Israeli undercover agents routinely kill unarmed Palestinians, report says

June 29, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- An international human rights group has said Israeli undercover agents routinely shoot to kill unarmed Palestinians in violation of the army's own stated rules.

The group, Middle East Watch, said a year-long study to be published today shows 20 "unjustified killings" of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza -- about half the fatalities attributed to the undercover groups in that time.

The lengthy report also quotes one identified and four unnamed Israeli soldiers as saying that the regulations regarding when to open fire are routinely ignored, soldiers lie to investigators, and their superiors willingly encourage cover-ups of suspicious deaths.

One soldier, identified as a sergeant, said a commander sent a bottle of champagne to his unit every time a wanted Palestinian was killed. Palestinians are identified as "wanted" if they are known to be actively engaged in the resistance against Israel.

Military attacks report

The military "utterly rejects the claims," a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in response to the report. He said the army "categorically repudiates the new accusation that soldiers purportedly shoot indiscriminately at innocent local residents."

Many of the allegations presented by Middle East Watch have been made by other human rights groups.

A U.S. State Department report on human rights noted that in 1992 "numerous reports suggest that the [undercover] units frequently killed suspects under circumstances in which it may have been possible to apprehend them without killing."

Lending weight to Middle East Watch's 187-page report is the number of cases studied and the extensive documentation offered.

In addition, the report offers corroboration from what it says are five soldiers who worked with the undercover agents or were involved in operations.

Such testimony is rare and is subject to censorship in Israel.

Much of the research for the report and interviews with soldiers was done by Jim Ron, an Israeli who served as a paratrooper in the IDF. He said yesterday he was "pretty disgusted" by the practices he found among the undercover units.

"If a soldier chooses, he can kill the wanted person and no one will know or really care. All you have to do is come up with a good story," the report quotes a 25-year-old lieutenant as saying.

Another source, a 22-year-old sergeant, said soldiers "arranged things

before the investigation, and made sure that everyone's story was the same. I have done this myself."

"With testimony from soldiers, it's harder for the IDF to pass this off as a bunch of Palestinians who lied to us," said Kenneth Roth, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization that is the parent group of Middle East Watch.

Of 17 incidents involving 20 deaths between March 1992 and February 1993, Middle East Watch found that only two Palestinians were carrying a firearm when killed.

Among the cases documented in the report are those of a Palestinian shot without warning in the back; another killed as he lay wounded and unarmed on the ground; two others killed trying to surrender; and another ambushed by a sharpshooter 150 yards away.

Official version

In each of those cases the army's official version was that undercover agents had felt threatened by the suspects and fired in self-defense. Typical was the official version of the killing of the wounded Palestinian. The army said he was killed because he was armed with an ax and charged at a soldier. Four witnesses told Middle East Watch he was shot in the leg, fell and surrendered before two agents shot him repeatedly in the head.

"Only a minority of the [undercover] forces' victims were wanted fugitives suspected of being armed and dangerous," the report says.

"Most of those killed by these forces are suspected stone throwers and youths wearing masks over their faces, whose identities were not known, but who are routinely shot while posing no imminent mortal danger to soldiers or others."

The army objected that the title of the report, "A License to Kill," is "maliciously misleading, and totally untrue."

"In recent months, there has been an intensification of terrorist activity in the territories. Consequently, the security forces have had to take firm steps to prevent this violence," the army's response said.

"These units are exposed to daily threats to their lives. They are engaged in a constant confrontation with hard-core terrorists, who are not restrained by any law and who are armed with various lethal weapons, including firearms," the army said.

The report centers on the activities of small, special units of the Israeli army and secret police whose members often operate disguised as Palestinians.

Since the start of the Palestinian uprising in 1987, these units have killed between 110 to 160 Palestinians, according to human rights monitors.

At least six of 34 soldiers killed during that period were part of these units.

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