Shooting of protester sparks debate in Israel

Army tactics questioned after ex-soldier is shot

December 29, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - There were only two bullets, meant to wound, not kill, and each found its mark, just as the Israeli soldier had intended. The protester fell from a single shot to each leg.

These weren't bullets fired in haste; neither were they fired by a renegade. The soldier followed orders and acted as he had been trained to break up unruly protests: Shoot the instigator in the legs and hope the others disperse.

Only this time, the man shot and wounded was not a Palestinian. He was a 21-year-old Israeli named Gil Naamati, a combat soldier honorably discharged a month ago who was protesting Israel's new fence designed to separate Palestinians from Israelis.

The story of Naamati's shooting Friday grew yesterday into a fierce debate about the army's tactics, its use of deadly force against unarmed protesters and whether more than three years of fighting Palestinians has corrupted an Israeli military that calls itself the most moral army in the world.

The commander of the soldiers who opened fire only fueled the argument that raged in Israel's press yesterday by telling a local reporter: "The troops didn't know they were Israelis" - raising the issue of a perceived double standard on how the army deals with the Palestinians and its own citizens.

The incident Friday occurs amid an outcry from hundreds of army reservists, including dozens from elite combat units, who are refusing to serve their compulsory duty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest what they say is pervasive mistreatment of Palestinians.

Noam Hoffstater, a spokesman for the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, said the shooting offered an opportunity "to demonstrate our army's open-fire regulations in the occupied territories in a way the Israeli public might understand and listen to."

"When Palestinians tell their stories, a lot of Israelis find them very hard to believe," Hoffstater added. "There is a huge gap between how we see ourselves and what we do in the West Bank and Gaza. But when it happens to an Israeli, we must face the reality. We can't defend ourselves."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet discussed the incident yesterday, and Israel's parliament scheduled a debate for today. The attorney general is contemplating a criminal investigation, and three military offices have launched inquiries. The army chief of staff visited Naamati at his hospital bed.

Rules under which Israeli soldiers can fire their M-16 rifles vary depending on the situation and area. Strips of land bordering fences surrounding the Gaza Strip and Jewish settlements are typically labeled closed military zones, and soldiers have wide discretion.

Army commanders have issued special orders on the new security fence, which will traverse more than 480 miles from the northern to the southern West Bank. Approaching the fence can be considered a security violation, and soldiers are allowed to shoot.

On Friday, about 300 protesters from two groups - the International Solidarity Movement and Anarchists Against the Wall - gathered at a gate on the Palestinian side of the fence near the West Bank city of Qalqilya. They faced Israeli soldiers on the other side.

The protesters were unarmed, but some climbed and shook the fence, while others began to cut the wire mesh. There were reports that some protesters wore masks and threw rocks at soldiers in the elite Golani Brigade.

Israeli news reports said soldiers asked repeatedly for permission to shoot at protesters' legs and were denied. Finally, the order was given. Soldiers opened fire, first into the air, and then at Naamati, who was designated a lead agitator. An American protester also was wounded.

Naamati had just completed three years of army service in the artillery corps and had staffed military checkpoints that brought him face to face with Palestinians in the West Bank. He had told his father that he felt sorry for the Palestinians and tried to persuade fellow soldiers to go easy.

"I'm very angry with the soldiers who shot me," Naamati told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot from his bed in the Rabin Medical Center in Tel Aviv. "When we stood beside the fence, I yelled to the soldiers, `Don't shoot us. Don't shoot us. We're Israelis.' But they continued to fire."

Uri Naamati, 53, said in a telephone interview yesterday that, unlike his son, he supports the fence, but he also supports his son's right to protest.

"What happened is very serious," he said. "Somehow, the Israel Defense Forces fired live ammunition at Jewish protesters."

But the elder Naamati, who served as a tank commander in Israel's 1973 war against Egypt and Syria, does not agree with those who are using the shooting of his son to argue that the Israeli army treats Palestinians unjustly.

He said a distinction should be made between Palestinian and Israeli protesters, because the Palestinians are on the other side of a war, while soldiers should know that Israelis would not endanger fellow citizens.

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