49 Palestinians killed without cause, group says

March 16, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israeli citizens killed 49 Palestinians without sufficient cause in six years, while authorities ignored the violence, lost murder case files and generally failed to bring Jews to justice, an Israeli human rights group charged.

The report adds to Israel's painful introspection about Jewish behavior in the occupied territories after the massacre Feb. 25 of Muslim worshipers in Hebron by a Jewish settler.

The group B'tselem yesterday alleged that the army looked the other way when Jewish settlers attacked Palestinians or their property.

Investigators did not make arrests, prosecutors dropped cases and judges gave out lenient sentences, the group said.

There is "an indulgent attitude of the Israel government authorities in the face of these crimes," said Gila Svirsky, head of the B'tselem board of directors.

She said the Hebron massacre "did not take place in a vacuum but was the result of ongoing incitement to harm Palestinians, a chain of violent acts by settlers . . . most of which has gone unpunished."

The shooting has prompted Israelis to question why radical and armed settlers were allowed free rein in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip.

About 110,000 settlers live among 2 million Palestinians in territories captured in the 1967 war but not annexed to Israel.

Settlers near populous Palestinian areas often are the target of stones thrown by youths and sometimes of attacks by gunmen.

Many Jewish settlers in the West Bank carry pistols and automatic weapons supplied by the army.

Some fire with or without provocation, according to the numerous accounts emerging since the massacre. Rarely are they questioned.

"I can't say that we are pleased with the way enforcement [of the law] was carried out" against Jewish settlers in the territory, Dorit Benish, the state attorney, acknowledged Monday to a committee of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. "It is not clear how much time the police and army are spending on it."

Israeli settlers are supposed to be accountable under Israeli criminal statutes while Palestinians live under martial law.

The human rights groups studied 62 cases of Palestinians killed by Israeli citizens between 1988 and 1993.

It said only four involved situations where the Israeli's life was endangered; nine other cases were unclear.

But "in the other 49 cases, Israeli civilians killed Palestinians in situations not involving mortal danger" to themselves, B'tselem said.

It acknowledged that determining whether the Israelis felt their life endangered was sometimes a matter of judgment.

Between the 1987 start of the Palestinian "intifada" and before the Feb. 25 massacre, 121 Israeli citizens and 64 soldiers or policemen have been killed by Palestinians; 1,133 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces; and 62 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli citizens.

"In many cases Israeli civilians, especially those who live in the territories, use their firearms to respond in a manner exceeding what is necessary for self-defense," the report said. "They chase stone-throwers and fire at them, even when it is clear they do not constitute a threat.

"Frequently soldiers who witness acts of violence by settlers against Palestinians make no effort to prevent or put a stop to the incident or to take the personal details of those involved and pass them on to the police."

"In many cases, the army relates to the settlers as allies, and believes the settlers have a function in controlling the Palestinian population," said Eitan Felner, an author of the B'tselem report.

The army response to the report did not address the allegations but said the military is "responsible for the safety of . . . both Jews and Arabs alike" and is "also empowered to enforce law and order with regards to Jewish settlers who break the law."

The army reviewed steps taken by the government after the Hebron massacre to disarm some settlers, restrict the movement of others, and to outlaw the radical Kach and Kahane Chai settler groups.

The Israel police are charged with looking into crimes committed by Jews. But "in many cases, some involving fatalities, no investigation at all is carried out," the report said.

Police discourage Palestinians from submitting complaints, and "if an investigation is launched, it almost always ends without anyone being brought to trial."

The report said police routinely hold files for more than two years, and no charges are brought even when a suspect is known.

Arrests are announced, and the suspect is then quietly released; murder files are "lost," according to B'tselem.

The Israeli police said it "rejects the sweeping accusations against it, and wishes to make it clear that the treatment given to Israeli citizens and Palestinians . . . is the same. Contrary to what was claimed in the report, the Israel police also initiates investigations on the basis of its own information even without the presentation of a complaint."

B'tselem said many cases are also closed by prosecutors, and those finally brought to court are dealt with in an "extremely lenient" fashion.

Of the fatalities it studied, only one resulted in a murder conviction, one in a manslaughter conviction, and six with death by negligence.

Most of those convicted served short sentences or were released on community service, the report said.

The commission of inquiry into the Hebron massacre heard testimony last week that Israeli soldiers were ordered not to fire on Jews, no matter what the circumstances.

Military officials said that order was a misunderstanding, but the newspaper Ha'aretz yesterday published the written order giving that instruction.

Settlers were shown in news photos in December firing their automatic rifles at Palestinians while soldiers watched or even scurried away.

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