Fortunately for me, I live in a part of the world where it’s fairly unlikely that I am ever going to be the victim of a violent death, much less murder. But just in case, I think I’m going to insert a stipulation in my will instructing that, should the unthinkable happen, the investigation into my death is not to pass within 100 miles of any member of the I.D.F.’s legal unit. Because there’s just something about I.D.F. investigations that doesn’t fill me with confidence that my killer would ever be brought to justice. For example:
Case 1. The Mughayer Siblings
The I.D.F. investigation: About 11.30am last Tuesday, within moments of each other, Asma al-Mughair, 16, and her brother Ahmed, 13, died on the roof of their home in the Tel Sultan district of Rafah. The Israeli Defence Force… said the next day that it had investigated the incident and concluded that the siblings were killed by "a work accident" - a euphemism for a militant's bomb that explodes while it is being assembled - or by a roadside bomb set by Palestinian militants. The I.D.F. rejected the family's claim that the two children were shot dead by an Israeli sniper. (Source)
The Reality: Dr Ahmed Abu Nkaria, who pronounced the Mughayar children dead, insists on proving the manner of their killing. He pulls Asma's body from the mortuary's refrigeration unit and fumbles through the teenager's hair to reveal the hole where the bullet entered above one ear and ripped a much larger wound as it emerged above the other …Her 13-year-old brother's corpse is a short drive away in the cold-storage room of an Israeli-owned flower-growing company. Dr Nkaria rolls the child over to show a tiny round hole in his forehead, just above his fringe. There is a much larger hole at the back of the head where the bullet came out. Neither Asma nor Ahmed show signs of any other injuries, particularly of the kind that might be expected from a blast, such as shrapnel spread across the body, burns, or mutilation. (Source)
Case 2. Thomas Hurndall
The I.D.F. Investigation: Tom Hurndall, a British citizen, was shot in the head from an I.D.F. watchtower on the outskirts of Rafah refugee camp in April 2003. He died without regaining consciousness on 14 January 2004. The soldier who shot him was cleared of wrongdoing by an I.D.F. initial investigation, the results of which were presented to the British authorities in the form of an I.D.F. field report: The initial I.D.F. field report, which went to the British Embassy in Tel Aviv and to Tom's family, exonerated the soldier who had killed him. He claimed that Tom was in camouflage, and wielding a gun. The report also claimed that Tom had opened fire on the I.D.F. watchtower. (Sources 1 and 2).
The Reality: It was immediately apparent from photographs of Hurndall’s shooting that he was not in camouflage, but a fluorescent orange jacket. (Source). It was also apparent from graffiti visible in the same photos that Hurndall was over 100 metres away from an Israeli "Security Zone" that the I.D.F. alleged he had entered at the time he was shot (Source). And thirteen Palestinian and international eyewitnesses to the shooting vehemently maintained that Tom was unarmed. None of them was ever interviewed by the I.D.F., but almost two years after the shooting the Israeli soldier who killed Tom Hurndall admitted he was lying when he said his victim was carrying a gun. He explained that he had opened fire not because Tom was armed, but because he was under orders to open fire even on unarmed people. (Source)
Case 3. Iman al-Hams
The I.D.F. Investigation: The Israeli army on Friday cleared an officer accused by comrades of repeatedly shooting a 13-year-old Palestinian girl to make sure she was dead, but upheld his suspension because of his poor relations with subordinates. An army investigation also found no wrongdoing by soldiers who fired at the girl as she approached a military observation post near the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 5. The investigation backed an earlier army account that soldiers opened fire because they suspected she was planting a bomb.... Announcing the results of a preliminary investigation, the army's southern commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said he found no "unethical" behavior by the commander or his soldiers in the shooting. (Source)
The Reality: A tape recording of radio exchanges between soldiers involved in the incident, played on Israeli television, contradicts the army's account of the events and appears to show that the captain shot the girl in cold blood. The official account claimed that Iman was shot as she walked towards an army post with her schoolbag because soldiers feared she was carrying a bomb. But the tape recording of the radio conversation between soldiers at the scene reveals that, from the beginning, she was identified as a child and at no point was a bomb spoken about nor was she described as a threat. Iman was also at least 100 yards from any soldier. Instead, the tape shows that the soldiers swiftly identified her as a "girl of about 10" who was "scared to death". The tape also reveals that the soldiers said Iman was headed eastwards, away from the army post and back into the refugee camp, when she was shot. (Source)
Case 4. The Ghaben Children
The I.D.F. investigation: A Palestinian family of six, including five children, and a 20 year old neighbor were killed Tuesday by Israeli tank fire. The incident took place in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya …The I.D.F. confirmed that troops fired a tank shell at the Palestinians, saying the target was a rocket-launching terror cell. An initial investigation indicated that most of the Palestinians killed were members of the military wing of Hamas, the army said. (Source)
The Reality: The Palestinians killed were actually a group of children working in the Ghaben family's strawberry plot in Beit Lahia. The dead were Hanni Ghaben (16), his brother Bisaam Ghaben (15), his brother Mahmoud Ghaben (14), his cousin Mohammed Ghaben (17), his cousin Jabir Ghaben (15), his cousin Rajikh Ghaben (11) and his neighbour, Jibril al-Kaseeh (17). Additionally, Hanni Ghaben's older brother, Mohammed Ghaben (17), lost both legs, one eye and one hand, and remains on a ventilator at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza [Update below, 10 Feb 2005]. Jibril al-Kaseeh's cousins, Imad al-Kaseeh (16) and Ibrahim al-Kaseeh (14) are also hospitalized there, each with both legs amputated. Their neighbor, Issa Relia (13), is in the same hospital, also with both legs amputated. (Sources 1 & 2)
Case 5. Ahmed Abdul Rahman al-Karini
The I.D.F. Investigation: Karini, a 54-year-old municipal maintenance man, was shot to death by an Israeli soldier in Nablus on August 10, 2002, while he was repairing the city's electrical grid. The I.D.F.’s preliminary investigation exonerated the soldiers who killed him, concluding they had no way of identifying Karini as a municipal worker conducting legitimate business seeing as his van "did not have a flashing orange light on the roof." (Source)
The Reality: An Associated Press film crew recorded the shooting of Ahmed al-Karini, and forwarded their tape to the I.D.F. via the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem. The videotape clearly shows a blinking orange light on the roof of Karini's bullet-ridden van. (Source cited previously). Once aware of the tape’s existence, the I.D.F. decided in January 2003 to reopen its investigation. The case was declared closed in December 2004, when an I.D.F. disciplinary hearing sentenced the soldier who killed Ahmed al-Karini to two weeks’ confinement, with one week suspended. (Source).
I could go on with more examples, especially arising out of the explanations the I.D.F. comes up with for shooting so many children in the Gaza Strip, but you get my drift. There is a remarkable disconnect between how soldiers kill Palestinians in I.D.F. preliminary investigations and how they kill them in the real world. So what is it with I.D.F. "preliminary investigations"? Why do they have such rotten luck in finding out what actually happened to the people killed by Israeli soldiers?
Well, there are two important things you have to bear in mind every time you hear the phrase “preliminary investigation” in the context of the I.D.F. The first is that an I.D.F. preliminary (or initial) investigation isn’t an “investigation” in any sense that a reasonable person would understand the word – i.e. a process involving the collection of physical evidence, the identification and interviewing of eyewitnesses etc, etc. In fact it isn’t an investigation at all, it is simply a report by the commander of the I.D.F. unit that carried out the shooting, giving the unit’s version of events.
An Amnesty International report of September 2002  on the killing of children in Israel and the Occupied Territories during the second intifada, noted that:
No judicial investigation into any of the cases of killings of Palestinian children by the I.D.F. in the Occupied Territories is known to have been carried out. In some of the cases Israeli government officials stated publicly that an investigation would be carried out. This was notably so for cases which attracted a lot of international interest… However, even in the cases where such commitments were made, eyewitnesses, or people who were injured with the victims and who could have provided valuable information to any inquiry about the incident have not been interviewed or even contacted by the Israeli authorities several months after the incidents and no judicial investigations are known to have been opened.
Within 24 hours, Israeli Cabinet Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer assured the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that this was not the case, and that the I.D.F. conducts an investigation after the killing of every child. In fact Mr. Ben-Eliezer who, as then-Minister of Defence should have known what he was talking about, was wrong. Amnesty International already knew from a series of meetings with representatives of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and I.D.F. legal department that the Israeli Army does not routinely investigate the killing of Palestinian children, or civilians in general, by Israeli soldiers. For example, the Deputy Director of the Human Rights Division in the Israeli Foreign Ministry told Amnesty International delegates on 5 August 2002 that "Investigations are not opened unless it is suspected that something is wrong... usually investigations are not opened unless it is known that it was deliberate." (Though how you would know whether a killing was deliberate or not without first holding an investigation, was not explained).
Perhaps Mr. Ben-Eliezer was getting his intifadas mixed up: in the first intifada, it was standard operating procedure for the I.D.F. Military Police to open an investigation into every civilian death at the hands of the I.D.F. – as you would expect from an army that prides itself on being “the most moral army in the world". But at the beginning of the second intifada, the requirement to hold an investigation into every civilian killing was dropped. Technically, the decision whether to open an investigation was henceforth to be made on a case-by-case basis by the office of the Judge Advocate General (J.A.G.) . In practice, the J.A.G. was to base its decision on a report submitted by the I.D.F. commander on the ground, which meant – as Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar pointed out - the decision whether to investigate the shooting of a Palestinian civilian by the I.D.F. was derogated to the officer commanding the I.D.F. unit implicated in the shooting in the first place:
This week, the list of Palestinian passersby, including children, who passed over to the next world during "incidents" in the territories, grew longer. According to Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, the I.D.F. takes cases of innocent civilians being hurt very seriously. According to Judge Advocat General Maj. Gen. Menachem Finkelstein, the I.D.F. thoroughly investigates any suspicions of death by negligence, let alone deliberate attacks on civilians.
But if the military law enforcement agencies were to open a file after every "unfortunate incident of death," instead of looking for "wanted men," the commanders in the field would be busy looking for lawyers. The I.D.F.'s authorities have therefore ruled that it's up to field commanders to decide which cases of death justify a Military Police investigation, and which deaths of civilians are called an "unfortunate incident." In addition, the state attorney will be brought into action whenever outside agencies, like human rights groups or the press, draw the army's attention to unusual incidents.
So, in effect, I.D.F. policy since the beginning of this intifada has been to investigate the deaths of civilians killed by Israeli soldiers, only if the commander of the unit responsible for the death suggests in his field report to the J.A.G.’s office that his own soldiers are responsible for a wrongful death, and should be investigated. Bearing in mind that just by being the unit’s C.O., the officer writing the report is already indirectly – and possible directly – implicated in the killing of the civilian, and that any written acknowledgement of wrongdoing could conceivable be used one day in a war crimes prosecution against the same officer, how likely is it that his report to the J.A.G. is going to say anything that might incriminate himself or his unit? How much effort is he really going to expend in finding out and documenting the facts behind the incident that he is reporting on to the J.A.G.? And yet it is this field report to the J.A.G., prepared by a unit commander who presumably wants to avoid incriminating himself, and without recourse to any other evidence than the testimony of his own soldiers, that the I.D.F. refers to as a “preliminary investigation”.
There was an interesting insight this week into just how cursory the unit commander’s field report/"preliminary investigation" into civilian killings really is. It arose out of testimony from an I.D.F. paratrooper, that unexpectedly cast light on the killing of a Palestinian civilian whose shooting was never formally investigated, and had long since fallen down the memory hole.
Mansour Tahah Sayed Ahmad, a 21-year-old coffee salesman, was shot dead in Dura, Hebron, on 13 October 2000, while standing about 50 metres from an I.D.F. position that was firing rubber-coated bullets at a group of children throwing stones. According to Palestinian witnesses, none of whom has ever been interviewed by the I.D.F., Mansour Ahmad was not involved in the stone-throwing, but was loading his car parked some distance from the disturbances, when he was hit by a live round fired without warning from a gun with a silencer  by an unidentified soldier inside the I.D.F. position. He was taken to hospital in Hebron, where abdominal x-rays showed he had been struck by an exploding bullet.
Mansour Ahmad died a few hours later in Hebron Hospital, leaving a widow and three children, who are now being raised by their grandparents. The I.D.F. unit in action in Dura that day denied using live fire against the Palestinians, and the J.A.G. decided that no investigation would be held. Mansour Ahmed became just another unexplained casualty who died "during skirmishes involving stone-throwing, Molotov cocktail attacks and gunfire" as Ha’aretz put it, the circumstances of whose death were impossible to verify in the fog of war.
Until last week.
Since May 2004, "Breaking the Silence", a group of former I.D.F. soldiers and reservists who have served in the West Bank city of Hebron, has been collecting testimony from Israeli soldiers (200 so far) about troubling incidents they have personally witnessed during their service in this intifada. Last week, Ha’aretz reported three new testimonies from the group: one by a paramedic who watched an army physician slice open the body of a dead Palestinian and conduct an impromptu anatomy lesson with his internal organs; one involving a company commander who complained he had been fined 200 shekels for shooting dead a Palestinian boy; and one from a paratrooper who was firing rubber-coated bullets at a group of stonethrowing children in Dura near Hebron on 13 October 2000, when he saw his colleagues shoot and kill with live ammunition a Palestinian man who was standing near his car, and not involved in the violence.
The killing the paratrooper is describing is that of Mansour Tahah Sayed Ahmad, and his testimony matches in detail the Palestinian eyewitness accounts that were available all along to the I.D.F.:
The paratrooper describes a routine clash with a group of about 20 youths. "We were playing tag, like cat and mouse. The stones didn't reach us at all." The soldiers fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at the youths, until a soldier who was posted in a higher location decided to use more lethal means.
"Suddenly you hear a kind of ‘pah' and right afterward another ‘pah' of live ammunition," the soldier explains. "Right away I raise an eyebrow and think to myself, `Wow, it looks like they didn't fire rubber bullets ... Lookie here! Those are live bullets.'" When officers were summoned to the site, he denied having heard live ammunition. The two soldiers positioned above "were veteran soldiers. It is wrong for me to inform on them. They would f-- me in the company later."
According to the paratrooper, it turned out that soldiers from an observation unit of the Intelligence Corps documented the shooting with a video camera. The shots were fired at "a person in the square who was unloading goods from a vehicle. He [the soldier in the high position] hit him in the back after fitting a few bullets that missed. He hit him with the last bullet. The man fell to the ground, and the next day we were told that he had died." The episode was hushed up. "There is a well-known procedure in the unit: Dirty linen is kept inside. ... The soldier got 35 days from the sergeant-major [punishment in the form of work on the base]. Afterward he returned to the company. The whole company knew. He boasted about it."
-- Amos Harel, Bloody, this dirty linen; 28 Jan 2005
That is what a preliminary investigation amounts to: "When officers were summoned to the site, he denied having heard live ammunition". There is a dead body in the morgue, an internal I.D.F. video of the shooting, but the soldiers involved say it didn’t happen, and their word is good enough for the preliminary investigation to conclude that nothing needs investigating. That’s a touching degree of trust that the I.D.F. shows in its soldiers’ truthfulness. It’s also an absurd policy if the I.D.F. has any interest at all in finding out why its soldiers leave so many dead civilians in their wake. As Alexander Yakobson commented, in considering the difference between the audio tapes of the shooting of Iman al-Hams and the testimony given at the preliminary investigation into her death, why would anyone assume that a soldier who apparently sees nothing unethical about killing an unarmed civilian is going to have moral qualms about lying to an investigating officer?
If the first problem with I.D.F. “preliminary investigations” is that they are not actually investigations, the second problem is that they are not preliminary either. The use of the word “preliminary” suggests an inquiry that is just the beginning of an investigative process, when in fact the I.D.F.’s preliminary investigation is almost always the beginning and the end of the process. Unless the unit commander highlights wrongdoing in his field report to the J.A.G., then the J.A.G. will not open an investigation. (Even when, as in the case of Mansour Ahmad there is physical evidence - in this case a dead body with live ammunition in it - that raises some doubts about the claim of the C.O.’s field report that only rubber bullets were fired). Barring some remarkable act of self-incrimination by the unit carrying out the preliminary investigation into a killing carried out by one of its own members, an Israeli soldier may kill a Palestinian civilian with almost complete confidence that there will be no repercussions.
Notice I said “almost” complete confidence. Because we do of course hear – very occasionally – about I.D.F. investigations into civilian deaths and, very rarely indeed, we hear of an Israeli soldier being put on trial for wrongful killing. The reason that there are investigations into the deaths of a “lucky” few non-combatants is explained in the Akiva Eldar article I quoted earlier:
The I.D.F.'s authorities have… ruled that it's up to field commanders to decide which cases of death justify a Military Police investigation, and which deaths of civilians are called an "unfortunate incident." In addition, the state attorney will be brought into action whenever outside agencies, like human rights groups or the press, draw the army's attention to unusual incidents.
So, in practice, the I.D.F. is willing to open an investigation into the killing of civilians by its soldiers if, say, B’Tselem or the BBC can provide evidence that the otherwise unchallenged testimony of the Israeli soldiers who carried out the killing is a lie. And what kind of evidence from outside agencies will finally make the I.D.F. open an investigation? Well, judging by the investigations carried out over the past four years, there are some informal rules Israeli soldiers need to bear in mind if they don’t want to be one of the unlucky few actually called to account for shooting a civilian:
Rule 1: Don’t shoot foreigners. Nobody is going to kick up a fuss over dead Palestinians, but when you kill foreigners you invite diplomatic pressure from foreign governments who want more than a “preliminary investigation” into why their unarmed citizens are being shot by the I.D.F. If you kill a foreigner like Tom Hurndall, whose articulate, educated, middle class parents will give up their careers to collect and make public the inconvenient testimony that the I.D.F. ignores; whose government will establish a coroner’s inquest and Metropolitan Police investigation into the circumstances of Tom’s death; and whose diplomatic representatives in Tel Aviv are willing to publicly tear up the I.D.F.’s "preliminary report" and denounce it for the rubbish it is, and to raise the issue in every diplomatic meeting with their Israeli hosts, it will eventually become too costly for the Israeli authorities to cover up for you. The J.A.G. will finally open an investigation, and you will go on trial.
Rule 2: Don’t leave behind physical evidence, especially physical evidence that contradicts the version of events that your commanding officer is going to invent to exonerate you in his "preliminary investigation" to the J.A.G. This is what tripped up the killers of Shaden Abu Hijleh, a 61-year-old school teacher who was shot dead whilst doing embroidery on the front porch of her house in Nablus on 11 October 2002. The I.D.F.’s "preliminary investigation" claimed that she had been accidentally hit by a single stray bullet (her husband and son were injured in the same incident, so it was a stray bullet with a remarkable trajectory), and the J.A.G. decided not to order an investigation. On the other hand, Mrs Abu Hijleh’s family and neighbours insisted that she was killed when an I.D.F. jeep stopped barely 30 metres from the porch, and one of the soldiers inside opened the back door of the jeep, and without warning fired a burst of bullets at the family, before speeding away. Mrs Abu Hijleh’s widower invited B’Tselem and international diplomats to visit the scene of the shooting to witness the impossibility of the "stray bullet defence": the visitors found about a dozen bullet holes in the porch wall where Mrs Abu Hijleh had been killed, and collected 14 Galil shell casings (standard issue ammunition for the I.D.F.’s M-16 rifles) at the spot where eyewitnesses saw the jeep stop and fire.
This physical evidence by itself might not have been enough to warrant an investigation, were it not for the fact that Mrs Abu Hijleh was an internationally-known peace activist well known to the U.N., and the mother of four children who are Palestinian-American dual nationals, and who very effectively publicized the shooting and lobbied the U.S. government to press for answers. (Refers back to Rule 1: Don’t Shoot Foreigners). After the White House urged an inquiry in January 2003, P.M. Sharon announced that an investigation would be opened after all into the death of Shaden Abu Hijleh. Despite assurances from the I.D.F. that the investigation would take about two weeks, over two years later this case is still pending.
Rule 3: Don’t Shoot People When A TV Crew Is Filming You. For example, your C.O. can swear till he’s blue in the face that the lack of an orange light on his van made Ahmed Abdul Rahman al-Karini (Case 5, above) a suspicious figure rather than a clearly identified municipal worker, but when the Associated Press has footage of Mr. Al-Karini’s bullet-ridden van with its shiny orange light still flashing on top, even the J.A.G. can’t ignore it. That’s going to get you investigated, though in the end you will escape prosecution by going before an internal disciplinary hearing where you will be sentenced to 14 days’ confinement (seven suspended).
Rule 4: Don’t deliberately shoot unarmed civilians unless you are sure your unit will back your story. If you serve in a dysfunctional unit, your subordinates might see an opportunity to finally get rid of you by leaking to Israel’s Channel 2 the story of how you killed a child, along with the incriminating evidence that your own commanders didn’t consider  in clearing you in their “preliminary investigation”. Once the story is broadcast on TV, it is beyond the ability of the J.A.G. to refuse an investigation. This would be the Iman al-Hams scenario, and variants of it are going to be more and more common in the coming months and years as individual soldiers of conscience do what their army has institutionally failed to do, and describe the extent to which war crimes have become a routine aspect of I.D.F. activity in the Palestinian Territories over the past four years.
Those are fairly specific criteria: you would have to be quite unlucky to get caught out by one of them. So, bearing in mind that your own commander is probably not going to call for your investigation in his field report, and the long odds against your actions being filmed by a TV crew, how likely is it that the J.A.G. will launch an investigation if you are an Israeli soldier who kills a Palestinian non-combatant, and what are the odds that – if investigated – you will actually stand trial? Well, it’s difficult to be exact, as the number of investigations that the I.D.F. acknowledges carrying out is a combined figure that includes investigations into non-fatal woundings by the I.D.F., as well as killings. Nevertheless, we can fairly easily make an informed guess.
For example, we know that by 23 January 2005, the combined casualty figure for Palestinians in the al-Aqsa intifada was 32,006: comprising 3,565 dead and 28,441 wounded seriously enough to require medical intervention. Of course, that figure is inflated for our purposes, as it includes both combatants and non-combatants, and we are looking only at non-combatants. We can get an idea of the ratio of combatants to non-combatants from various sources. For the Palestinian side, a summary prepared by the Health Development Information and Policy Institute on the fourth anniversary of the intifada’s outbreak, based on a detailed breakdown of Palestinian casualties, found that 82% of Palestinians killed were civilians. On the Israeli side, the Israeli General Security Service (Shin Bet) issued official figures on 8 August 2003, showing that 2,341 Palestinians had been killed by that date, and another 14,000 wounded. According to Shin Bet, 551 (or 23%) of the dead were “terrorists”, leading to the unspoken conclusion that the other 77% were, well, not terrorists . And as for figures from Israeli and Palestinian NGO's, Israeli journalist Amira Hass, basing her analysis on statistics compiled by B’Tselem and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, reported in September 2003 that “80 percent of the Palestinians killed were not connected to armed actions” .
So the estimates of civilian casualties vary, but by surprisingly little. If we take the lowest of those three figures – Shin Bet’s 77% - it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the number of civilians among the 32,000 Palestinian casualties is about 24,645. And, in the face of almost 25,000 civilian casualties, how many Military Police investigations has the J.A.G. actually opened? Well, these are the latest figures, last updated on 2 February 2005 (some cases are still pending):
Number of investigations into Palestinians killed and injured: 90.
Number of indictments resulting from those 90 investigations: 29.
Number of convictions resulting from those 29 indictments: 1. 
So, the odds that an Israeli soldier who kills or wounds a Palestinian civilian in the Occupied Territories will even be investigated are about one in 275; the chances that he will ever be convicted of wrongdoing in an Israeli court of law are, approximately, one in 25,000. In short, the result of allowing the I.D.F. to police itself over the last four years in the Occupied Territories is that:
The I.D.F. effectively grants immunity to soldiers who open fire illegally. Since the beginning of the intifada, the I.D.F. has ceased to automatically open an investigation into every case in which a Palestinian is killed by I.D.F. fire… [T]he investigations that are opened are generally protracted and based primarily on soldiers' testimonies, while completely ignoring the Palestinian eyewitnesses. This policy has unavoidably resulted in a situation in which shooting at innocent Palestinians has practically become a routine.
-- Trigger Happy - Unjustified Gunfire and the I.D.F.'s Open-Fire Regulations…; B'Tselem, March 2002.
In December 2004, Israelis were apparently appalled by a series of public disclosures showing shocking behavior by I.D.F. soldiers against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In the space of a few days, Israeli newspapers and T.V. programs showed photographs of smiling young soldiers with their dead Palestinian trophies (here, here and here), and published reports of the Israeli troops killing Palestinians – including children - even when they were lying wounded and disarmed on the ground; humiliating Palestinians trying to pass through checkpoints (photo); urinating on the bodies of dead Palestinians in the Gaza Strip; using the corpse of one Palestinian as a company mascot, and being photographed with the head of another impaled on a stick . Israel’s mass circulation daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, was left to conclude that that the desecration of Palestinian bodies has become widespread in the Israeli army, and happens in "almost in any place where clashes erupt between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants." (Though it should be pointed out that, judging by the incidents that Yedioth Ahronoth publicized, you didn’t have to be a Palestinian “militant” to have your body desecrated by the soldiers who killed you).
In response, a concerned I.D.F. Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon noted that "In some places there seems to be a dulling of the senses, stemming from ongoing service in the territories and combat", and wondered out loud “whether orders to soldiers are lucid and clear, and not too fuzzy, and whether we are sending mixed messages to combat units”.
Well, far be it from me to doubt his sincerity, but it seems remarkable that Gen. Ya'alon should suddenly discover these horrifying practices only after they have been exposed by whistleblowers in the I.D.F. and published in the Israeli mass media. If he didn’t know before what his own soldiers have been doing to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, then where on earth has he been for the last four years? I.D.F. trophy photos have been circulating online since at least the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, but it’s only now that Ya’alon finds out what his Most Moral Army In The World™ does to the people under its rule? Doesn’t he have access to the Internet? Hasn’t he heard what B’Tselem has been saying for the last four years, or the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, or Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch or the Israeli Committee Against Torture? Doesn’t he even read Ha’aretz?
It’s also a little difficult to take seriously Moshe Ya’alon’s soul-searching in view of the fact that he was one of just three senior Israeli security chiefs who attended a meeting in May 2001 at which Prime Minister Sharon made clear to them what Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories was going to be:
We have to attack the Palestinians at all locations, and at once. They have to awaken every morning to find that they have 12 dead, from all sorts of activities, without understanding how it happened. -- Attribution.
If you have privately assented in May 2001 to a policy of terrorizing the Palestinians by inflicting large-scale, apparently random, death and destruction upon them on a daily basis, it takes a lot of nerve three years later to protest that you are shocked to discover your soldiers have been, well, terrorizing the Palestinians by inflicting large-scale, apparently random, death and destruction upon them on a daily basis:
It's hard to think of an example of greater sanctimonious self-righteousness than that offered by the chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, in dissociating himself from the Shayetet's actions...
The chief of staff purported to be shocked, all of a sudden, only because the popular media, which for decades have not fulfilled their role, suddenly changed their tune and started to report as headline news what they have known all along. The reaction of the senior commanders is intended to create the impression that their aim is to uproot the unacceptable norms, and therefore they are putting on a show to the effect that the recent events are new or exceptional.
But they are neither the one nor the other… The episode of the Palestinian who was forced to play the violin at a checkpoint, the girl from Rafah whose body was riddled with bullets, the soldiers who abused the body of a Palestinian who was killed, the operation of the Shayetet - these are commonplace events, occurring on nearly a daily basis. For the past four years, the I.D.F. has been engaged in liquidating Palestinians on a horrific scale, in killing children, in confirming killings and in inflicting abuse at checkpoints - and suddenly a storm has blown up. The soldiers have not been mentally "eroded" by their service - there were always those who behaved in this way, since the start of the policy of violence against the population. Nor has the I.D.F. deteriorated - it's been this way for a long time. Elite units and ordinary units are all tainted with the intoxication of power.
-- Gideon Levy, No one changed the rules; 12 December 2004.
The problem with the I.D.F.'s behaviour in the Occupied Territories is not, as Ya'alon suggests, that soldiers are receiving mixed messages from their leadership. On the contrary the problem, as Reuven Pedatzur points out, is that the soldiers have received for the last four years a perfectly clear and unequivocal message that an Israeli may take the life of a Palestinian – armed or unarmed, man woman or child – and the I.D.F. will do everything in its power to cover up what has been done and to ensure that that soldier will never be held accountable:
[T]he messages sent to soldiers by Lieut. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon and other senior officers were sharp and clear. They stated that soldiers fighting in the territories are absolved of the need to worry about moral dilemmas. In this war, everything is permissible, and they will be backed by the high command even if it turns out that they acted contrary to basic moral norms.
Therefore, the feigned innocence of the I.D.F.'s top brass, which has "suddenly" discovered that immoral acts are being committed by soldiers in the territories, is extremely grave. Suddenly, the I.D.F. command has discovered that soldiers are desecrating dead bodies, shooting at children, humiliating people at checkpoints and shooting the wounded in order to confirm the kill. The truth, of course, is otherwise: They have known about these grave acts all along.
It seems that the only reason Ya'alon suddenly was moved to respond to recent events was their exposure in the media.
-- Reuven Pedatzur; The message to the soldiers was clear; 13 Dec 2004.
This is why it matters that I.D.F. “preliminary investigations” are such a farce. The decision in the autumn of 2000 to no longer require investigations into the deaths of civilians at the hands of the I.D.F. is the very foundation of the Israeli soldiers’ belief that “in this war, everything is permissible”. It is that decision that makes the immoral acts publicized in December 2004 not an unfortunate erosion of I.D.F. norms, but the natural and inevitable outcome of Israeli policy in the Territories. At a time when the I.D.F. was shooting Palestinians at a rate of more than three dead and almost 100 wounded every day, the overwhelming majority in incidents that did not involve gunfire from the Palestinian side , the Israeli High Command made a conscious decision that henceforth an Israeli soldier may take the life of a Palestinian without ever being held accountable.
That “message to the troops” – Shoot whomever you will and (unless you are that unlucky 1 in 25,000) you will get away with it – needs Moshe Ya’alon’s scrutiny much more than some embarrassing footage of a Palestinian violinist at a checkpoint or unsavoury trophy photos circulated by a bunch of sickos in the I.D.F. Of course it’s disturbing that Israeli soldiers are desecrating the bodies of Palestinians they have “liquidated”, but it’s not as disturbing as the fact that for four years Israel has been sending assassination squads into the Occupied Territories and “liquidating” Palestinians - armed and unarmed - in the first place. And of course it’s outrageous that an I.D.F. captain should empty his magazine into the body of Iman al-Hams to make sure she is dead, but it’s nowhere near as outrageous as the fact that nobody in the I.D.F. saw anything wrong in the first place with shooting dead an unarmed civilian whom soldiers had already identified as a “scared to death” “ten-year-old girl”. That is the real scandal that Moshe Ya’alon should be publicly agonizing over: it’s not the routine desecration of the dead he needs to answer for, but the deliberately-uninvestigated and quietly-condoned murder of the living.
 The Bart Simpson Defense = "I didn't do it, nobody saw me do it, you can't prove anything".
 Amnesty International, KILLING THE FUTURE: Children in the line of fire; 30 Sept 2002.
 Trigger Happy - Unjustified Gunfire and the I.D.F.'s Open-Fire Regulations during the al-Aqsa Intifada ; B'Tselem, March 2002.
 The source is a Ha'aretz article of 15 Oct 2000, Gunfire reported around West Bank and Gaza, by Amos Harel and Amira Hass. Available in Ha'aretz archive, but requires subscription. The salient paragraph:Mansur Taha Ahmed, 21, the father of three, died of a gunshot wound he sustained while watching Palestinian youths hurl stones at soldiers at an Israel Defense Forces outpost, eyewitnesses reported. They said that Ahmed was shot by I.D.F. snipers who used special silencers on their weapons. He was taken for treatment at a hospital in Hebron. According to Palestinian sources, the wounded man might have been saved had he been taken to a Ramallah hospital, but this option was not available due to I.D.F. roadblocks.
 Now it turns out the original corps level inquiry into the event did not even listen to the communications recordings, which were easily available. If they had, the entire fiasco of the original backing for the company commander could have been avoided. The affair raises questions about the way the I.D.F. investigated other cases of Palestinians being killed.
One prevalent view in the media is that it is impossible to judge the behavior of the soldiers in these cases given the dangerous conditions under which they operate. But that is a dubious argument at best since it has gradually turned into the legitimization of worsening incidents over the years. It's convenient for the I.D.F. to call R. a "rotten apple," but in effect, Iman al Hamas, the little girl killed at Girit, is not alone. There have been dozens of innocents killed in Gaza, under circumstances not much different from those in which she was killed….[I]f R. insists on going through with his defense and does not work out a plea bargain with the military prosecution, it is entirely possible that this case will yet open the pandora's box to the public about what the army did in its name during the intifada.
-- Amos Harel, Absolutely Illegal; 23 Nov 2004.
 [T]he shooting at the demonstrators by the fence last Friday is a taste of what is liable to happen here in the future… The only difference between it and hundreds, if not thousands, of previous similar events in the territories is really a matter of chance: If a Jew hadn't been wounded and if the incident hadn't been filmed and seen by dozens of Israeli witnesses, it would not have merited even a line in the press. Now, because of the "mishap," every Israeli knows how and why hundreds of Palestinians, including children, who may have taken part in demonstrations but not in belligerent activity, are killed every year by live fire.
What's interesting is that there was nothing unusual here. The soldiers reacted instinctively, as they had been taught and encouraged and trained. The new culture of factionalism holds the answer to all the questions and all the puzzles. It also supplies the answer to the question that Ze'ev Schiff posed in this paper on August 8, when he examined the official numbers of the enemy killed. Until that date, 2,341 Palestinians had been killed and another 14,000 wounded. "According to the calculations of the Shin Bet, 551 of those killed were terrorists, Who, then, were the others?" Schiff asked. The incident at the fence provides the definitive answer.
-- Ze'ev Sternhall, The culture of factionalism; 2 Jan 2004.
 Until the end of August this year, I.D.F. soldiers killed 391 minors, according to B'Tselem. According to the Red Crescent, the I.D.F. killed 141 women. B'Tselem determined that 291 Palestinian security personnel were killed, some of whom were participating in the fighting, whether during an I.D.F. incursion or during attacks they initiated in the settlements or against soldiers. However many did not take part in the fighting, and were killed while they were standing at their posts as defined in the Oslo Accords. Many others were killed in bombardments, in invasions of cities, or in attempts to detour roadblocks. In addition to some 120 Palestinians who were targets of assassination, 82 Palestinian civilians were killed "by mistake." They, it is to be assumed, are not included in the 551 terrorists as defined above.
Here are the disastrous proportions, in the hope that someone in Israel will take notice: 80 percent of the Palestinians killed were not connected to armed actions.
-- Amira Hass, What the fatality statistics tell us; 3 Sep 2003.
 The sole conviction was of an unnamed Israeli soldier who received a 4-month jail term for manslaughter, after killing a Palestinian child.
 B'Tselem reported that, "according to I.D.F. figures, 73% of the incidents [from September 29 to December 2, 2000] did not include Palestinian gunfire. Despite this, it was in these incidents that most of the Palestinians [were] killed and wounded ..."
-- from The Mitchell Report (i.e. the conclusions of the official U.S.-led inquiry into the outbreak and escalation of the second intifada); May 2001.
Update, 10 Feb 2005: Mohammed Ghaben died of his injuries on 3 February.
Update II, 18 Feb 2005: Interesting article from Amira Hass on this subject; The blood of Iman al-Hamas, 9 Feb 2005.