Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Israeli soldier 'shot two women as they waved white flag'

The Israeli army has charged one of its own soldiers with the manslaughter of two Palestinian women who were shot dead while waving white flags during the Gaza war.

The sniper is the only person to face prosecution over the killing of civilians during the three-week Israeli incursion launched at the end of 2008.

Investigators said they had uncovered evidence that the soldier identified as "First Sergeant S" opened fire as the victims walked with a group of people waving a white flag.

Witnesses described how he fired at Majda Abu Hajjaj, 35, and her mother Salma Abu Hajjaj, 64.

In a hearing last month, the soldier claimed to have fired at the women's legs but said he had not intended to kill them. He maintained that he thought his fellow soldiers' lives were at risk as the group of about 30 people approached a military post.

But his statements were contradicted by those of Palestinian witnesses who said the women were part of a group of civilians waving white flags.

It is the first charge in connection with allegations of misconduct of soldiers during the three weeks of fighting during the war which Israel launched in a bid to halt rocket-fire into its southern towns.

The fighting, which left some 1,400 Palestinians dead and 13 Israelis, sparked international criticism of the Jewish state.

The charge comes as international pressure continues to charge certain officials and soldiers with war crimes for their roles in the operation.

Such cases could be deeply embarrassing for Israel and have made it difficult for some of its most senior politicians and army officers to travel outside of the country for fear of arrest.

Human rights groups said the army's decision to issue the manslaughter indictment along with several other indictments of other soldiers on the basis of misconduct appeared to reflect an understanding that the safety of their soldiers and officers abroad was becoming increasingly perilous.

Sarit Michaeli, spokesperson for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, was the first group to bring forward details about the soldier who shot on the women carrying white flags.

"The release of the Goldstone Report and various international events triggered the military, we think, to put more effort into these investigations," she said.

"It seemed that were investigations were going at a slow pace until the wide-scale international pressure was launched."

Ms Michaeli said the decision to prosecute within Israel was a part of an attempt by authorities to avoid the scenario of court battles abroad.

"If anything the first line of defence that soldiers have against prosecution abroad are serious investigations at home a court would probably throw out a claim for something being dealt with here," she said.

Other prosecutions announced by the army will include a battalion commander who is accused of violating prohibitions against using civilians for operational activity. He was alleged to have used a Palestinian as a human shield by sending him into a house to speak to gunmen.

A brigadier general and a colonel were also reprimanded for authorising an artillery attack which hit a UN compound in Gaza, the army said in February.

Avihai Mandelblit, the military advocate general also ordered a criminal investigation into the deaths of 29 members of one family in the first days of the war.

The Israeli Defence Forces office defended the military's actions, saying the fighting was, "limited in the scope of fire and forces used". "IDF soldiers operated in crowded urban areas while Hamas made deliberate and cynical use of the Palestinian population, creating a complex security situation," it said.


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