I remember once reading an opinion that, in the eyes of the US mainstream news media, there are generally two ways that Israeli or Palestinian civilians can be shot to death. They can be:
1. "Killed by Palestinian Gunmen", or 2. "Caught in Crossfire".
Because Israeli soldiers never target civilians, unless they are forced to do so by terrorists using them as human shields. (Though when Palestinian fatalities amount to 2,341 dead, comprising 551 "terrorists" and 1790 "others", that's an awfully high proportion of human shields).**
The latest Palestinian civilian caught in the crossfire was 23-year-old Dalal Al-Sabagh. She was shot as she hung her washing out to dry on the roof of her home in Jenin on 9 March 2004: killed in fighting during a raid by the Israeli army, as Reuters put it.
The Palestine Media Center (tip courtesy of Eli Stephens at left i on the news) gives a few more details of her death, claiming that she was shot when the IDF opened "random fire" in Jenin, killing her and wounding four other people, including an AFP photographer.
Palestinians have long maintained that they are subject to "random fire" in their neighborhoods, from IDF patrols intent on reminding them who is boss, and confident that they will not face any legal repercussions for their actions. This is a safe bet, as the IDF's record of even investigating (never mind prosecuting) those who shoot Palestinian civilians is absolutely abysmal. According to the Israeli civil rights groups B'Tselem and ACRI, about 2,200 Palestinian civilians had been killed by the end of October 2003, but only 55 of those deaths had been investigated.
As Ha'aretz (If These Bullets Could Talk, 4 March 2003) explained, the reason for the low investigation rate is simple. When an Israeli soldier shoots and kills a Palestinian civilian, the decision whether to investigate the death is left to the discretion of the Israeli soldier's commander in the field. No conflict of interest there! If the officer decides not to have his own soldier investigated, then the death is simply recorded as an "unfortunate incident". The result of this incestuous circle is that nobody is ever called to account for the vast majority of Palestinian civilian deaths. And even some of those rare cases that have been investigated only warranted an investigation after some outside agency proved that the death was not the "unfortunate incident" that the IDF had first ruled when it originally declared "case closed". For example:
1. Shaden Abu Hijla, a Nablus woman in her 60s, was killed while sewing on her front porch on October 11, 2002, by gunfire from a passing IDF jeep. The initial IDF version of her death was that she had been randomly killed by a stray bullet (which also wounded her husband and son). Her shooting was not formally investigated. The Abu Hijla family, however, maintained that their mother had been targetted by a burst of deliberate gunfire, and had the foresight to collect the fourteen IDF shellcases left behind at the scene. Mrs Abu Hijla herself also happened to be a prominent peace activist, who was a personal friend of the Bush family. Aware that forensic evidence refuted the IDF's "stray bullet" version of events, and that the President of the United States had been personally briefed about the shooting, the IDF Chief of Staff ruled that there would be an investigation after all. Eighteen months on, the case is still pending.
2. Ahmed Abdul Rahman al Karini, a 54-year-old municipal maintenance man, was repairing Nablus' electrical grid when he was shot to death on August 10, 2002 by an IDF patrol. The IDF ruled that Karini's death was reasonable, as the patrol could not have known he was a municipal repairman going about his legitimate business, seeing as his vehicle did not have a flashing orange light on the roof. The case was therefore closed without investigation. However, his shooting happened to be filmed by an AP film crew, which made the footage available to B'Tselem. Faced with a videotape of the incident, which clearly shows the orange light still blinking on the roof of Karini's bullet-ridden van, the IDF ruled that there would be an investigation after all. Eighteen months on, this case too is still pending.
Neither of these civilian deaths would even have been investigated were it not for some random circumstance like the presence of a film crew, the intervention of a human rights group, or a fortuitous link to the Oval Office. You can't help but wonder, in the words of Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar (who first brought these cases to public attention, and has been periodically following them ever since), about those hundreds of anonymous cases where the circumstances of the deaths are not known to the human rights groups or the press.
Even if you are one of the unlucky handful of IDF soldiers who ever faces investigation, you do not have to fear serious punishment. At the sentencing hearing for the five most recently-convicted Israeli conscientious objectors, their defence lawyer urged the court to be lenient, citing the precedents set by other recent IDF courts martial which handed down sentences such as:
-- A Lieutenant Colonel (name withheld) whose troops, on his illegal orders, shot dead an unarmed Palestinian: one month (suspended), no time served.
-- Four soldiers (names withheld) of the elite Givati Brigade, found guilty of repeatedly beating up two handcuffed Palestinian children, one of whom died: maximum sentence three months confinement.[emphasis mine]
-- Four soldiers (names withheld) of the elite Duvdevan unit, found guilty of shooting carelessly at a Palestinian car, killing its driver: fined one Agora.[i.e. less than one US cent]
(The five were in the end each sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment; a longer sentence than the guilty parties in all the above cases combined).
But the fact that IDF soldiers can act with impunity doesn't prove that some of them do though, does it? "Random fire" could just be Palestinian propaganda about something that doesn't happen, right?
Wrong. It does happen, but it's not called "random fire". It's called "punitive shooting", and it was described for the September 2001 edition of the Jerusalem Weekly Kol Ha'Ir, by Roi (last name withheld), one of five IDF soldiers who were interviewed after returning from service in the Occupied Territories:
When I first got to Hebron I wouldn't open fire on little children. And I was sure that if I ever killed or hurt anyone, I'd go so crazy that I'd leave the army. But finally I did shoot someone, and nothing happened to me. In Hebron I shot the legs off of two kids, and I was sure I wouldn't be able to sleep anymore at night, but nothing happened. Two weeks ago I hurt a Palestinian policeman, and that didn't affect me either. You become so apathetic you don't care at all. Shooting is the IDF soldier's way of meditating. It's like shooting is your way of letting go of all your anger when you're in the army. In Hebron there's this order they call "punitive shooting": just open fire on whatever you like. I opened fire not on any sources of fire but on windows where there was just wash hanging to dry. I knew that there were people who would be hit. But at that moment it was just shoot, shoot, shoot. -- Published in English translation by the April 2002 edition of Harpers Magazine.
I don't have a photo of Dalal Al-Sabagh. I wish I did, so she would not just be a name. I wish I had a photo of every nameless Palestinian or Israeli civilian murdered by some spotty-faced young lout who thinks he is God Almighty just because he has a gun and is answerable to no-one. But I don't. I only have a photo of Dalal's oldest child, four-year-old Ahmed, waiting for his mother's funeral procession to start, and her 40-day-old daughter, Hiba, who was on the roof with her when she was shot.
Dalal al-Sabagh also left a widower, Ala (aged 30), and a three-year-old son, Mumen.
I was going to blog today about the threatened breakdown of law and order in the Occupied Territories: about how much of the reported phenomenon is real, how much of it is a patronising excuse for continued cccupation (a la "we can't withdraw because the Palestinians can't rule themselves"), how much of it - especially in Gaza - is manouvering by local Fatah leaders staking a claim to rule should the Israelis actually pull out, etc. But then I read about Dalal al-Sabagh, shot to death by someone who will never be held accountable, for no better reason than she picked a bad day to hang out her laundry.
Dalal al-Sabagh was 23 years old, which means she lived her whole life under a military occupation where the occupying army doesn't even investigate 97% of the civilian deaths it inflicts, and where the punishment for beating to death a handcuffed Palestinian child is 3 months (maximum). Where your home can be dynamited by an Israeli officer who produces no court order, but simply tells you "I am the law". Where settlers can take over your land, steal your lambs and wreck your car, safe in the knowledge that "the law does not apply to them". Where Palestinians are still forced to act as human shields for the IDF because the measures the Israeli Supreme Court imposed to stop the practice two years ago are, in the words of one Israeli soldier, "treated as a joke" by IDF commanders in the field. Where you can have your hands broken by soldiers, because you refuse to let them steal your possessions. Where an IDF sniper can lawfully aim a headshot at a Palestinian child, so long as he appears to be at least 12 years old. Where you can be deprived of your livelihood at the whim of a soldier, because you parked on the wrong side of a yellow line. Where an elderly, handicapped Palestinian man has to piss in his own car because an IDF soldier rules that he may not get out to use the bathroom during the routine six-hour delay at the Jenin checkpoint.
If she had lived, maybe Dalal al-Sabagh wouldn't have been too concerned at the news that "the rule of law" might be breaking down in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In fact, it might just have been news to her that she had ever lived under "the rule of law" in the first place.
** The numbers are Shin Bet's assessment, at the beginning of August 2003.