Israeli soldiers mistakenly kill two Israeli civilians

Friday, March 14, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Two Israelis were killed in hail of Israeli army fire in the West Bank on Thursday -- a case of mistaken identity that raised new questions about what human rights groups say is the quick draw by soldiers in Palestinian areas.

Several hours later, Israeli troops raiding a West Bank village killed four Palestinian fugitives in a gunbattle, an Israeli general said.

The two men killed by friendly fire, ages 22 and 23, were private guards protecting a mobile phone antenna on a hill near the Palestinian city of Hebron. Their white station wagon, which had red stickers in Hebrew with the words "security" on the sides and hood, was riddled with dozens of bullets.

The shooting began at about 1 p.m., some time after Israeli forces in the Hebron area had received warnings that Palestinian gunmen were trying to attack the nearby Jewish settlement of Pnei Hever, the army said.

Elite troops lying in wait for armed Palestinians were told by a lookout post that a gunman had been spotted running toward a white car parked on a deserted hillside, Israeli military reporters said.

The man did not heed a call by soldiers to stop, Israeli reporters said. The speculation was that he had not heard the soldiers because of strong winds. From a distance of about 80 yards, troops began charging toward the car, unleashing massive fire.

The second guard, who was about 300 yards away, heard the shots and managed to contact the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, telling security officers there that his colleague had come under attack from Palestinians disguised as Israeli soldiers. As the guard ran from the shooting, he was killed by fire from an army helicopter, the army said.

Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski attributed the deaths to "an operational failure by the troops observing the area" from a nearby hill.

The firing on the two guards, one of them an Israeli army officer on leave -- raised questions about the army's rules of engagement in the Palestinian areas.

"We've said for a long time that the firing orders are too lax," said Lior Yavne, a spokesman for B'Tselem, an Israeli group that monitors Israeli human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "The soldiers see suspicious figures, fire first and ask questions later."

Yavne said dozens of unarmed Palestinians have been killed by Israeli army fire in the past 29 months of fighting, including those driving or walking near Israeli army checkpoints.

Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokesman, said soldiers were on high alert at the time of the shooting because of specific warnings about gunmen in the area. "This was a tragic mistake, as in other incidents in which innocent people are killed on either side," she said.

In the West Bank village of Tamoun, four Palestinians on Israel's wanted list were killed Thursday in an army raid, Kaplinski said. The military said soldiers entered the village to search for suspected militants and Palestinians fired at them. The soldiers returned fire, killing four. Troops clamped a curfew on Tamoun, near the Palestinian city of Nablus. Residents interviewed by phone said they heard gunfire.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat delayed signing legislation that forces him to share power with a prime minister. Arafat asked for several changes, insisting for example that he -- and not only the prime minister -- be able to convene the Cabinet. Arafat also sought assurances that he will be able to attend Cabinet meetings.

The Palestinian legislature, which passed the bill this week, will vote on Arafat's requests Monday, said the speaker, Ahmed Qureia.

The prime minister's bill falls short of demands by the United States to sideline Arafat. However, it forces Arafat to relinquish some powers for the first time in four decades as Palestinian leader. The prime minister will form a Cabinet and run the day-to-day affairs of government, while Arafat remains in charge of negotiations with Israel and retains control over the security forces.

Arafat's choice for the job is Mahmoud Abbas, his deputy in the PLO. Abbas is expected to form a new government within several days of final approval of the bill next week.

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