JERUSALEM, MAY 16 -- A new report by the Swedish Save the Children organization accuses Israel of major human-rights violations against children in its attempt to quell the Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, including responsibility for the deaths of more than 150 youths aged 15 or less.
In a 1,000-page study released today after a two-year investigation, the organization charged that Israeli soldiers had shot and killed children in their homes, beaten thousands under the age of 5 and held youths in at least nine detention camps.
Investigators for Save the Children said they had compiled records for the first two years of the 30-month-old uprising showing 159 child deaths -- about one-fourth of the 631 Palestinians killed in the rebellion -- and 7,107 beating incidents. They estimated that between 50,000 and 63,000 children had been treated for injuries in that time, including at least 6,500 wounded by gunfire. The average age of the children killed was 10, the report said.
The report could renew controversy here over what has been one of the most sensitive issues surrounding Israel's handling of the uprising, or intifada as it is known in Arabic. From the beginning, teenagers and younger children have played a leading role in the revolt, heaving stones at army units in almost daily clashes, scrawling nationalist slogans on walls and parading through villages behind the banned Palestinian flag.
Israeli officials, who said they were not given a copy of the report by Save the Children representatives until this morning, disputed some of its documentation and said its conclusions were exaggerated. An army spokesman said official figures showed that 79 children 14 and under -- a year below the cutoff age used by Save the Children -- had died in violence related to the uprising, which began in December 1987.
Government spokesman Yossi Olmert charged that Save the Children had shown itself in the past to be biased against Israel. "They are giving numbers which are exaggerated and inflated and which we completely reject," he said.
One of Israel's best-known human-rights advocates, Joshua Schoffman, also criticized the report as one-sided. While the group's research "has value as the most complete documentation of the death of Palestinian children," Schoffman said, "it relies almost exclusively on allegations made by family members, without the appropriate follow-up that other human-rights organizations have done." He said the investigators failed by not asking the army for its version of the incidents it documented "and weighing the two sides."
An Israeli human-rights group, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, has reported comparable figures, however. It says that 148 children 16 and under have been killed, but it excludes, as too difficult to prove, deaths caused by tear gas. Save the Children included 37 tear-gas deaths in its total.
The Israeli army spokesman said that while Israel did not wish to "minimize its reponsibility" for the deaths of Palestinian children, authorities believed that many could be blamed on Arab militants and parents "who send their children out onto the street and encourage them to become martyrs."
The study was sponsored by the Swedish component of Save the Children, a private child advocacy group that has carried out similar studies of children's issues in other parts of the world. The Swedish organization is headed by Thomas Hammarberg, a former secretary general of the London-based human-rights group Amnesty International, and the investigation -- funded in part by the Ford Foundation -- was directed by Anne Elizabeth Nixon, an American who worked previously in the East Jerusalem field office of the American federation of Save the Children.
The report contends that Israel's explanations of the deaths were false or inadequate and that its formal rules barring the shooting and beating of children by soldiers have been systematically flouted in the field. Although children participated in the demonstrations and stone-throwing, the report said, more than half of those killed "were not in the vicinity of a protest activity."
"Researchers for this report have documented indiscriminate beating, tear-gassing and shooting of children at home or just outside the house, playing in the street, sitting in the classroom or going to the store for groceries," a summary said. "The vast majority of injuries were caused when soldiers used their lethal and allegedly non-lethal weapons against children in a manner that was unjustified, unreasonable, excessive and unlawful."
The army contends that Arab militants and even some parents have deliberately pushed younger childen to the forefront of demonstrations and exploited the propaganda value of the resulting deaths and injuries. But the report supports arguments by critical Israelis and human-rights groups that the army regularly has used excessive force against demonstrating youths in violation of its own regulations.
It says investigators probed 66 of the 106 deaths of children by gunshot during the first two years of the intifada and concluded that a majority were not participating in stone-throwing when shot and that one-fifth were shot while at home or within 30 feet of their homes.
Examining 3,460 of the 7,107 documented cases of beating by soldiers, the team concluded that one-third of beaten children were under 10 years old, and one-fifth under 5. It said nearly a third of the children beaten suffered broken bones. In a 1989 case in the report, a 4-year-old boy in the Gaza Strip was seized by four soldiers after he pointed a plastic gun at them and beaten with a truncheon until his arm broke.
In an interview, Nixon said that, in the 70 cases of children's deaths during the first year of the uprising, only one soldier was formally charged with causing a child's death. The soldier was punished with a reprimand, she said. An army official disputed this account, saying soldiers had been indicted in "20 to 25 percent" of the cases of child death, but he did not say how many soldiers had been convicted or punished.
The report renews charges that children have been killed by tear gas, an allegation that has been made in the past by human-rights groups and disputed by the army. Save the Children said it documented 37 cases in which children died from the effects of tear gas. It said almost all the deaths occurred when tear-gas canisters fired by the army landed inside homes or in enclosed areas occupied by small children. Three-fourths of those killed were infants less than six months old, the report said.
An army spokesman said there has been no case in which a death has been conclusively shown to have been caused by tear gas. Save the Children said it based its findings on circumstantial evidence such as the occurrence of deaths within minutes or hours of exposure to gas. It said only two autopsies had been carried out in cases of suspected tear-gas deaths, making a conclusive connection impossible.