Shamir Listens : West Bank Duty Torment, Soldiers Say
On a muddy, exposed hill near this largest of West Bank towns, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir listened to Israeli soldiers Tuesday express the torment they feel in subduing rebellious Arabs, while on the radio one could hear about a new official policy that authorizes troops to shoot Palestinian stone-throwers in the back.
Such were the chilly contradictions of Israel in strife as officials and the soldiers under their command grappled with the country’s means of putting down the uprising on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
3 More Youths Die
Meanwhile, fatalities continued. Three more Palestinian youths died of bullet wounds, bringing to 13 the number who have succumbed to army gunfire in the last six days. All the victims have been 19 or younger; the youngest was 11, and two were girls, ages 15 and 12.
The new firing rules, described by Defense Ministry officials as part of an escalated “war against stones,” allow troops to shoot at fleeing Arabs who have hurled rocks, Israel Radio reported. The measure is the latest in a series of regulation relaxations issued by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose methods of dealing with the 13-month-old uprising are under attack at home and abroad for increasing Palestinian fatalities.
Rabin also extended the controversial use of so-called plastic bullets to sergeants. Under previous policy, they were supposed to be fired only by officers. The bullets, combining plastic and metal, were introduced late last summer along with new orders that permitted soldiers to shoot protesters and mobs even if the troops’ lives were not in danger.
“Violence will be met by force within the limits of our law,” Rabin said.
Gen. Amram Mitzna, the commander of all Israeli troops on the West Bank, elaborated: “We will act with all methods available to us, in all places, with severe punishment . . . with prevention, in order that (stone-throwing), which is supposedly considered legitimate among participants of the uprising, will be understood as something we will not tolerate.”
In the past weeks, casualties among Arabs have mounted, with wounds inflicted by full metal rounds, the plastic bullets and most recently, a new rubber-coated metal “marble” shot from canisters in bunches of 20.
Other Stiff Measures
The army has added other stiff measures to deter stone-throwers. Adults detained for stone attacks are subject to extended prison sentences and fines and are liable to have their homes demolished. Parents of offenders younger than 18 may have to pay fines and also risk losing their homes.
On Tuesday, soldiers dynamited three Arab homes in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, where suspected stone-throwers were harbored.
The crackdown is designed to placate Israeli settlers on the occupied land who say the army does not do enough to protect them from Arab attacks. It also reflects a determination by the government to find some forceful formula to end the uprising. Today, Israel’s so-called Inner Cabinet of 20 leading ministers is scheduled to discuss the army handling of the uprising.
While the tougher shooting rules were being made public, Shamir visited reservists camped at a base near Nablus for what turned out to be a gripe session. Among large green canvas tents, a few dozen soldiers spoke darkly of their unease. Their names were not given, in keeping with military policy that soldiers making public statements remain anonymous.
“I feel humiliation facing the person I have to beat up,” said one soldier, his voice rising in agitation. “I feel that he is strengthening and I am weakening.”
A second reservist rose and spoke obliquely of events hidden from official view: “It is important for you to know what’s going on here . . . because when a patrol goes out in the field alone, it does what it does. It comes back, and even the battalion commander does not know what the patrol did.
“You don’t know how many dead or how many wounded there were. Only the soldiers in the field know what’s happening.”
Added a third: “When I get up in the morning, I say to myself, ‘Now I have to go out and catch a man,’ and I look at his hands and see he is a working man like myself. And I have to slap him or beat him murderous blows to get him to fear me.”
It is not clear whether there were reservists who disagreed with the gloomy reports; if there were, none stood up and spoke out, although Israel Radio said later that a few approached Shamir and privately expressed their support.
Only Partial Reflections
In any event, the raw words ran counter to just about every assumption held by the Israeli government. Shamir decided that the comments were only partial reflections of general opinion.
“The things that were said here are words of a few people who think this way. I am not naive to think that all the soldiers and all the officers think this way,” he told the green-clad troops, who were dressed in parkas to keep out the cold.
“Those who throw stones and gasoline bombs at us do that not because we are sitting in Nablus,” Shamir added. “They do that because we are in the Land of Israel and we want to be an independent people and live in peace.”
A soldier interrupted: “What about human values?”
“For those values you must fight,” Shamir replied. “One of the angers I have against these people of the intifada is that they make us sometimes kill people we don’t want to kill.”
Army Chief of Staff Dan Shomron intervened and lightly admonished the outspoken troops. “This is our job,” he reminded them.
Shamir had recently criticized Shomron’s opinion that the intifada cannot be broken because of its evident nationalist roots. The pair did not pick up the quarrel during their joint appearance Tuesday.
Shamir’s trip included a short visit into Nablus itself. His heavily guarded caravan made a brief stop on a road that runs along a hill above the town’s old district, a crowded neighborhood known as the casbah. A month ago, eight Palestinians were shot to death on the same road when a funeral of another Nablus victim, a 14-year-old, turned violent.
As Shamir’s entourage drove away, Arabs whistled from behind shuttered windows as a sign of displeasure.
Insult to Injury
A few blocks down a winding alley, visitors attended a wake for a recent Nablus victim, Rana Masri, a 15-year-old girl who died over the weekend. The grieving family felt that Shamir’s visit added insult to injury. “We say that a man who kills a person cannot then walk in his funeral,” said Ribhi Masri, 45, father of the dead girl.
The family said that Rana was shot when she tried to wrest a cousin away from a soldier who was beating him. Thirteen inhabitants of Nablus, mostly youths, have been shot to death in the last two months by soldiers. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip together, the two-month toll is 45.
“There is funeral after funeral here,” said Masri.
A few moments later, mourners who had gathered at the door preparing to enter the tiny tenement scattered upon hearing shots nearby. Someone said that soldiers broke up a gathering in the street in advance of Shamir’s visit.