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Killing palestinians becomes routine { July 15 2003 }

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Tuesday, July 15, 2003 Tamuz 15, 5763
Israel Time: 15:36 (GMT+3)

When killing becomes routine
By Gideon Levy

At the beginning of June, Nabil Jirdath, 48, a
clothing merchant and the father of eight, drove
from his store in Jenin to his home in the village
of Silath al-Harthiya. With him in the car were
seven of his family members, including children.
Suddenly the car came under light-arms fire from a
tank that was stationed on the main road. Jirdath
was critically wounded and died a few days later.

It's possible that the soldiers
wanted to frighten the
occupants of the car, as the
driver, for fear of the tank,
had turned on to a bypass dirt
road. And so the soldiers
opened fire at the vehicle from
long range. The result was an
appallingly unnecessary death,
which, as in many other cases,
was of no interest to the Israeli public.

However, the lack of interest shown in the event
by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) this time
assumed a horrific character: it turned out
that the IDF Spokesperson's Office had no
knowledge of the incident. Someone is killed
but no investigation is made and no record is
kept of the event anywhere - as though an
animal was the victim. Is it possible that the
soldiers in the tank didn't even bother
reporting to their superiors that they had
killed someone?

Another week went by after the IDF Spokesperson
promised to look into the matter, and MK Isaac
Herzog (Labor) submitted a motion for agenda in
the Knesset about the incident. The defense
establishment again stated that it knew nothing
about the event. The deputy defense minister
asked for a week's extension to clarify the

About a month has gone by since the incident,
but no one has any idea why the soldiers killed
Nabil Jirdath.

Putting them on trial is of course completely
out of the question. But what difference does
it make? The death has already sunk into
oblivion. Only the family of the deceased, an
affluent family that did much trading with
Israel and has many friends here, will remain
with its agony.

And let's face it: what does it matter whether
the soldiers reported the incident or not? Why
should they take the trouble to report when
they know that, in any case, no one will do
anything with the report? A situation in which
IDF soldiers kill an innocent civilian and feel
that nothing happened that merits a report is
nothing short of appalling, and the
responsibility for it devolves on the Judge
Advocate General's Office, which decided from
the very outset of the intifada that it would
no longer investigate most of the acts of
killing in the territories.

Of the 2,235 Palestinians that have been killed
by the IDF, indictments against soldiers have
been handed down in only eight cases. No one
has yet been convicted.

The same pattern was followed last summer, when
the car we were in, the Haaretz car, was shot
at in Tul Karm: no senior officer took the
trouble to come to the scene of the incident
and the soldiers continued with their daily
routine as though nothing happened. The
occupants of the car were never questioned
about he circumstances of the event.

And what does the IDF officer who is responsible
for upholding the law in the army have to say
about all this?

In an interview to Haaretz last Thursday, the
judge advocate general, Major General Menahem
Finkelstein, stated that "it is impossible to
carry out 2,000 investigations into 2,000 cases
of death when, in a large percentage of the
cases, we are talking about military activity
par excellence." That is an infuriating
statement, because at the time Finkelstein's
unit decided to stop investigating cases of
killing, fewer than 200 Palestinians had been

So we are entitled to ask whether it is an
exaggeration to assume that if the Judge
Advocate General's Office had decided to
investigate - at least to investigate - each
case of killing, as was done in the first
intifada, the number of those killed might not
have reached 2,235. Maybe only half that number
would have been killed.

From the moral point of view, Finkelstein's
remark - in which he says that the large number
of people killed is a major reason for not
investigating the deaths - is reprehensible.
Just imagine what the reaction would be if the
police were to declare that they were no longer
going to investigate cases of murder because
there had been a steep rise in their

Doesn't the judge advocate general understand
that by his decision he gave sweeping sanction
for killing? A soldier who knows that nothing
bad will happen to him if he kills someone
without justification is a soldier who has a
distorted value system. The thought that his
commanding officers will not make a fuss about
the killing of a Palestinian has moral
implications that go very deep and will affect
his personality for the rest of his life. Did
you kill a Palestinian? That's of no interest
to us. That is the message the Judge Advocate
General's Office transmitted to the soldiers in
the field.

If we can judge by what is happening in the
Border Police, where offenders are both
investigated and brought to trial, because the
investigative body is external (the Justice
Ministry's Internal Affairs Department, which
investigates alleged wrongdoing by police), it
would probably be best to place the
investigation of killings by soldiers in the
hands of an external body as well, which will
not seek solely to accommodate its superiors.

In the course of the intifada the lives of
Palestinians have become of no value in the
eyes of the soldiers. The killing of innocent
passengers, of unarmed passersby and of
civilians in their homes has long since ceased
to be an anomaly. In addition to the political
and security price this exacts, the phenomenon
also has implications for the moral character
of the IDF. The Judge Advocate General's Office
has played a not inconsiderable part in
bringing about this situation.

The IDF is undoubtedly very pleased with the
JAG: he makes possible the killing of
Palestinians not only without the intervention
of the High Court and without B'Tselem (the
human rights group) - the two bodies that
Yitzhak Rabin complained about when he was
defense minister during the first intifada -
but also without a judge advocate general.
That's why it's been a long time since we heard
soldiers and officers complain that they "need
a lawyer by their side."

"We will not sanction war crimes," the JAG
promised self-righteously in the Haaretz
interview. Yet how can he possibly know whether
war crimes have been perpetrated, and in what
number, if he doesn't investigate?

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