JERUSALEM — Israeli soldiers are systematically beating Palestinians in an "epidemic of violence" in the occupied territories, and the injuries are often more debilitating than gunshot wounds, a team of U.S. doctors charged Thursday.
Dr. H. Jack Geiger of the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights said the group spent a week visiting hospitals in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel and found evidence that brutality has become "the norm" in putting down unrest.
"We collected medical evidence of an uncontrolled epidemic of violence by the army," said Geiger of the City University of New York.
The report came as a 20-year-old Palestinian was killed in the West Bank refugee camp of Tulkarm. Israel Radio said the man was shot and a soldier was slightly wounded Thursday when Palestinian protesters attacked troops making arrests in the camp. He was the 52nd Palestinian killed since unrest broke out Dec. 9.
An Israeli army spokesman said the doctors' report was "simplistic" and denied the military has a policy of beatings to punish Palestinians. "The policy is to use force to disperse a violent demonstration," he said. Excessive beatings have occurred but they were investigated and "it's been brought under control," he said.
At Gaza City's Shifa Hospital on Wednesday, the four American doctors examined Youssef Hamad, 40, of Gaza City, whose arms and legs were in casts. Large bruises covered Hamad's back, and several of his ribs were broken. His head had 12 deep gashes, the doctors said.
Hamad alleged that he was beaten by 10 soldiers.
Geiger said Hamad's injuries illustrated that Israeli soldiers beat Palestinians who are rarely able to fight back. "There is no way in the world anyone could get these kinds of injuries resisting arrest," Geiger told reporters.
Dr. Jennifer Leaning of Harvard University showed reporters an X-ray of a broken hand and said the fracture occurred as the victim "warded off blows." "Fractures like these don't occur when your hands are in a fist and you're defending yourself," she maintained.
She said the doctors observed "a systematic pattern of breaking limbs by beatings that is designed to fall short" of killing victims.
Many of the beating injuries were more disabling than gunshot wounds, Leaning said. She cited cases of permanent kidney failure, brain damage and muscle damage that will permanently disable limbs.
Geiger said the doctors will publish a report on their findings and send it to Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who ordered soldiers last month to use clubs instead of gunfire to disperse protesters, reasoning that the new policy would save lives.