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Are Israelis off hook in slaying?

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 13 2001 9:08 a.m. MST

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military decided it will not prosecute soldiers in the death of an 11-year-old Palestinian boy, even though its findings indicated troops had fired without justification from a tank-mounted machine gun near a group of children, according to internal army documents.

The Israeli human-rights group Betselem said Tuesday that the case confirmed its long-standing suspicions that the military is not conducting serious investigations into the deaths of Palestinians and that the army's main objective is to protect soldiers.

"We fear that it is not an isolated case," said Yael Stein, the research director at Betselem, which has investigated dozens of deaths of Palestinians by army fire. Stein said she believed the internal army documents were sent to Betselem inadvertently, attached to an army response to a Betselem inquiry.

Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an army spokesman, didn't question the authenticity of the documents but refused to address the specifics of the case. "We are carrying out very serious investigations and inquiries, and we are a responsible organization," Rafowicz said.

In 14 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, 753 people have been killed on the Palestinian side, including hundreds shot dead by Israeli troops dispersing stone throwers or firing at gunmen. Also, 197 people have been killed on the Israeli side, the vast majority of them civilians killed in Palestinian shootings and bombings.

The Israeli military is investigating 10 cases of Palestinians killed by army fire in the past 14 months, Rafowicz said, adding that he didn't know whether any had come to trial. In one case, a junior officer was demoted last month after his unit fired near a school in the West Bank town of Jenin, killing a girl in her classroom.

The incident cited by Betselem occurred on July 7 in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Khalil Mughrabi, 11, was playing soccer with friends, and around 7 p.m. rested on mounds of sand near the nearby Israeli-Egyptian border fence.

Without warning, Mughrabi was shot in the head, with none of his friends hearing the sound of shooting, one of the soccer players, Osama al-Ahras, 13, told The Associated Press. Palestinian doctors said Tuesday that Khalil was struck by a large-caliber bullet. Two more boys, ages 10 and 13, were seriously wounded in the abdomen and testicles, respectively, doctors said.

Throughout that day, July 7, Palestinians had been throwing stones and some fragmentation grenades at Israeli patrols near the border, and soldiers fired to disperse rioters, the army said at the time.

However, the army's chief military prosecutor, Col. Einat Ron, concluded that there was no throwing of grenades or stones at about 7 p.m. when Israeli troops fired shots from a heavy tank-mounted machine gun toward Rafah.

Local officers said the tank fire was intended as a warning to rioters, but Ron wrote that according to army regulations, warning shots must not be fired at children and must be fired only with light weapons, not a heavy machine gun.

Meanwhile, Israeli tanks firing machine guns briefly moved into Palestinian territory in the central Gaza Strip on Tuesday after a bomb was detonated near an army patrol, the army said.

No injuries were reported.

The incident came as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council asked Israel to withdraw its forces from two Palestinian towns in the West Bank.

The explosion went off Tuesday morning near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom. In response, troops fired toward Palestinian areas south of Kfar Darom and five tanks moved into Palestinian territory, Palestinian witnesses said.

"It is a reasonable possibility that the fire from the tank did not hit the children who were seen to be rioting, but did hit children who were some distance from the scene of the event," Ron wrote in the internal document obtained by Betselem.

Ron then discussed three possible responses — the army would recommend a full military police investigation, make do with disciplinary action or clear the soldiers of wrongdoing because of earlier violence in the area.

In weighing the approach, Ron pointed out the difficulties of clearing the soldiers. "An 11-year-old boy who was innocently playing football was killed," Ron wrote. "Two of his friends ... were wounded. Even if this is a 'slight' deviation, the consequences make it imperative that a military police investigation be conducted," the prosecutor wrote.

Yet in the letter to Betselem, Ron wrote that "we have not found that there is suspicion of criminal conduct on the part of IDF soldiers or that a criminal investigation would be justified."

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