Israeli officials admit army uses excessive force


Israel yesterday publicly confirmed that it is targeting the alleged leaders of Palestinian "shooting squads" in the West Bank and Gaza. Meanwhile, military officials privately acknowledged that the army has used "excessive force" against the Palestinians.

The confirmation came on a day when Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian activist in front of his West Bank home, and a day after Israeli snipers shot dead an Islamic militant in the doorway of his shop.

The continuing al-Aqsa Intifada, now into its eleventh week and with a death toll of more than 310 - the overwhelmingly majority Palestinians - has been transformed in recent weeks. Large-scale demonstrations and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops have now been superseded by daily gun-battles, involving fewer combatants but with more deadly effect.

The only way to put a stop to the shooting, Israel's Deputy Defence Minister, Mr Ephraim Sneh, said yesterday, was "to strike against those who are leading the shooting squads". Israel, he said, was doing just that, "and it will have concrete results".

Hours earlier, eyewitnesses to the death of Mr Yousef Abu Swayeh, an activist from Mr Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said he was gunned down in front of his home outside Bethlehem, far from any clashes, by soldiers who targeted him from a nearby main road. Doctors said he had been hit all over his body by 17 bullets.

The Israeli media yesterday quoted unnamed Israeli military officials as acknowledging that an Islamic militant, Mr Anwar Hamran, shot dead in Nablus on Monday, was assassinated by army snipers. He was alleged by Israel to have orchestrated several recent attacks on Israeli targets.

Officially, the army says that Mr Hamran, who was also hit by more than a dozen bullets, was shot by soldiers who had themselves come under fire. Mr Sneh, however, yesterday praised the one such killing for which Israel has taken responsibility - of a Palestinian militia commander who was blown up in a rocket attack last month, in which two women passers-by were also killed - as an example of a "precise hit."

The deputy minister's unusual candour yesterday coincided with the publication, in the Ha'aretz daily, of the first reports of Israeli military officials acknowledging "that Israel has frequently been using excessive force against the Palestinians."

Israeli officials have steadfastly denied this charge - which has been levelled by the UN, Palestinian leaders and its own human rights groups. But yesterday's article spoke of the "excessive severity" with which orders are being interpreted, and quoted a senior officer, anonymously, saying: "Nobody can convince me we didn't needlessly kill dozens of children."