Shooting of activist spurs Israeli scrutiny

With more than 2,200 Palestinians killed in the West Bank and Gaza and a great many more injured by army gunfire during three years of fighting, the wounding of a young man during a demonstration would not be expected to make headlines in Israel.

But Sunday, hardly a newscast went by without mention of the man's condition, and his shooting ignited calls for an independent inquiry. This time, the soldiers had shot an Israeli, a kibbutznik who himself was wearing an army uniform until a few weeks ago.

Human rights groups argue that the shooting of Gil Naamati Friday during a demonstration against the separation barrier in the West Bank confirms what they have been charging for three years: that the army regularly shoots, and often kills Palestinians, when soldiers' lives are not endangered. The army has consistently denied the charge, stressing that soldiers take pains and even put themselves at risk to avoid harming noncombatants.

The chief of staff, who visited Mr. Naamati in the hospital, termed the shooting a "grave incident" and appointed a colonel to investigate it. An American activist was also lightly injured by the gunfire.

"This gives the public an indication of what is happening during other shootings," says Zehava Galon, a legislator for the liberal Meretz party. "When it is a Palestinian it is permissible to shoot to kill and there are hardly any investigations. When you do not investigate, it establishes a norm, and this is what occurs."

The shooting prompted rare criticism of the army from right wingers, including the Israeli police minister, Tzahi Hanegbi. Other hard-liners, however, backed the army and accused Naamati of collaborating with Israel's enemies.

Human rights groups say the incident raises questions about the nature of the army's classified rules of engagement and why troops are often not equipped with nonlethal means of crowd control. [Editor's note: The original version of this story omitted the word 'often.']

The army has often stressed that this is primarily a shooting war and that the Palestinian fighters use civilians as cover.

Soldiers involved said during initial debriefing that until they fired, they thought the demonstrators were all Palestinians, Israeli media reports said. Israeli demonstrators from the group Anarchists against Walls dispute this, saying they chanted slogans in Hebrew to the soldiers, including calls on them to refuse to perform military service in the West Bank.

"Who we were was clear," says Jonathan Pollack, one of the Israeli demonstrators. About 50 Israelis were joined by 20 internationals and 200 Palestinians, he says.

"There were no crowd control measures, no tear gas and no concussion grenades," he says. "I cannot say if there were shots in the air."

Naamati was shot in the legs. According to his father, Uri, a local government leader in southern Israel, Gil had served as a soldier in the West Bank and what he experienced in uniform "gave him a bad feeling" and led him to oppose Israeli policies.

Not everyone felt sorry for Naamati. Uzi Landau, a minister, said: "the fence's purpose is to save the lives of Israeli citizens and whoever harms it is paving the way for suicide bombers to harm us."

The Israeli human rights group B'tselem called on the army to go beyond its probe of the incident and order military police to investigate each of the approximately 2,300 deaths of Palestinians at the hands of soldiers during the intifada. "In hundreds of cases Palestinians have been shot without being involved in combat activity," says spokesman Noam Hoffstater. In contrast to the first intifada, 1987-93, when every noncombatant death was investigated, the army, by its own statistics, has opened 65 military-police investigations for causing wrongful death, with ten indictments issued.

The army says the circumstances are completely different from the first intifada, which was marked mainly by stonethrowing. Now, soldiers are engaged in "armed conflict" facing gunmen and explosive devices. In such a conflict, the army says, the death of a civilian at the hands of soldiers does not necessarily indicate criminal behavior.

Regarding the rules of engagement, which are kept classified, Amos Harel, the military correspondent of Ha'aretz, wrote Sunday; "For a long time now the army has stopped restricting the use of live fire to instances where soldiers lives are clearly endangered."

Giora Eiland, a major general who has been tapped to head Israel's National Security Council said earlier this year: "The rules of engagement are not fixed, they always have to be adapted to circumstances. They should be flexible with different interpretations in real time. Every specific operation requires specific rules of engagement. And we have thousands of operations."

The guiding principle, he says, is that soldiers should "shoot at those who should be shot and avoid those who should not be shot."

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