Israeli Human Rights Group Assails IDF

An Israeli human rights group is charging in a new report that its country’s army is behaving with “blatant disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians” and a “complete lack of military accountability” as tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appear to be heightening.

The report, by the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, or B’Tselem, covers the fatal shootings of 15 Palestinians, at least nine of whom were unarmed, by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) after the army’s incursion into the Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem region last October 19-25.

B’Tselem’s investigation found that “in all the cases described in the report, no shots were fired toward IDF soldiers from the immediate vicinity of the civilians who were killed.”

That record demonstrated that the IDF’s pledge to make every effort to avoid harm to innocent civilians amounted to an “empty promise,” according to the report. “Even if there was no intention to harm civilians, no real effort was made to avoid it,” the report said, adding, “These are not isolated incidents.”

The report was issued amid a renewed U.S. effort to mediate a permanent ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians as a prelude to a resumption of long-stalled peace talks. The effort is being led by Washington’s special envoy, retired General Anthony Zinni, who has returned to Washington after a four-day shuttle mission between the two sides during which they both agreed to try to maintain a tenuous truce.

But the truce was apparently broken this morning when two Palestinian gunmen killed four Israeli soldiers and wounded six others at an army post just outside the Gaza Strip before themselves being shot and killed. The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attack, which was denounced as “extremely grave” by the IDF, ended three weeks of relative quiet and is considered almost certain to be followed by military retaliation by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, quite possibly including new incursions into Palestinian Authority-controlled areas. The incursion into Bethlehem and other Palestinian territories on the West Bank and Gaza last October followed the assassination of Israel’s Tourism minister October 18.

More than 1,000 people have been killed–some three-quarters of victims Palestinians in the occupied territories–during the 16-month-long intifada which started after Sharon, then leader of the opposition, made a controversial visit to the site of one of Islam’s holiest shrines, the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

The IDF’s response to B’Tselem’s latest report was that it was “unfamiliar” with most of the cases described, despite the fact that they have been previously reported by journalists and human rights groups.

The IDF has insisted that its soldiers in the field are instructed to return fire “only after identifying the source of the fire” precisely to minimize casualties among non-combatant civilians.

But B’Tselem says such orders are “difficult to reconcile…with the fact that, in the cases described, the IDF only kill civilians who were not involved in the hostilities.”

Among the cases covered are the killings of four unarmed Palestinians in their homes in the ‘Aida refugee camp by IDF gunfire from the Intercontinental Hotel. Another Palestinian was killed in his home in nearby Beit Jala.

It also cites damage inflicted by IDF shelling of Bethlehem’s two major hospitals, the killings of two Palestinians by “indiscriminate gunfire” from IDF armored personnel carriers as the army entered Bethlehem, and the killing of a 16-year-old boy in the square of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, “far away” from the Latin Cemetery from where Palestinian gunmen were firing at IDF positions.

“The fact that the IDF has yet to investigate the cases presented in the report once again demonstrates the IDF’s blatant disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians,” B’Tselem said, adding that the army, “since the beginning of the current intifada, has shirked its obligation to conduct serious investigations” into such incidents.

B’Tselem is not alone in criticizing the IDF on this score. A Los Angeles Times review published last week found “a pattern of questionable Israeli military action and minimal inquiry into what went wrong, as well as little if any disciplinary action.”

Some left-wing Israeli lawmakers and former army officers have also argued that the lack of serious investigations and accountability were undermining morale and discipline in the IDF.