Tue, Dec 30, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Israel criticized for shooting at demonstrators

TRIGGER HAPPY When Israeli soldiers fired at a group of protesters last week, they didn't realize that one of their former comrades was the man `who led the rioters'

NY TIMES NEW SERVICE , JERUSALEM

An Israeli soldier throws a tear gas canister to disperse a crowd of Palestinian and international protesters near the separation barrier in the West Bank town of Qalqilya, in this Dec. 27 file photo.

PHOTO: AP

At first glance, the confrontation on Friday along Israel's separation barrier seemed unremarkable.

About 20 protesters shook the chain-link fence, and some then took out pliers to cut it. After calling out warnings and firing shots into the air, Israeli troops shot at the legs of the protesters with live ammunition, the military acknowledged.

One man was hit in both legs and seriously wounded. The surprise was that the injured man, Gil Naamati, is a 22-year-old Israeli who had just completed three years of military service as a combat soldier.

In addition, a woman was lightly wounded. She is a 26-year-old American, Anne Farina.

The soldiers apparently did not realize that Israelis were among the demonstrators. In a statement, the military said soldiers shot at the man "who led the rioters."

The episode happened Friday afternoon on the edge of a Palestinian village, Masha, in the West Bank. By Sunday, almost everyone in Israel, from the president, Moshe Katsav, on down had joined a national debate on why soldiers had used live ammunition to shoot the unarmed Israeli demonstrator.

"I am in favor of building the fence," Katsav told the Israeli radio. "Israeli citizens are allowed to protest against the fence. But the reaction to this cannot be live fire."

Palestinian officials said the episode supported their long-standing contention that Israeli troops are too quick to use lethal force.

"It shows how liberal the army is in using live ammunition against peaceful demonstrators," said Mustafa Barghouti, who leads a Palestinian group that has monitored the violence.

In many previous shootings involving Palestinians, the Israeli military has routinely said that soldiers followed strict rules of engagement on the use of live ammunition.

The military does not divulge the specific rules, but in most instances, soldiers are to use other means, such as tear gas or rubber bullets, unless they believe they are in danger, military officials say.

The protesters say they had no weapons and did not throw stones or otherwise endanger the soldiers, who they said were 20m to 40m away, on the far side of the fence.

"We didn't threaten soldiers," Naamati said in the only interview he gave from his hospital bed, to the army radio. "All we hurt was the fence. The fence does not threaten lives, we did not threaten anyone's life."

Naamati acknowledged he was among those shaking the fence and trying to cut through it. But he said, "I am familiar with the rules of engagement, and what I did was not even close to something that I think would warrant opening fire."

Video images on Israeli television showed soldiers standing next to a military vehicle. In a deliberate manner, one soldier goes down on his belly and aims his rifle at the protesters.

Shortly afterward, shots ring out, and one of the protesters shouts in Hebrew, "Don't shoot!"

Uri Naamati, the father, said he and his son support the barrier that Israel is building to separate them from Palestinians, believing it will greatly reduce Palestinian suicide bombings. But Gil Naamati opposed its route, which is running well inside the West Bank and disrupting the lives of many Palestinians, his father said.

The son went with an Israeli friend to take part in the protest, his father said.

Some Israeli news reports said Gil Naamati belonged to a group identified as "Anarchists Against the Wall," but his father denied this. "Gilly is a sensitive kid, and is not part of any extreme group," Uri Naamati said in a telephone interview from the hospital where his son was being treated.

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