JERUSALEM, FEB. 11 -- A team of American medical experts today presented a dramatic survey of the physical and psychological damage they said was being deliberately inflicted on thousands of Palestinians in suppressing the two-month-old conflict in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The four doctors accused Israel of unleashing "an unrestrained epidemic of violence by the Army and police." They described medical conditions in hospitals and clinics during the violence as "appalling" and said many of those wounded may suffer permanent injury because of lack of proper care.
The physicians, three from the faculty of Harvard Medical School and one from the City University of New York, told a press conference here they estimated that several thousand Arabs have suffered bone fractures and other injuries from beatings by soldiers and police since the uprising began in early December.
They said their own examination of X-rays and other medical records at hospitals and clinics indicated that many of the injuries had been inflicted in a systematic fashion that appeared to contradict the government's claim that soldiers beat alleged rioters only when they were resisting arrest.
Most of the beatings in the West Bank appeared designed to break bones in arms, hands and legs and not to cause fatal injuries, according to the doctors, who are members of the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group. But in Gaza, where clashes between soldiers and rioters have generally been more intense, the beatings have been more brutal and, in some cases, victims have been struck repeatedly on the head, causing brain damage and other head injuries, they said.
A military spokeswoman said tonight that the Army's policy remains to sanction physical force only when soldiers are dispersing a violent demonstration or subduing persons resisting arrest. "Any other use of force is prohibited," she said.
Gaza doctors and residents contend that three people there have died in the past week from injuries inflicted by soldiers. The Army has denied the allegations in two cases and said it is investigating the third.
"The word 'beatings' simply doesn't convey the medical magnitude of what's been happening," said group leader Dr. H. Jack Geiger, professor of community medicine at the CUNY Medical School and a longtime activist in medical aspects of civil rights, hunger and antinuclear issues. "The numbers, rate and scope of beatings cannot be considered aberrations or deviations but must be seen as closer to the norm."
In the past year, Physicians for Human Rights also has surveyed injuries suffered by Panamanians from birdshot used in police weapons, the consequences of the widespread use of tear gas by police in South Korea and criminal charges against doctors in Chile involved in treating members of human rights groups.
The doctors said they based their conclusions on their observations during a week-long visit to hospitals, clinics and doctors in the occupied territories and on medical records they examined.
According to Army statistics released two days ago, 44 Palestinians have been shot dead and 418 wounded by gunshots since Dec. 9. Other tallies by U.N. officials, Palestinian sources and the Israeli press put the figure at more than 50. The Army has released no statistics on injuries from beatings but estimates from other sources have ranged from 500 to 2,000.
But Dr. Jennifer Leaning, a Harvard expert on trauma emergency medical services, said even the highest figures appeared to seriously underestimate the number of beating injuries. Based on her observations during three days in the West Bank and one in Gaza, she said, she extrapolated at least 3,500 and said "a conservative estimate" would be double that.
"Many of those injured do not seek treatment from clinics or hospitals because of military curfews or because they fear being arrested," she said. "Many serious injuries are not treated for several days, if at all."
Leaning said she had seen a pattern of "midshaft" fractures of hands and arms that were likely to occur when limbs were held outstretched by force and broken deliberately rather than during fighting. That is consistent with accounts of dozens of Arab hospital patients who charged they were rounded up by soldiers and forced to extend their arms and open hands for clubbings. Army officials have denied that such practices have occurred.
Although the Army has said its policy is to shoot at legs, Leaning said only 50 percent of bullet wound injuries were to legs. She displayed X-rays showing major internal damage done by the high-velocity bullets the Army uses.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said the beatings policy, which he first enunciated in mid-January, was designed to disperse rioters while minimizing the casualties caused by live ammunition. Leaning concurred that the beatings were designed not to produce fatalities.
The soldiers "definitely appear not to be out of control and this is one of the darker things we found," she said.
Dr. Bennet Simon, a Harvard psychiatrist, said that while the purpose of the beatings may have been to intimidate the Palestinian population into submission, the violence was producing outrage and anger among Arab adults while increasing defiance and "producing a kind of high" among the young, who see themselves as heroic resisters of Israel's military occupation. The result, he said, was a hardening of positions among Palestinians that would "most likely beget further irrationality in the political process."
Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Leon Shapiro said a small minority of soldiers were unaffected or even enjoyed doing the beatings, but the majority were uncomfortable, although they went along with them. Ten to 15 percent of the soldiers, he said, are "simply torn apart by what they're doing."
Shapiro said interviews with soldiers and Army psychiatrists suggested the Army was "going against its own norms" in implementing the beatings policy. He quoted one soldier as saying, "I never dreamed I'd be hitting women. Now I find myself doing it."
Shapiro said the group's main recommendation was that Israel should "stop treating a civil disturbance by an unarmed civilian population as if it were a major attack by an armed enemy." He also said the Army should lower the level of violence it uses to make its response to rioting "consonant with what policy is supposed to be."
"If soldiers and police are using more than the minimally mandated force, why aren't they being court-martialed?" he asked, and added that government officials should make clear their opposition to beatings.
Geiger said Arab hospitals had been "overwhelmed" by the outbreak of shootings and beatings. He and the other doctors said hospitals lacked adequate equipment and staff and that conditions were filthy.
He said the Army often had prevented ambulances and doctors from entering refugee camps during curfew, and he cited an incident Sunday in which police allegedly forced the driver and doctors out of an East Jerusalem ambulance at gunpoint, confiscated it and used it to ferry police into a riot area.
The doctors had high praise for medical staff at the hospitals, saying they had done a "remarkable" job with limited resources. They also said those seriously wounded who had been transferred to more sophisticated Israeli hospitals had received excellent care, but they faulted Israeli doctors for not taking more interest in the plight of their Arab colleagues and for not monitoring and forcing improvements in emergency care in the occupied territories.
The Army spokeswoman, responding to the doctors' allegations, noted that the Army has said it would investigate all complaints of excessive beatings but that few have been filed.
She said soldiers were faced with "really violent demonstrations" where rioters use stones, bottles and sometimes knives to attack the Army. "To go inside these demonstrations and disperse them is very, very hard, and if you don't want to shoot people, you need to respond with physical force," she said.
"Tear gas and rubber bullets do nothing -- the demonstrators laugh at them," she said. "No soldier likes this mission. They really hate it. We all hope there will be quiet in the territories so we don't need to do it again."