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Deaths of Arab Civilians Prompt Israeli Inquiry

2 September 2002

The mangled hulk of a car rested by the side of a road in this village today near the spot where 6-year-old Bahira Daraghmeh was killed on Saturday as she walked out of a store with a new ruler after her first day in school.

An Israeli helicopter missile attack on the car, which carried two Palestinian militants, killed the first-grader, her 14-year-old cousin, who was also out on the street, and two other teenagers riding in the vehicle. The man who was the apparent target of the strike was wounded but escaped, and the second militant was killed.

Today, four more Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli troops near Hebron under disputed circumstances. Last Wednesday, a Palestinian mother, her two sons and a relative were killed by Israeli tank shelling in the Gaza Strip.

The rash of killings of civilians raised questions in Israel today about whether restraints are slipping among troops after nearly two years of deadly conflict with the Palestinians. There was also concern that the recurrent civilian deaths could provoke lethal revenge attacks in Israel after a nearly monthlong lull.

"Matters have to be thoroughly checked, and if the army finds that soldiers are trigger-happy, then it will certainly draw the necessary conclusions," President Moshe Katzav said.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer directed the army's chief of staff to set up a team headed by a general to examine the civilian deaths and to recommend ways to avoid such episodes, his spokesman said.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that the number of recent lethal incidents was "pretty worrisome." Haim Ramon, the leader of Parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, asserted that the killings of innocents would only swell the ranks of those attacking Israel.

Some critics pointed to interviews in which the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, and the commander of the air force, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, suggested that civilian casualties were acceptable when attacking Palestinian militants responsible for deadly attacks on Israelis.

General Yaalon told the newspaper Haaretz that the army estimated that civilians would be wounded in the bombing of a house in a crowded Gaza neighborhood in July, where the target was a leader of the militant group Hamas. "Wounded, not killed," he said. The one-ton bomb killed the militant, Sheik Salah Shehada, along with 14 other people, 9 of them children.

General Halutz, in a separate Haaretz interview, said that he "sleeps soundly at night" after the Gaza bombing. "Is there a situation in which it is legitimate to hit a terrorist when you know that it will carry the price of harming civilians?" he asked. "The answer is affirmative.

"I'm very sorry about innocent children who are killed," General Halutz said, "but whoever goes out to kill children in Israel has to take into account that children may be killed around him."

In Tubas today, relatives of the young cousins killed in the Israeli attack said that it was terrorism because it was carried out in a residential area. "Because of one person they were after, they made everyone fair game," said Ghaleb Daraghmeh, an uncle of the dead girl.

It was not the first time bystanders had died in a targeted Israeli killing of Palestinian militants. In 80 such killings since the start of the Palestinian uprising, 36 bystanders have been killed, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.

At the village of Bani Naim near Hebron early today, Israeli soldiers shot and killed four Palestinians at a fenced-off plot of land cultivated by Jewish settlers from neighboring Kiryat Arba.

Palestinians said the men were working in a neighboring quarry. The army said they were trying to break into the plot, carrying wire-cutters, an ax and clubs.

Joel Greenberg, West Bank
Published in the New York Times © 2002

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