TEL AVIV // An Israeli human-rights group yesterday lambasted the Israeli army for failing to investigate the killings of dozens of Palestinian civilians by its troops in recent years and for almost never punishing soldiers for such deaths. The release of the report came as the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, held face-to-face talks in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in a second round of direct negotiations that were renewed on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus.
The negotiations, attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appeared to make little progress in resolving their most immediate obstacle of reaching a compromise over Israel's settlement construction in the West Bank. Nevertheless, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, who also took part in the talks, said he had repeated Washington's call on Israel to extend a 10-month building halt that expires at the end of September. He added that the two leaders had started a "serious discussion on core issues".
In its report, B'Tselem, a Jerusalem-based organisation documenting human-rights violations against Palestinians, said Israeli soldiers who kill Palestinians not taking part in hostilities are seldom held accountable even if there are "grave" suspicions that they acted criminally. "This policy permits soldiers and officers to act in violation of the law, encourages a trigger-happy attitude and shows a flagrant disregard for human life," the report said.
The new findings may add to growing international criticism of Israel's approach to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and cloud the nascent Middle East negotiations on the creation of a Palestinian state. The B'Tselem report focused on the Israeli military's actions against civilians in the occupied West Bank as well as in Gaza, in which Israel continues to conduct army incursions despite withdrawing troops and civilians from the territory in 2005.
According to the group, between 2006 and 2009 it submitted to the army 148 cases in which 288 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli soldiers, including more than one-third of whom were under age 18. B'Tselem said that in none of the cases have criminal charges been brought against soldiers. Of the total, the army opened investigations into only 22. In about one-third of those cases an inquiry was initiated more than a year after the incident occurred. Twenty-nine of the cases were dismissed.
The army told B'Tselem it was still processing most of the remaining cases. The group said in its report that its submitted cases do not include all civilian deaths in the period. During the 2006-2009 period that the report covered, Israeli troops killed 1,510 Palestinians, including 617 civilians, it said. Those figures do not include Israel's attack on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, in which almost 1,400 Palestinians were killed.
The frequency of army investigations was sharply reduced at the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. Despite years of investigating almost every case in which Palestinian civilians were killed, the group said the military decided on a new policy of labelling the situation in Gaza and the West Bank an "armed conflict", effectively granting immunity to troops. It also ruled that military investigations would only be opened in exceptional cases.
According to the group, the army's decisions on whether to open a probe do not take into consideration the testimonies of witnesses other than soldiers or evidence that happens to conflict with the soldiers' accounts. B'Tselem said that even in cases in which there are clear violations of the army's own commands, investigations are rarely opened. The report highlighted one incident in 2009 that had received wide international media attention. A Palestinian protester named Bassem Abu Rahmeh was killed when he was hit by a tear-gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest against Israel's West Bank barrier in the village of Bil'in.
B'Tselem said video footage of the incident showed the 30-year-old protester did not throw stones at the soldiers or threaten their lives at the time he was killed. It added that army regulations forbid firing gas canisters directly at demonstrators. The army had initially refused to open a probe, denying that the canister had targeted the demonstrator and claiming that he was hit inadvertently. It reversed its decision, however, after B'Tselem threatened to petition the High Court of Justice and supplied its own report indicating the firing was direct.
B'Tselem has gained prominence over the years for its monitoring of violations against Palestinians. In July, it even drew a rare gesture of gratitude from the Israeli army, which thanked the group for providing it with Palestinian testimonies on soldiers' violations during Israel's deadly Gaza operation more than 18 months ago. In a response to the report, the Israeli military said it had investigated some of the incidents mentioned in the document and that the remaining cases were "still under examination in accordance with standard investigative policies." It added that every person who has been hurt by the army's decisions on homicide investigations "has the right to appeal them and turn to the attorney general's office or the High Court of Justice".