Deadly 'mistakes' by Israeli army draw rare criticism

The Israeli army has killed as many as 12 Palestinian noncombatants since Thursday.

Israelis opening up the country's most popular newspaper Monday faced a disturbing sequence of photos.

These were not the usual pictures that Yediot Ahronot runs of civilians or soldiers killed in Palestinian attacks, of Israeli newlywed couples or pregnant mothers whose lives were cut short.

They were the pictures of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army. They showed the aftermath of six army actions in which 33 presumed noncombatants were killed since late June, coupled with a headline that said "Trigger happy."

The last picture was of Palestinians killed by troops near Hebron on Sunday. According to eyewitness accounts, the four victims were taken from outside the stone quarry where they worked and shot by troops. An army spokesman said the people shot were "four terrorists on their way to carrying out an attack."

The incident in Bani Naim comes on the heels of two other incidents in which eight civilians have been killed since Thursday, four by a tank and four by a helicopter assassination.

Israel apologized for the first two incidents, and after the third, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ordered an investigation. But dovish activists do not see much change ensuing. They say society as a whole has become inured to the deaths of Palestinians. The government, however, says that Israel is still sensitive to human lives, despite facing terrorism, as evidenced by the investigation, and it warns against equating Israeli army "mistakes" with what it describes as terrorist actions by the Palestinians.

The unusual media sympathy for the Palestinians and the questioning of the army is largely because of the lull in Palestinian suicide bombings against Israel, says one analyst. "There is a direct relationship between Israelis being on the receiving end of terrorism and public tolerance for tough military steps," says Yaron Ezrachi, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Galia Golan, an activist in Peace Now, says: "I think Palestinian life was always [seen as] relatively cheap, but with the terrorism of the past two years even those Israelis who believe in a two-state solution feel that Palestinians who are killed deserve it. There is definitely a sense of simply ignoring Palestinian deaths, and ... the answer people come up with is that they must have been responsible for terrorism. It is not that people are cruel or unthinking, but that terrorism has hardened them."

In the view of the human rights group B'tselem, the spate of civilian deaths reflects a policy that has been in effect since the fighting started two years ago of "carelessness to the lives of Palestinians." Elements of this policy include free-wheeling and vague shooting regulations and a lack of enforcement against soldiers who misuse their weapons. "The army does not intend to kill civilians, but when so many die this lack of intention does not reduce the heaviness of the responsibility of soldiers for these killings," says Ofer Feuerstein, a B'tselem spokesman. He says that during the first year and a half of the intifada, when 697 Palestinians were killed and thousands injured by soldiers, only four military police indictments were issued for misuse of weapons.

Mr. Ezrachi says the signals soldiers receive from the top brass and fears for their own personal safety also lead to civilian deaths. He referred to an Aug. 25 statement by chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, who likened the Palestinian intifada to a disease. "The characteristics of that threat are invisible, like cancer," he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Army officials dismiss that charge. "We try to separate the innocent Palestinians from terrorists, but the terrorists make it difficult by using civilian infrastructure. When a gunman runs from soldiers, they will hide in civilians houses, or suspects fleeing in cars take other passengers."

Tzipi Livne, a minister from the Likud party, says: "There is a difference between a terrorist with an explosive belt who bombs a pizzeria and an incident that takes place with troops in our army. Murder is not the same as a death caused by negligence."

But Musa Zaabout, a Palestinian legislator from Gaza City, says, "We see all of these attacks against our civilians as deliberate. This is part of an effort by Sharon to make the Palestinians surrender by killing them everywhere and everytime."

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