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More Israelis Questioning Use of Force

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service Wednesday, December 13, 2000; Page A36

JERUSALEM, Dec. 12 -- Yola Monakhov, a fresh-faced American who traded a position as a university teaching assistant in Italian literature for a fledgling career as a photographer, was not one of the graver threats the Israeli army has faced lately.

So in the weeks since she was shot in the abdomen and seriously wounded by an Israeli soldier while covering the Palestinian uprising in Bethlehem, Monakhov's case has helped some Israelis reach an unwelcome conclusion--that their army has used excessive and at times indiscriminate force to quell the 10-week-old revolt.

Such accusations have been voiced since the start by Palestinian and international human rights workers, physicians and some journalists. Now, as the casualty list mounts almost daily, some Israelis are reluctantly joining in.

In the last week, the respected Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has issued a report concluding that the army has routinely opened fire on unarmed Palestinian protesters, including children and teenagers, even when they posed no lethal threat to the troops. And Israeli newspapers have started to carry sharply critical articles suggesting that the army is doing nothing to investigate its soldiers' occasionally trigger-happy practices in the field.

"Key members of the defense establishment are increasingly convinced that Israel has frequently been using excessive force against the Palestinians," the defense correspondent of the newspaper Haaretz reported today. "Not everything is said aloud. Few want to be seen damaging the war effort. . . . In a few cases where the army has been obliged to investigate in depth--mainly in violence against journalists--a picture quickly emerges of negligence, disregard of procedure and even itchy trigger fingers."

Another article, in the newspaper Maariv, described two army combat units in which, according to unnamed reservists who served with them, soldiers repeatedly opened fire indiscriminately, exaggerating the threat they faced to secure the approval of commanders who were not at the scene.

Publicly, army spokesmen reject such criticism. They say the army is prepared to investigate mishaps but that the Palestinians refuse to cooperate or give testimony. They argue that it is the Palestinians, many of them armed with automatic weapons, who initiate attacks on Israeli positions and that troops are firing in self-defense.

"They're not interested in the truth; they're interested in framing Israel," said Maj. Yarden Vatikay, an army spokesman. "They ask Israelis why they are using this force and that force, but the real question is, who is launching all these attacks?" Many Israelis agree with this view and feel that their soldiers have been too restrained in their response.

But Israeli and foreign human rights groups, which note that nearly 90 percent of the 320 people killed in 10 weeks of clashes have been Palestinians, say that Israeli troops frequently open fire even when faced only with stone-throwers.

The B'Tselem report cited the army's own figures to show there was no Palestinian gunfire in nearly three-quarters of the clashes through Nov. 15. "Despite this, most of the Palestinians killed and injured were during these incidents," the report concluded.

The shooting of Monakhov is a case in point. On Nov. 11, her first day as a photographer under contract with the Associated Press, Monakhov was near Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, a biblical shrine guarded by Israeli troops that has frequently been the scene of Palestinian rioting. She said she was crouched in a doorway when an Israeli soldier appeared suddenly from around a corner about 50 yards away, aimed at her and fired. There had been no gunfire from the Palestinian side, she said.

"It was close enough for me to see his green helmet and that his gun was aimed directly at me," said Monakhov, 26, in a telephone interview from her hospital bed in Jerusalem. "That's the thing I find most peculiar--I saw him very clearly, who he was and what he was doing. Why didn't he see me?"

Struck in the abdomen by a bullet, Monakhov has been undergoing treatment for extensive damage to her pelvis. She has had two operations; a third is scheduled for Thursday. She expects to remain in the hospital for at least two more months.

As is typical when Palestinians are shot by Israeli troops, the army at first was unresponsive. An army spokesman initially dismissed questions about Monakhov and said the army would not apologize for what it regarded as an unintentional shooting.

But under pressure from journalists, the army launched an investigation that found the soldier believed he was shooting at a Palestinian who had ventured too close to the Israeli position. In a statement issued last week, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the army chief of staff, concluded that the soldier and the officer who ordered him to shoot "acted in contradiction to the rules of engagement but without malice."

The army now says the two will face courts-martial in coming days and that the army will "tend to" Monakhov's medical and other problems.

"We all know that they shoot live fire when their lives aren't in danger, and now it's confirmed," said Monakhov. She said she believes the army investigated her case largely because she is an American photojournalist.

Vatikay, the army spokesman, said Israel is not obligated to investigate the shooting of Palestinians. Under international law, he said, Israeli is engaged in "warfare situations" that give it broader discretion to open fire.

But Yael Stein, a researcher for B'Tselem, disputed that interpretation. "When they're dealing with people throwing stones, they are acting as a police force, and it means they have to adopt the rules of law enforcement," Stein said. "That means you use lethal force only when your life is in danger.

"The army wants to cover up the fact that they didn't prepare themselves to deal with these situations where people are not armed. There have been no efforts to buy or develop nonlethal means to deal with the demonstrations."

© 2000 The Washington Post

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