent demonstration. Beatings are also forbidden as a form of punishment or deterrence, the Army source notes, adding: ``These are orders, not suggestions.''
But witnesses in the Givati trial say that, in practice, such official policy is often superseded by orders such as those issued outside al-Shami's house (according to one defendant) to ``go inside and break him to pieces.''
``The whole chain of command in the Israeli Army told me: If you don't beat the person to the point that he can't walk, you haven't done a thing,'' a military policeman told the three-judge panel in testimony last month.
``Even if the local was not resisting arrest, we were to beat him in order to deter him from further stone-throwing and, if possible, to break legs,'' testified Arye Luzato, another of the Givati defendants who, recalling a widely publicized threat by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin that the IDF would meet violence with violence, said he ``made a connection between what Rabin had said and the specific orders I was given.''
COURT testimony has so far pointed up the line to Yitzhak Mordechai, head of the IDF's Southern Command, which includes Gaza, as the source of orders to beat Palestinians to prevent them from taking part in future protests. Defense attorneys will seek to pin responsibility even higher up the chain of command when they call Army chief of staff Dan Shomron to the witness stand March 1.
Defense attorneys have complained that Army prosecutors have been unwilling to open an investigation into what happened at the Jabaliya Army compound on Aug. 22. The attorneys consider an investigation crucial to linking senior officers to the beating orders.
Last week the chief Army prosecutor in the Givati case, Capt. Yaron Levy, termed such an investigation ``unrealistic'' but declined further comment.
Since the start of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising),at least 13 people have reportedly died from beatings inflicted by soldiers, according to a critical report issued by the United States State Department on Israeli human rights practices last week.
The Givati trial has become something of a cause c'el`ebre for attorneys and human rights groups who point to alleged shortcomings in Israel's military justice system.
Of 700 reported cases of excessive force used by Israeli soldiers since the start of the uprising, many resulting in permanent injuries, only 30 have been brought to trial, notes Mr. Zucker. No soldier convicted for the use of excessive force, including fatal force, has received a sentence of more than 18 months. By comparison, Palestinians found guilty of throwing stones often are jailed for two years or more.
Despite some efforts to enforce discipline, summarizes the State Department report, ``regulations were not rigorously enforced, punishments were usually lenient, and there were many cases of unjustified killing which did not result in disciplinary actions or prosecution.''
``When we take into account the difficult context under which the soldiers operate we feel that the punishments meted out are appropriate,'' responds the military source, who notes the dangers to soldiers stemming from stone-throwing.