TEL AVIV — Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Monday defended his orders to use physical force, "including beatings," against Palestinian demonstrators.
"This policy is going to continue," Rabin said in an interview.
He conceded that there have been "a certain number" of incidents in which soldiers exceeded army guidelines in administering beatings, and he said the goal is to "cope more effectively" with such cases in the future.
He specifically rejected another Cabinet minister's suggestion over the weekend that his public endorsement of limited beatings had been a slip of the tongue. He said that "by no means" did he consider the policy a mistake.
Rabin first referred publicly to the policy a week ago, but he said Monday that it had been in effect since early January in the hope that it would reduce the need for lethal force against demonstrators. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said last Thursday that the Defense Ministry's decision to use physical force had been endorsed by the Cabinet, describing it as a policy of self-defense and "not a violent move."
Rabin's comments, combined with reports that hundreds of Palestinians had been hospitalized with broken limbs and other injuries inflicted by Israeli troops, brought shocked reaction here and abroad.
Over the weekend Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, a leader of U.S. Reform Judaism, sent a strongly worded telegram to Israeli President Chaim Herzog urging him "to bring this madness to an end." Even officials here who support the policy criticized Rabin as "tactless" for announcing it publicly.
"What we have tried . . . was to find ways to cope with the problem without the need to use lethal arms," Rabin said Monday. "We found a way, and now it looks as if beating is even worse than shooting. I believe that for our purpose, the present policy is better than shooting."
Rabin stressed that his orders were that the use of force, including beating, is allowed only "against people while they are carrying out acts of violence, or when they oppose, let's say, a search in a certain place."
He said it is specifically prohibited "to take one who is caught and to start beating." He said that although the army is empowered to use "technical force" to open Palestinian stores closed as part of a continuing commercial strike, "it is not allowed to use beating to force a merchant . . . to open it."
More Reports of Beatings
Nevertheless, there were additional reports Monday that soldiers were beating storekeepers and innocent bystanders.
Israel Radio reported that at least three American citizens had filed complaints with the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem about indiscriminate beatings by soldiers. In some cases, the troops allegedly dragged them out of their homes. There are several thousand American citizens of Palestinian extraction who live in the occupied territories.
The Jerusalem Post headlined a four-column story at the top of its front page "Blood-Stained Vacant Lot Tells of Unseen Beatings." The story described a "blood-spattered wall" at a site in Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem, which has allegedly been used as a place for soldiers to beat handcuffed Palestinian prisoners.
Two members of the Citizens' Rights Party submitted a report in the Knesset (Parliament) detailing more than 200 cases of injuries in the last week, allegedly from army beatings.
"When you see a man of 75 years old and he is very, very severely beaten, you necessarily come to the conclusion that you are not talking about self-defense," Yossi Sarid, a Citizens' Rights Party member of the Knesset, told Israel Radio.
Abba Eban, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a dovish member of Parliament from Rabin's Labor Alignment, said during a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, of which he is co-chairman, that if any members are enthusiastic about beating Palestinians and breaking their bones, they should do it themselves.
Rabin's only indirect support Monday came from Prime Minister Shamir, head of the rival Likud Bloc, who told reporters that if Israeli troops had acted as harshly as is customary in the Middle East, the unrest that has rocked the occupied territories since Dec. 9 would have been over "in a day or two."
Talking to Commanders
Rabin said that he and his high-ranking officers are talking to field commanders to make sure they understand the limits of the policy.
But an army spokeswoman, asked if any soldiers had been punished for exceeding the beating guidelines, replied, "Not that I know about."
Rabin said that "more aggressive use of force" combined with curfews and selective arrests of alleged inciters has been the key to restoring a measure of calm in the occupied territories in recent days.
"We brought violence in the Gaza Strip down practically to nil in the last few days," he said. The same is true in the West Bank, although "to a lesser extent," he said, "and this policy is going to continue the way that I explained."