Israelis troubled by army's 'culture of impunity'

MIDDLE EAST: The killing of a young Palestinian girl by Israeli troops raises worrying questions about rules of engagement, …

MIDDLE EAST: The killing of a young Palestinian girl by Israeli troops raises worrying questions about rules of engagement, writes Nuala Haughey in Rafah, southern Gaza

Iman Al-Hams's school is just around the corner from her southern Gaza home, but the teenager's daily journey took her past what is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous parts of the occupied Palestinian territories.

Her neighbourhood of Tel Sultan in Rafah abuts the Egyptian border and her school is overlooked by a heavily fortified Israeli army outpost perched on a not-too-distant sand ridge. The school building, like all the houses and shops along the street facing this border zone, is pockmarked from Israeli tank and gunfire. People living in houses facing the Girit outpost cover their windows and peel open their doors nervously to peer at the tall, skinny tower swathed in camouflage netting.

Iman (13) was making her way to school shortly before 7 a.m. on October 5th last when, for reasons which no one can explain, she strayed off course and into the lethal no-entry zone in the shadow of the Girit post. She was wearing her candy-striped school uniform and a white headscarf and was carrying her school satchel on her back.


Within minutes, Iman was gunned down by soldiers from the post, whose rules of engagement allow them to shoot to kill anyone who enters what is effectively a free-fire zone within 300 metres of the border posts. The soldiers said they suspected she was a terrorist carrying explosives. Her satchel merely contained her schoolbooks.

Iman would have quietly joined the ranks of hundreds of Palestinian minors killed in the territories but for the fact that some soldiers were so disturbed about the incident and concerned that it would be covered up that they contacted the Israeli press.

The soldiers alleged that a company commander, Captain R, left the post that morning to pursue Iman across the sand. He then emptied his automatic rifle into her at point-blank range as she lay, dead or possibly only wounded, in a "confirmation of kill" operation. This is military jargon for firing at combatants to ensure they are dead. It is not an acknowledged procedure in the Israeli military's rules of engagement, which prefers the term "neutralise the threat".

One soldier told the Hebrew newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that the commander "charged toward her by himself. He shot two bullets at her ... and then gave her a burst of automatic fire. There is no logical reason for what he did ... This is the most sickening thing I have ever seen during my army service. It was a desecration of a body. That is not what we are taught to do in the army."

Captain R denies these claims. He says he responded to Palestinian gunfire aimed at him by firing a volley of automatic fire into the ground, not into Iman's body. He also alleges that soldiers framed him because he wished to make changes in the company, where relations between him and some of his subordinates were strained.

Notwithstanding the soldiers' graphic testimonies, a swift internal army investigation cleared Captain R of acting unethically in shooting Iman. He was suspended for losing the confidence of his soldiers and a "command failure".

However, with sustained pressure from the soldiers' revelations, the military police launched a separate investigation into the incident which led to Captain R being charged this week on five counts, including illegal use of a weapon, obstruction of justice and unbecoming conduct. He is awaiting trial.

The story took another disturbing turn this week when Israeli television aired a shocking tape of military communications at the time of the incident in which Captain R stated that he had "confirmed the kill". After Iman was dead, he was heard telling his soldiers: "This is commander, anything that's mobile, that moves in the zone, even if it's a three-year-old, needs to be killed. Over".

The tape also indicates that soldiers identified Iman as a frightened girl before she was killed, although the army maintains that this communication was not heard by soldiers in the Girit outpost.

Iman's father, Samir Darwish Al-Hams, has followed intensely the ongoing Israeli media revelations concerning his daughter's death. "Iman was executed, not shot from far away. I heard that on the tape they played on television and the soldiers had been saying that as well," he said.

Samir (50) was sitting next to a gold-framed poster of Iman, who was claimed as a "martyr" by the Hamas militant group, even though she clearly was not an operative. The photograph on the poster, taken two months before her death, shows a thin girl who had inherited her father's dark eyes and intense stare. As he spoke, the familiar rat-tat-tat of gunfire, some distant, some quite close, could be heard.

"The first thing is that this criminal officer should be punished. The second thing is, I want to show how this army is dealing with our children and to show that these soldiers are intentionally executing - by 20 bullets penetrating her body - this kind of innocent child," said Samir.

"If an Arab killed an Israeli young girl in this way, how would the state deal with him and how much time would he be sentenced to? I hear that they are trying him for a maximum sentence of three years This is a silly sentence. If somebody had stolen a chicken here they could face a three-year sentence."

The revelations around Iman's killing in Israeli media have raised disturbing questions in a society where military service is compulsory and solidarity with the defence forces is almost an article of faith. The Rafah controversy coincides with outrage over media allegations that Israeli soldiers abused the bodies of Palestinians killed during army operations, including a case in which soldiers posed for pictures with the severed head of a suicide bomber with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. These images, published last week in Yedioth Ahronoth, were reminiscent of the disturbing photographs of US soldiers placing Iraqis captives in degrading positions at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

A commentator in the right-wing Israeli newspaper Maariv this week blamed the corrupting effect of Israel's 37-year occupation of the Palestinian territories for making Israeli society "sick".

"Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, before we became an occupying people devoid of any inhibitions and one that holds the value of our enemies' lives in disdain, people here spoke seriously and whole-heartedly about the purity of arms," wrote Mr Yael Paz-Melamed.

"In those days, which seem to have been elided from our collective psyche, there was not a commander in the army who would have given an order to kill in cold blood a 13-year-old girl ... on her way to school. And then go out, confirm the kill, and announce over the radio that the confirmation had been obtained."

Soul-searching aside, the case also raises many practical questions about the rules of engagement of the army and, disturbingly highlights the fact that such incidents are rarely investigated.

Since the beginning of the four-year-long Israel-Palestinian hostilities, Israeli soldiers have killed at least 1,656 Palestinians who took no part in the fighting, according to the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem. Of these, 529 were children.

B'Tselem claims that these deaths take place amidst a "climate of impunity" combined with rules of engagement that encourage a "trigger-happy" attitude among soldiers.

"Over the past four years, the IDF conducted only 89 military police investigations into deaths and injuries of Palestinians. Of these investigations, only 22 resulted in indictments. To date, one soldier has been convicted of causing the death of a Palestinian. Thus in the vast majority of cases, no one is ever held accountable," said B'Tselem spokeswoman, Ms Sarit Michaeli.

An Israeli army spokeswoman, Maj Sharon Feingold, said the claim that a culture of impunity exits within the army is made out of context. "War is an ugly thing and especiallythis kind of war that we are now fighting against Palestinian terrorism which uses civilian infrastructure to conduct military activity against soldiers and civilians. It is inevitable when civilian infrastructure is used that there will be civilian casualties," she said.

Maj Feingold added that youngsters were increasingly used as "spotters" gathering information for terrorists, as bait to test the alertness of soldiers, or as attempted suicide bombers.

However, the nature of Israel's operations and incursions into neighbourhoods like Tel Sultan in operations to root out militants or uncover weapons means that Palestinian children are not safe anywhere.

Another bereaved family in Rafah's Tel Sultan neighbourhood is still awaiting any contact from the Israeli army six months after two of its members were shot in their heads on the rooftop of their home. Relatives of Asma Al Mughair (16) and her brother Ahmed (13) are convinced that the youngsters were killed by Israeli snipers during the siege of the their neighbourhood as part of last May's massive Operation Rainbow in which the neighbourhood was pounded by Israeli munitions.

Then The Irish Times witnessed bloodstains on the rooftop where the children were killed and also discovered evidence that the roof of a house overlooking the site of the shooting had been used as an Israeli army snipers' lair. These included a loophole, spent bullet shells and an empty cardboard box of sniper ammunition.

The Israeli army claimed the Al Mughair children were probably killed by a Palestinian explosive device in the area, but offered no explanation as to why such a device would be planted on a rooftop. Amnesty International called for an independent investigation. The army conducted an internal inquiry and concluded that an investigation was not warranted.

"We are not able to determine that they were killed by Israeli fire or that there was any criminal intent," explained Maj Feingold.