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Ha'aretz, June 13, 1999

Killing a POW is killing a POW

By Gideon Levy


One version of events, which is not necessarily less reliable than any other version, will be missing from the bench of the High Court of Justice when it meets today for deliberations on the petition against Lieutenant Colonel Erez's appointment to command the elite Naval Commandos unit. This is the version of the victim, the shackled guerrilla - we will never know the truth from his point of view.But the well-oiled public relations machine of the Israel Defense Forces has taken care to distribute its version of what happened in 1993 during a Naval Commando operation between a refugee camp and guerrilla base on Lebanon's seashore. Senior officers, lawyers and military correspondents well-accustomed to spreading the IDF version of events have already rallied to flood the public debate with information about the circumstances of the incident, the motives of the petitioner, Erez's qualifications and the seriousness of revoking his appointment. They are awfully good at this.On two hard facts there is no dispute. First of all, the "terrorist" was unarmed (perhaps he was a refugee, a passerby?), and second, he was shot in all the parts of his body, after he was taken prisoner. Lt. Col. Erez shot a shackled and unarmed man and ordered another fighter to shoot him as well, and apparently the man was killed. Thus, it must be said immediately: Killing a POW is killing a POW.But Erez and his friends are dispensing information on the incident that is supposed to justify the shooting. Senior officers were quoted on Friday in Ha'aretz as saying that Erez's act prevented "a massacre of his soldiers," no less. Erez shot the prisoner to prevent him from warning other guerrillas in the area, and thereby allow the Israeli force to retreat unharmed.

This, of course, is a supremely worthy aim. But was killing the POW the only way to save the soldiers from the massacre that did or did not await them? Erez's commanders did not permit him to take the prisoner into captivity, he claims, but it is not clear why. He preferred not to disobey them and preferred to kill the prisoner without permission. Had they taken him into captivity, they are now explaining in the IDF, the prisoner might, God forbid, have petitioned the High Court. Twelve kidnapped Lebanese are now sitting in Israeli prisons for more than a dozen years and the High Court has not lifted a finger, but this claim is still useful to create an atmosphere of terror.A great many irrelevant claims are being tossed about in this storm. Various strange innuendos, which can be understood only by those who are in the know, have been spread about the motives of petitioner Ami Hollander, a lawyer and Naval Commando veteran. But what difference do his motives make, whatever they are? Whenever a scandal is exposed, the personal motives of the whistle-blowers are involved. So what? Do his motives change the matter's severity?The timing of the petition, six years after the fact, is also offered as an argument against disqualifying the appointment. This, too, is only of the weakest relevance. Lt. Col. Erez is about to be appointed commander of an elite unit, and it is precisely those who admire commanders of elite units who should understand that the qualifications for filling such a command are different than those for ordinary postings. Therefore, there was indeed room for submitting the petition at this time.

Another annoying argument by Erez's friends in the IDF is that the High Court should not interfere in IDF appointments or in its operational missions. Until now, only the IDF has dealt with the incident: One hand investigated the other. This is exactly the place where the High Court must get involved, if indeed the appointment is improper, just as it must intervene in other improper actions by all branches of government.

The last time the High Court of Justice intervened in an IDF appointment, in the Nir Galili affair, the court saved the IDF from shame. Then, too, there were those who tried to cast doubt on the motives of the young woman who submitted the petition. Now IDF officers are saying that what Galili did was much worse. Does this mean that they see sexual harassment as worse than killing a prisoner?

The argument against High Court intervention in operational missions is no less scandalous than the argument against its intervention in appointments. In operational missions, no matter how daring, law and morality must be maintained, and the High Court is responsible for these.Erez's qualifications, which the IDF defenders also took care to distribute, also have no place in this discussion. However brilliant, daring and even moral Erez may be, the only question on the agenda is how he performed in the moral and operational test on the seashore of Lebanon. Whether or not he is "a born fighter," the question is whether he killed a POW unnecessarily. In his deposition, he wrote that when he returned from the mission he felt like a personal and professional failure. It is not clear what he is referring to: the failure of the mission that was cut off almost before it got underway because of the stray bullet and the guerrilla who was captured, or the killing of his shackled prisoner. His declaration of his innocence and pure intentions is also meaningless; in question is his military morality, not the purity of his motives.The High Court will have to determine whether the man who ordered a prisoner killed is worthy of heading his unit. Only if it is proven that he had no alternative other than to shoot his prisoner, which on the face of it looks unlikely, can he become commander of the Naval Commando. In any other case, the High Court will have to have its unambiguous say about the officer who ordered the killing of a shackled man



(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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