Israeli Army probes revealed in case

Response to boy's death gives rare look at how officers handle inquiries

November 14, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The shooting death of 11-year old Khalil al-Mughrabi in the Gaza Strip in July went largely unremarked upon there and in Israel. He seemed just one more casualty in the daily battles between Palestinians and Israelis.

At the time, the Israeli army told reporters that soldiers in the Gaza Strip came under fire from rocks and grenades thrown by Palestinians, who were scattered by "live gunfire into an open area distant from the rioters." The army said it had no evidence anyone had been wounded.

None of the basic facts of the army's account was true.

Khalil was struck by a bullet fired by an Israeli soldier, either from a watch tower or atop a tank, as he rested on a dirt pile with his friends after a soccer match in the Yubneh Refugee Camp. The disturbances had been broken up about noon. Khalil was killed seven hours later.

The army spells out the contradictions with its public account in an internal report by the chief military prosecutor, whose office mistakenly sent confidential documents to an Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem.

"First, it is likely that the shots did not hit the children who were identified as rioters, but rather children who were some distance from the place of the event," the prosecutor, Col. Einat Ron, concluded in the internal report, published yesterday by B'Tselem.

But in her subsequent letter to the rights group, the only document that was intended to be made public, Ron wrote: "Live gunfire was not aimed at the rioters, and no hits were detected as a result of this gunfire."

The documents obtained by the humans rights group contain handwritten notes and a detailed drawing of the shooting scene, and provide an unusual window into Israeli army investigations and how its officers respond to public inquiries.

More than 700 Palestinians have been killed during the past 13 months of fighting, many in armed confrontations. Some victims have been bystanders and children - some caught in dangerous crossfire or struck with rubber bullets in rock-throwing demonstrations.

But the cases are often murky, with claims and counter-claims that are difficult or impossible to prove. Reports of human rights abuses abound on both sides. Amnesty International urged this week that international observers be sent to the region to monitor events.

The author of the B'Tselem report, Yael Stein, said Israeli officials ignored the findings of their own investigation and then fabricated a story for the news media.

"They didn't hesitate to lie," Stein said. "I guess it's almost legitimate to lie. We have received hundreds of similar letters to our questions in the past. Who knows now how many are true."

Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli army spokesman, denied any attempt to cover up the shooting or lie about it. He said the detailed report proves "that we are serious about investigating our actions" and noted that, in the end, the military prosecutor found that soldiers probably acted inappropriately.

The spokesman said that the letter to B'Tselem reflected what details could be made public at the time and that there is still a possibility that the soldiers will be disciplined. The chief prosecutor, Ron, could not be reached for comment.

Her report, along with one submitted by the army battalion commander, offers a rare insight into the routine confrontations on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians throw stones or shoot at soldiers and their vehicles, and soldiers fire back with warning shots, rubber-coated bullets or live fire.

In this case, in the early afternoon of July 7, Israeli soldiers fired warning shots at Palestinian demonstrators. The shots included rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition fired at a concrete wall near people who were standing.

The initial investigator, Maj. Holi Moshe, concluded that many regulations were broken during this confrontation, including firing warning shots from tank-mounted artillery, allowing children to get too close to army vehicles and firing warning shots in the direction of children.

But Moshe concluded: "It is not possible to determine that the children were hurt by our forces' gunfire."

Ron's investigation, however, found that Khalil was hit hours later, after 7 p.m., and far from any of the earlier disturbances. It happened, she wrote, during a time "when no grenades were thrown, and it is doubtful that the force felt its life was in danger."

Ron offered three options to top commanders that included varying degrees of accepting responsibility. Military officials chose the proposal that exonerated them of any culpability, which was used to formulate the official response to B'Tselem.

In the internal report, Ron summed up the idea this way: "The shooting was justified - the incident as a whole had a combat nature, grenades were thrown earlier during the day, the whole area is dangerous ... [If] innocent people were harmed, one can only regret it."

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