There is "clear evidence" that Israeli soldiers and their commanders committed war crimes against Palestinian civilians -- including unlawful killings and torture -- during a three-month campaign last spring in two Palestinian cities in the West Bank, the human rights group Amnesty International charges in a report to be released Monday.
In a study of Israeli army operations in the cities of Jenin and Nablus from April to June, the human rights group cites the killing of Palestinian women and children, the "wanton" destruction of houses, the torture of Palestinian prisoners and the use of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers as "human shields" during military operations. The group says in the report these constitute violations of the Geneva Conventions.
The report is the most recent of several new studies by human rights organizations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Human Rights Watch last week issued a report calling Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians "crimes against humanity" and asserting that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, bore "significant political responsibility" for not stopping them. Amnesty, in a July report, also described the Palestinian suicide attacks as crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The incidents investigated for the latest report occurred during Operation Defensive Shield, an Israeli military incursion into Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank that Israel said was aimed at uprooting an infrastructure of Palestinian terrorism. The Israeli offensive began March 29, two days after a suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in the resort of Netanya, in which 29 Israelis were killed during a Passover celebration.
A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry tonight rejected the report as "one-sided," saying it "ignores the fact that Israel is in the midst of an armed conflict that was imposed on her."
"Israel is struggling to defend her citizens against the Palestinian terror campaign, which is deliberately being conducted behind the back of the civilian population, including the use of children and the use of ambulances to smuggle arms and explosives," the spokesman said.
The 76-page Amnesty report says that the Israeli government prevented reporters, diplomats and others from visiting Jenin and Nablus to investigate charges of unlawful killings during the first weeks of the military campaign, and that Israel never adequately investigated the charges itself.
"This failure on the part of the Israeli authorities has helped create a climate where some members of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], aware that no action will be taken against them, continue to carry out unlawful killings," Amnesty International said in a statement.
The report found that more than half of the 54 people killed in Jenin in the opening two weeks of the Israeli campaign were not involved in fighting. They included seven women, four children and six men over the age of 55. In the first three weeks of the Nablus offensive, it says, at least 80 Palestinians were killed, including seven women and nine children.
At least 16 people died when Israeli bulldozers razed their homes without giving them enough time to evacuate, and they were crushed by rubble, according to the report. In the Jenin refugee camp, the homes of 800 families were destroyed -- most after the fighting had stopped -- leaving 4,000 people homeless, the report says.
In August, the United Nations published a report on operations in Jenin, saying that it uncovered no evidence to support Palestinian charges that Israel massacred civilians, but cited allegations that Israeli forces used excessive force and prevented sick and wounded Palestinians from obtaining medical treatment. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting in Jenin. Human Rights Watch put the Palestinian death toll in Jenin at 52, including 22 civilians.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today continued to attempt to reassemble a governing coalition. Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a leading hawk in Sharon's Likud Party who has been a tough critic of the Sharon government, agreed today to serve as Sharon's foreign minister, on the condition that new elections are called as soon as possible, which could be by January. Sharon's office said it was studying Netanyahu's terms.
If he assumes the post, Netanyahu would replace Shimon Peres, an architect of the 1993 Olso peace accords with the Palestinians. Peres had served in Sharon's cabinet, but resigned with five other Labor Party ministers on Wednesday.
Sharon has appointed Shaul Mofaz, the army chief of staff during the spring offensive in the Palestinian territories, to be the new defense minister. Officials said they expect Mofaz's appointment to be approved by Israel's parliament on Monday.
The parliament, or Knesset, is also scheduled to vote Monday on three motions of no confidence in Sharon's government. Ultra-nationalist and Orthodox parties in the opposition, whose support is necessary to approve the motions, are not expected to back them. That may provide the parties a week or two to negotiate over joining Sharon in a new, right-wing coalition to replace the government that collapsed last week when the Labor Party quit, leaving Sharon six votes short of a majority in parliament.