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Israeli Army Probes Slaying of Palestinian Grandmother

Officials say they are looking harder into civilian deaths in the West Bank and Gaza.

December 29, 2002|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

NABLUS, West Bank — The killing of Shaden abu Hijleh was both typical and not typical.

The 61-year-old grandmother sat on her front porch, embroidering. Her husband, a renowned local doctor, was next to her, tending the thyme plants he had taken to growing during the endless weeks in which Israeli military forces had confined Nablus residents to their homes.

Around dusk, two Israeli armored army vehicles -- the kind that passed every day -- stopped in front of the Abu Hijleh residence. One or more soldiers opened fire in the couple's direction, not 30 yards from where they sat in plain view, according to witnesses and survivors.

Fourteen bullet holes form an arc on the glass front door and part of the stone wall. One bullet apparently hit just above Shaden's head; when she cowered, another bullet penetrated her left side. That one killed her. Her husband, Jamal, 64, was nicked on the top of his skull.

Shaden abu Hijleh was one of 41 Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli forces in October as the Israeli-Palestinian war staggered into its third year and noncombatants on both sides had become the most common casualties. An average of one Palestinian civilian a day has been killed in the two months since, according to a tally kept by B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization. The oldest was 95; three were 2 years old.

(Approximately 45 Israeli civilians were killed in the same period, the majority in two attacks on buses by Palestinian suicide bombers.)

Where Abu Hijleh's case takes a turn, however, is in the way it was handled. The Israeli army, under pressure from the dead woman's children -- two of whom hold U.S. citizenship -- launched a detailed investigation. An initial report said she had been killed by a stray bullet, but top officials didn't accept that. The results of a second inquiry have not been made public.

With Israel facing criticism for repeated killings of Palestinian civilians, top military officials say they have begun conducting more vigorous probes of alleged use of excessive force or other abuses.

One year ago, The Times examined the Israeli army's practice of investigating the sins of its own and found that most probes were cursory and that serious punishment was rare. The failure to pursue alleged abuses worried some influential Israelis, who contended that it was corroding the morale and discipline of a people's army and nurturing a culture of impunity.

Since then, Israel's war with the Palestinians has metamorphosed into a protracted battle between the region's most powerful mechanized army and a string of ruthless guerrilla forces. In what it described as an attempt to cut off the march of suicide bombers into Israel, the army at midyear reoccupied most of the West Bank, positioning its forces in the middle of cities and refugee camps and entrapping 2 million Palestinians.

The toll among civilians rose steadily. Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, who in July took over as army chief of staff, issued new orders in October requiring that an internal investigation of each killing of a civilian be completed within 72 hours and that a full report arrive on his desk within 21 days.

Human rights activists who have long protested civilian deaths, however, say the changes are cosmetic. Only high-profile cases are investigated in any depth, activists say. The vast majority fall by the wayside.

Most investigations remain within the military chain of command, which outsiders view with suspicion. A number of cases are elevated to a stricter level of legal scrutiny within the military judiciary, and those cases almost always end in courts-martial.

A total of 281 cases had been opened by late this month; 20 involved the killing of Palestinians. In most of the rest, soldiers were accused of stealing, vandalism and improper use of firearms that did not result in injury.

Nearly 2,000 Palestinians and 700 Israelis have been killed in 27 months of violence.

The majority of killings continue to be attributed to the fog of war, according to top army officials interviewed for this report. Soldiers who fire back when shot at might hit civilians in congested residential areas, and they might miscalculate when having to decide whether an approaching Palestinian is friend or foe. These incidents are almost always considered by the army to be justified, the officials said.

"We are fighting in very crowded, intense areas, where you can hardly distinguish between a terrorist and a civilian," chief army spokeswoman Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron said. "It is extremely complex, and the ability to distinguish between an innocent man and a terrorist is almost impossible."

Yael Stein, a researcher with B'Tselem, said soldiers -- young, undertrained, confused and terrified -- are not being held accountable.

"Nothing happens to a soldier who kills a child," he said. "The policy of being trigger-happy is a natural consequence when there's a policy of impunity."

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