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Report Implies Israeli Cover-Up in Boy's Killing, Activists Say

Mideast: Rights group asserts that military documents raise doubts about army's conduct of other probes into shootings of Palestinians.


JERUSALEM — Over the years, the human rights group B'Tselem has demanded that the Israeli army investigate hundreds of cases in which troops have shot Palestinians. The usual response, the group says, is a single-page letter from the office of the army prosecutor explaining that no regulations appeared to have been broken and no further investigation was necessary.

So Yael Stein, the research director for the Israeli rights group, was surprised to find a fat manila envelope from the prosecutor's office on her desk Thursday. What she found inside, Stein said Tuesday, were documents suggesting an army cover-up of a shooting in which an 11-year-old Palestinian boy died and two other children were injured. The documents apparently had been included by accident.

The envelope also contained the familiar single-page letter, rejecting B'Tselem's demand for an investigation into a July 7 shooting in the Yubneh refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Khalil Mughrabi, 11, died when he was shot in the head, and two of his friends, 10 and 12, were injured.

After interviewing two witnesses who provided statements saying the three boys had been resting after a soccer match and were far from any soldiers when they were shot, B'Tselem filed a demand for an investigation in July.

The organization asked the army prosecutor to determine whether the children were indeed shot by troops and, if they were, whether the shootings violated army regulations on opening fire.

In her response, dated Oct. 31, Chief Military Prosecutor Col. Einat Ron said that "children and, at some stages, adults gathered near an [army] force that was moving along the Egyptian border." During the gathering, "there was massive stone-throwing and throwing of fragmentation grenades at the [army] force."

The troops tried to disperse the crowd, using rubber bullets and warning shots, "which were aimed at a protective wall so as not to hurt the rioters, and no injuries were detected as a result of this gunfire," Ron wrote. In conclusion, she wrote, "we have not found any suspicion of criminal behavior on the part of the [army] soldiers or that there is just cause to open an investigation."

But the official response wasn't the only thing in the envelope. There was also a sheaf of documents--13 pages in all. In the internal documents, Ron said that troops had apparently fired "warning shots" in the direction of children, using a heavy machine gun mounted on a tank, although she noted that the army's regulations prohibit the use of such weaponry to fire warning shots and firing at children in such circumstances.

Ron's internal document also said that "it is likely that the shots did not hit the children who were identified as rioters but rather children who were some distance from the place of the event."

She wrote that it is likely that the three children were struck by the tank fire and that the firing either violated regulations or was unjustified, because it was not necessary to protect the lives of soldiers.

In another document, she said that the prosecutor's office had three options: It could order a thorough military investigation leading to a possible criminal prosecution. It could say that the shooting was justified. Or it could say that there was a violation of rules-of-fire regulations but not a "gross deviation" and that disciplinary action against whoever fired the shots "should suffice."

"When I saw those documents," Stein said, "I was shocked."

The drastic disparity between what Ron said in the internal documents and what she said in the letter to B'Tselem, Stein said, raises questions about the army's conduct of other investigations into shooting incidents during more than 13 months of fighting with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Clearly, the army was well aware that the soldiers acted wrongly and the chief prosecutor thought there was room to open a military investigation," Stein said. "In spite of that, Ron suggests other options, in black and white, which include lying. This shows that lying is considered an option in the prosecutor's office."

Lt. Col. Oliver Rafowicz, an army spokesman, refused to discuss the specifics of the case. Rafowicz said that the army "is checking itself all the time, and these documents that arrived to B'Tselem prove that we are checking ourselves on a very fundamental and very deep level. I reject all allegations about lies on purpose, or that our policy is to falsify the truth."

Rafowicz said that the army is investigating 10 cases in which Palestinians were killed by troops in the last 14 months. According to B'Tselem, the army has opened 20 investigations since the Palestinian uprising erupted and only one soldier has been brought to trial, in a proceeding now underway.

More than 700 Palestinians have died during the fighting that began in late September 2000, and nearly 200 Israelis have died. The human rights group Amnesty International recently issued a report faulting the Palestinian Authority for failing to investigate any of the shootings of Israelis.

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