An internal inquiry by the Israeli army into the killing of 12 Palestinian civilians by its forces last week, including four fruit-pickers blown up by a tank shell packed with thousands of darts, has cleared the soldiers involved.
Investigations by the Israeli army into the killing or maiming of Arab civilians in the 23-month conflict have almost invariably resulted in whitewashes, but this did not diminish the condemnation with which yesterday’s findings were greeted by Western sources, Israeli peace activists and Palestinian officials.
The inquiry said the “open-fire” orders that led the Israeli army to fire a 120mm air- burst shell packed with 3,000 flechettes (inch-long darts), at a Palestinian family in their camp in a fig orchard in the Gaza Strip, were “appropriate”. So, too, were the orders given to the snipers who picked off four labourers in a West Bank quarry on Sunday, allegedly because they saw them cutting a fence. And so was the command issued to an Israeli death squad in a helicopter that killed two teenagers and two children aged six and 10 in a botched assassination.
The inquiry found that in the first two of these cases, both on Palestinian-controlled land inside the occupied territories invaded by the Israeli army, soldiers had acted because they identified Palestinians who were behaving “suspiciously”, including being in an “unauthorised area” late at night, crawling towards an illegal Israeli settlement and infiltrating Israeli agricultural land.
An Israeli army statement did not confirm or deny using a tank flechette round. But The Independent has examined an X-ray of one victim. Darts were embedded in his chest and stomach. The deaths of the children caused by the helicopter missile strike, in the West Bank village of Tubas, were dismissed by the Israeli army as “collateral damage” that was “probably caused by a technical malfunction”.
The inquiry was ordered by the Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who complimented the Israeli army yesterday on its “thorough” work, a military statement said.
But Uri Avnery, an activist with the Israel pressure group Gush Shalom, said the three incidents were “manifestly illegal actions”. He added: “If the army says its soldiers followed their standing orders, this shows their standing orders are manifestly wrong, and responsibility for all these actions rests on the army’s high command.”
One Western source declared himself to be “speechless” on hearing the outcome of the inquiry, which he described as a cover-up. “Why bother to set up an inquiry unless it is going to be thorough and impartial and unless the results will be followed up. None of this is true in this case.”