RAMALLAH -- Several killings of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers over the past month have kindled a new controversy over the Army's rules and practices in dealing with disturbances in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The incidents have been scattered and the circumstances varied: three Gaza men were gunned down after allegedly running a roadblock; a mother of eight was shot dead and five others wounded when military policemen trapped in a violent protest fired machine guns into a crowded city square; and a 22-year-old university student was shot in the head by a sniper while allegedly leading a mob of rock-throwers.
A recent report by a Palestinian civil rights organization contrasts this use of lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators with the methods police used against ultraorthodox Jewish rioters protesting violations of the Sabbath last summer in Jerusalem. Those riots "were controlled -- not without violence, but without shooting and certainly without causing death," the report, prepared by Law in the Service of Man, said.
Palestinian rights activists contend that the killings violated Army rules of conduct in such situations, and they say the Army's enforcement of those rules is too lax. They contend that the Army generally has ignored their complaints and demands for investigations.
"It's a fact of life under the occupation that soldiers have a great deal of authority over civilians," said Jonathan Kuttab, a lawyer for Law in the Service of Man, which is based in this West Bank city.
"They hit people, they abuse them, sometimes they shoot and kill them, and the population has little or no redress. This is a system that allows it to happen, and it happens again and again," Kuttab said.
Military authorities contend that their rules for shooting are very strict and well-enforced. Each soldier is required to carry a nine-page document outlining when and how he is allowed to use force against civilians in the occupied territories.
The rules stipulate that soldiers may open fire only when their lives are threatened or when pursuing a fleeing suspect in a serious crime. Even then, soldiers are required to follow an order of procedures that include shouting a warning in Arabic for the suspect to desist, firing shots in the air and finally firing at the legs.
"It is not in our interests to kill civilians," a senior military officer said, adding that such shootings usually provoke more unrest. "In war, when you conquer a hill, that's it, you've achieved your objective. But on the West Bank, tomorrow is always another day. When you kill someone it takes a lot of time and effort to bring quiet to an area."
In each of the three recent cases, doubts have arisen about whether the Army's rules were followed. The three men killed at the Gaza roadblock were shot after they allegedly ignored orders to stop their vehicle and attempted to flee the car, according to an Army statement issued at the time.
Military rules state soldiers may not fire on a car merely because it has broken through a checkpoint. There must also be "a reasonable suspicion" its passengers have been involved in a serious crime.
One of the dead men turned out be an escaped prisoner, the Army said, but it is unclear whether soldiers knew this when they fired. Relatives of two of the victims told reporters the corpses were riddled with bullets from the front -- suggesting a violation of rules stipulating that soldiers use no more force than necessary.
An Army spokesman said he could not provide further details of the incident because military police were still investigating.
In the case of the woman who was killed, Israeli officials have expressed regrets, saying she was an innocent bystander gunned down when three military police staff members -- "a driver, a cook and a clerk," according to Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- blundered into a demonstration here and opened fire with Uzi submachine guns. "It was an unfortunate event that should not have happened," said Rabin.
The commander of the three, a veteran sergeant major, has been suspended because he failed to instruct the men not to enter the area where trouble was occurring. But Mitzna said charges against the three men are unlikely because their lives were in danger when they fired.
Mitzna said the sniper who shot the student was part of a group of Israeli soldiers surrounded by rioters throwing rocks and fire bombs near Bethlehem University a week ago. The idea was to hit the legs of the leader of the group, who was standing above the soldiers in a building, but because of a difficult angle of fire, Mitzna said, the sniper hit his head.
The senior military officer said sniper rifles are being distributed in riot situations because they are far more accurate and their .22-caliber ammunition is less physically damaging than the automatic M16 and Galil rifles normally carried by soldiers. The family of the student has filed a complaint claiming that he was killed on orders of a military commander and demanding prosecution of those involved.
The officer said each case in which a civilian is killed or wounded is investigated by the military police and a decision on whether to prosecute is made by the Army prosecutor's office, an independent unit whose decisions cannot be reversed.
A large but unspecified number of soldiers have been disciplined for incidents in which Arab civilians were shot, the officer said. But he said he knew of only one case in recent years in which soldiers were court-martialed: earlier this year two soldiers were tried and acquitted in the shooting death of a Nablus moneychanger.
Palestinian rights activists also charge that military authorities have ignored complaints of beatings and other brutality by soldiers. Law in the Service of Man presented a dozen youths at a recent press conference who charged that they had been beaten by soldiers and showed scars and photographs.
The Army dismissed those charges, saying some of those injured had been suspects hurt while attempting to flee, and others had filed complaints too late for effective investigation.