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Killing of Hamas operative raises questions about conduct of elite Israeli units in pursuing militants

With the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian direct talks this month, leaders in the region must examine how changes in the Palestinian security sector might improve the long-term prospects for peace. From the sidelines of the talks, Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Analyst Robert Blecher discussed the state of the Palestinian Security Forces, as well as popular attitudes toward the Palestinian Authority and the peace process.

"I heard Iyad call three times, 'Who's there?' and seconds later I heard shooting," Muhammad Abu Shilbaya said. "Then it was quiet." The brother said that soldiers ordered him to sit on the floor inside the house, and they opened a stretcher to take out the body of the slain man.

An army statement said that the militant, who turned out to be unarmed, had run toward the soldiers "in a suspicious way" with his hands behind his back, and when he ignored orders to halt, the troops, who felt threatened, opened fire. A medical report from a hospital in Tulkarm said that Abu Shilbaya had been shot twice in the chest and once at the base of the neck.

In the militant's cramped bedroom two days after the shooting, a bloodied mat remained next to the bed, and blood was spattered on a bedsheet, the lower part of a wall and a radio on the floor. Three spent bullet cartridges had been found a few feet from the bed, the militant's brothers said.

Iyad Abu Shilbaya's wife, Latifa, who was visiting relatives on the night of the raid, said that the killing of her husband was completely unexpected, because he had not behaved like a wanted man on the run. "He was sleeping at home," she said. "They could have shot him in the leg and arrested him."

Relatives and neighbors said that soldiers gave no warning before entering Abu Shilbaya's home and did not call on him to surrender.

Capt. Barak Raz, an army spokesman, said that the soldiers were given intelligence information that Abu Shilbaya might be armed and fired "when they felt their lives were threatened." He noted that all the other arrests in Nur Shams that morning were accomplished without incident.

Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, said that it was demanding a military police investigation. B'tselem has received no response from the army to its request for a similar investigation into the killing by Cherry soldiers of three militants in December in the city of Nablus, where witnesses said that two were shot as they came out of their homes with family members.

Raz declined to discuss the rules of engagement for the special forces units.

But a former soldier in Cherry who spoke on condition of anonymity said in an interview that the rules were "very fluid" and changed according to circumstances. The veteran, a member of the group Breaking the Silence, which publishes accounts by discharged soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said that in close encounters with militants, members of the unit were given broad discretion to open fire.

In one operation, he recalled, soldiers were told that their objective was an armed militant, and that "if you see a weapon near him, you shoot. If he makes any strange or sudden move, you shoot. Don't take a risk. If you shoot, you'll have backing."

"The culture of the unit was to arrest, but also not to take risks," the veteran said. In some cases, soldiers were given the message that "killing the terrorist was best," he added.

The former soldier said Cherry troops were trained for hair-trigger responses in face-to-face confrontations with militants who were usually described in pre-operational briefings as armed or likely to be armed, although many times they were not.

After bursting into a room, there's no chance to instantly check if a militant inside is hiding a weapon, the former soldier said. So, in effect, " your life's already in danger the moment you're in the room and there's someone on a bed," he said. "It's an impossible situation."

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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