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From the field

2.2.05: Israeli military grants impunity when soldiers kill Palestinian civilians

Since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada, the IDF has opened only 90 Military Police investigations into Palestinians killed and injured, although soldiers have killed  at least 1,694 Palestinians who did not take part in hostilities, including 536 minors. These investigations led to the filing of only 29 indictments. Only one soldier has been  convicted of causing the death of a Palestinian. These statistics are not accidental. Rather, they are a result of the IDF's intolerable disregard for Palestinian life, as reflected in the open-fire regulations which encourage a trigger-happy attitude among soldiers, and its policy to cover up and refrain from investigating the killing of civilians.

Change in the open-fire regulations

With the outbreak of the present Intifada, the IDF has significantly changed the open-fire regulations that apply in the Occupied Territories,. The new regulations permit soldiers to shoot at Palestinians in non-combat situations in which soldiers are not in life-threatening danger. A prime example is the order given in the Gaza Strip to fire at any person who enters what are defined as "danger zones," which include the areas near the military fence around Gaza, IDF posts, and settlements.

Since the beginning of the current intifada, the IDF has viewed the open-fire regulations applying in the Occupied Territories as "confidential." The regulations are given to soldiers only during oral briefings, and not in the form of a written booklet, as they were in the previous intifada. The secrecy enables the senior command to avoid responsibility for the killing of innocent persons and leaves the soldiers in the field to bear the criticism. In addition, reliance on oral briefings to issue orders on the rules of engagement is likely to result in distortion, misunderstandings, and hidden messages.

Failure to open Military Police investigations

In addition to changes in the open-fire regulations, the army also changed its policy regarding the opening of Military Police investigations. Until September 2000, the IDF ordered a Military Police investigation in every case in which a Palestinian civilian not involved in hostilities was killed. With the outbreak of the current intifada, the Judge Advocate General (JAG) decided that Military Police investigations would be opened only in "exceptional cases." According to the new policy, the JAG's office decides whether to open an investigation based on an debriefing held by the field commanders following the killing of a Palestinian civilian.

The operational debriefing is not a proper basis for the JAG's office to make a determination as to whether to open a Military Police investigation. First, the debriefing is not objective as the officer conducting it is intrinsically involved in the incident in one way or another, and the results of the inquiry are liable to incriminate him. Second, the military inquiry will inevitably be partial, in that IDF officers are not trained to conduct criminal investigations, and do not question the victims and Palestinian witnesses.

The IDF's policy on investigating deaths of Palestinians sends a message to soldiers that no action will be taken against them even if they violate the regulations, carry out blatantly illegal orders and injure innocent persons in the process. As a result of this attitude, hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians have been killed without anyone being prosecuted.

The High Court of Justice

In September 2003, B'Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice to order the opening of a Military Police investigation in every case in which IDF soldiers killed Palestinian civilians who did not take part in the hostilities. The High Court has not yet made a decision on the petition.