Fri, Dec 17, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Israeli officer testifies he killed Briton `under orders'

CROSSING RED LINES An Israeli soldier on trial for shooting an unarmed British activist in the Gaza changed his story and claims he was following orders

THE GUARDIAN , Jerusalem

The Israeli soldier on trial for killing British peace activist Tom Hurndall in the Gaza Strip has admitted that he was lying when he said the man was carrying a gun, but said he was under orders to open fire even on unarmed people.

Sergeant Idier Wahid Taysir is charged with manslaughter for shooting Hurndall, 22, as he tried to shelter children on the edge of Rafah from Israeli army gunfire in April last year. He died of his injuries in January.

The sergeant told the military court that after shooting Hurndall he had then reported it to his commander.

"I told him that I did what I'm supposed to; anyone who enters a firing zone must be taken out. [The commander] always says this," he said.

The army has already been accused of carrying out an unwritten policy of shooting unarmed civilians who enter a closed security zone in Rafah, which led to the killing of a 13-year-old girl.

Taysir told the army investigators he had opened fire at Hurndall because he was on the edge of the security zone, carrying a weapon and wearing camouflage clothing.

In fact, he had not entered the closed zone, had no gun and was wearing a bright orange jacket.

The prosecutor asked the sergeant if Hurndall had a weapon.

Taysir replied: "No. That's the truth."

"So you gave a false report to the company commander?" the prosecutor asked.

"I did not give a false report. He might have had a weapon under his clothing. People fire freely there. The [Israeli army] fires freely in Rafah," Taysir said.

The prosecutor continued: "But you told him that you saw a weapon?"

"Right."

"So you lied?"

"I said it."

The prosecutor then asked "After that, you also reported that the man fired in the air and at you, right? Why did you report that he fired at you?"

The sergeant replied: "Because I had already fired without getting approval [from the company commander].

"Everything was under pressure and a result of fear. They tell us all the time to fire; that there is approval. All the troops pin Rafah[ fire without approval at anyone who crosses a red line."

Taysir has also been charged with obstruction of justice. He said he did not know details of the army's rules of engagement.

"I don't know them. No one ever explained anything to me about these documents," he said.

The military investigation initially cleared Taysir but the case was re-opened under pressure from Hurndall's family after the army's account of the shooting was shown to be false. Hurndall's mother, Jocelyn, welcomed the soldier's testimony, saying it confirmed the family's belief that Taysir was not a rogue element but operating under a military policy that permitted the shooting of unarmed civilians.

"We remain extremely concerned about the culture in which the soldier was functioning. It seems from what he's said that he was following orders, he was doing what he was told to do and what other soldiers are told to do," she said.

But it was difficult to discover exactly what the orders were.

"The problem is we don't have access to the closed-door sessions at which the rules of engagement are discussed," she said.

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