WASHINGTON — Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Sunday that his troops are authorized to shoot West Bank and Gaza Strip demonstrators only when their lives are in danger, but he rejected U.S. proposals for creation of a full-time, riot-control force trained and equipped for non-lethal methods of putting down disturbances by unarmed civilians.
Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in separate interviews on American television, sought to answer worldwide criticism of Israeli soldiers who killed at least 21 Palestinians and wounded at least 158 more during two weeks of violent demonstrations against Israel's 20-year-old occupation of the predominantly Arab territories captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Policy of Minimum Force
Both Rabin and Peres said that Israel's policy is to control disturbances with the minimum force necessary and that troops are authorized to open fire only in cases of self-defense. Peres said he considered "the use of live ammunition as an accident, not as a policy."
However, Rabin, whose Defense Ministry is responsible for law and order on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip, made it clear that Israel will not copy Japan, South Korea or other nations that employ riot control forces equipped with rubber bullets and other non-deadly weapons and protected from rocks and gasoline bombs by shields, face masks and other equipment.
"I don't believe that we should have riot police. From time to time, unfortunately, we have to use live ammunition. We'll try to reduce it to the minimum," Rabin said on the NBC-TV program "Meet the Press."
No U.S. Veto at U.N.
The State Department and the White House issued similar statements Tuesday urging Israel to end "harsh security measures" and "the excessive use of live ammunition" against rioters. On the same day, the United States refused to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution deploring Israeli "policies and practices which violate the human rights of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories."
The Israeli government angrily rejected the criticism. However, in their television appearances Sunday, Rabin and Peres eschewed the sort of counterattack represented by the government's earlier statement and sought to explain Israeli policy by emphasizing the dangers faced by soldiers, many of them teen-age draftees, when faced by mobs of Palestinian demonstrators. They said the troops fire only when far outnumbered by demonstrators throwing rocks and fire bombs.
"We are not for an iron fist," Peres said on the CBS-TV program "Face the Nation." "What happened is that some few soldiers went in some of the places in the area (and) they were attacked by a very huge crowd, and they did what they did out of self-defense."
Neither Peres nor Rabin mentioned the practice, which has stirred public controversy within Israel, of using snipers, armed with high-velocity rifles, to pick off individuals who appear to be leading disturbances.
A State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said that Washington sympathizes with the Israeli soldiers who must face angry mobs. But he said U.S. diplomats are reminding Israeli authorities that civilian police in Jerusalem seem to do a better job of breaking up riots while avoiding civilian casualties than do the military forces deployed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Bewildered by Reluctance
U.S. officials are bewildered at Israel's reluctance to establish special riot-control groups. Israeli authorities have told U.S. diplomats that creation of such units would violate the country's tradition of a citizen-army trained for war, not for police work. However, U.S. officials respond that Israel has been using military force to maintain order in the occupied territories for more than 20 years, since before many of the troops now deployed there were born.
Samuel W. Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Israel tries to avoid the use of mass formations of troops in the occupied territories because such tactics would be considered provocative. As a result, he said, Israel uses small squads to patrol the area. When these small patrols run up against masses of demonstrators, the troops panic and use live ammunition instead of rubber bullets and tear gas.
"I think it's a very predictable problem unless you use overwhelming numbers of troops," Lewis said on NBC-TV.
'Edge of Being a Mistake'
Lewis also said that stiff criticism of the Israeli government by the State Department and the White House "came right to the edge of being a mistake" in U.S. policy.
"No country likes to be lectured about how it keeps peace and order; (nations) react defensively, and that's exactly what the Israelis are doing. They are blaming the press, they are blaming the foreign spokesmen, instead of focusing on what they can do about the issue."
Rabin, contradicting some Israeli officials who had claimed the demonstrations were instigated by the Palestine Liberation Organization or Arab governments, said the riots appeared to have been spontaneous.
"Only after two, three days, the PLO and other terrorist organizations took a ride on the waves of the spontaneous activities," Rabin said.
Peres sought to minimize the impact of a general strike staged by Arab citizens of Israel in support of the West Bank and Gaza demonstrators.
"They really wanted to express a sense of sympathy and nothing more than that," Peres said. "They feel, to the best of my judgment, as Israeli citizens in the full meaning of that."