Testifying at the trial of four soldiers accused of beating an Arab to death, Israel’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, sought Wednesday to define the orders and limits governing troops subduing unrest.
His testimony, and previous disturbing revelations about last summer’s incident, focused attention again on how much force is legal and proper in order to quell violence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and reflected public debate over how Israel is dealing with the intifada , as the Palestinian uprising is called.
Army orders clearly state that “force may be under no circumstance used as a punishment,” Shomron testified. “You can beat someone to prevent an incident, disperse a violent demonstration, or to stop someone who is resisting arrest.”
Not Everything Is Clear
Later, in answer to questions, he said: “You are asking me about gray areas and asking for clear answers. Soldiers are told to use their own judgment (as to) how severe the situation is and how much force is necessary. There can be some incidents where commands are not clear, even with the best of soldiers.”
The prolonged battle against the Palestinians has brought criticism both in the military and from the Israeli public.
A measure of dissent has grown within the army. Some soldiers have openly admitted that they are beating protesters and rioters because of the pressures they are under.
Critics of army policy argue that what might narrowly be considered legal in suppressing the uprising may not be right or necessary.
Focus on Action by Units
“What is called legal may be simply formalistic,” human rights lawyer David Kretchmer told a recent peace symposium. “Under military occupation, the person who makes the law carries it out. The major question is not the orders of the general command, but what units do in the occupied territories.”
The trial of the four soldiers, now nearing its end, began last October before a three-judge military court near Kiryat Malakhi, a town not far from the Gaza Strip, a crowded Arab enclave where the intifada began almost 15 months ago and where some of its most violent incidents have occurred.
The trial has been open, but Shomron’s testimony was made available through a press pool arrangement.
The soldiers, 19 to 21 years old, are charged with manslaughter for allegedly killing Shahani Shami, 42, after he intervened to prevent the arrest of two of his sons Aug. 22 in the jumbled refugee camp of Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip.
The soldiers, members of the elite Givati Brigade, admitted assaulting Shami, some of them kicking him, jumping off his bed onto his chest, or hitting him with a broomstick after pursuing suspected stone throwers to his house.
The defense is based partly on orders the soldiers were given, directly and indirectly, to beat Palestinians. Among the directives was a pronouncement early in 1988 by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin that the Palestinians should be put down with “force, power and blows.”
An affidavit from one of the soldiers’ superiors said they acted “in accordance with the customary procedures in the area.” Earlier press reports of the trial said a witness testified that the Gaza commander, Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, had given orders to beat Arabs in order to prevent them from repeating their actions.
A defense attorney for the four soldiers quoted an army lieutenant as saying that members of the brigade were ordered to break the legs of people violating orders because “if we did that, there was one less rioter.”
The defense has also contended that Shami was beaten again at a military outpost and thus died at the hands of someone other than the defendants.
Over the weeks, the testimony of the soldiers has been chilling at times.
Private Arye Luzato said he was ordered into the Shami home in pursuit of stone throwers, even though he had not seen the stone throwers.
“When I heard him (Shami) shouting, I beat him because it (the shouting) incited the women outside and it was a threat to us,” he told the three-judge court. “I didn’t want to be lynched by them. I was afraid, simply afraid.”
Luzato said the soldiers kicked Shami with their boots and hit him with a broomstick they found.
“I don’t want to sound ridiculous,” he said, “but why do they make such a fuss about a broomstick when the army gives me a club? You are making a mountain out of a molehill. I would prefer to be beaten with a broomstick than a club. I was alone. I felt weaker than him. I wanted to deter him, so he would not bring out a knife or use his fists.
‘Strong Hand’ Is Necessary
“It is a battle for survival. If you don’t use a strong hand, you get a stone on your head.”
Another of the accused, Sgt. Yitzhak Adler, said he saw Shami as a threat because he was “a man my size, very big and fat, a healthy fellow who was very strong.”
“We beat him,” Adler said. “We simply beat him on his arms and legs in order to make him collapse. We saw that we were facing a strong man and we didn’t want any problems from him.”
Adler denied that the beating caused Shami’s death.
“I can clearly say that from my experience,” he said, “that he couldn’t--and I’m totally convinced of this--die as a result of the beating we gave him. It’s clear. We didn’t kill him.
“I’ve seen people get beaten, and not only by soldiers, by officers and senior officers. . . . Anyone who breaks a curfew, even if he doesn’t throw stones, is beaten.”
Adler said his commanders ordered him to beat the Arabs. He said he beat one of the boys, who was 8 years old, and when the prosecutors asked him why, he responded, “For the sake of giving him a beating.”
The other defendants are Pvts. Ron Hakhel and Yitzhak Kibudi. Both have testified briefly.
A young Israeli lieutenant testified that he saw Shami at a military outpost in Jabaliya, lying on the floor next to his 15-year-old son.
The lieutenant said Shami said repeatedly, “I want to die.”
“There was blood coming out of his mouth,” he said, “and when he moved his head to the side, more blood spilled out. I couldn’t see any fractures on account of the blood. Not regular blood, like the kind you get from brushing your teeth. Heavy blood. The man wasn’t in good condition.
“I told him to be quiet, to stop talking, but he didn’t shut up. I told him that I would hit him, but still he didn’t shut up. He kept moaning.”
He said that he asked a physician to examine Shami, but “he didn’t lift a finger.” The doctor is on trial for negligence, according to published reports.
Dr. Levi Birtolam, who performed an autopsy on Shami, said the man was “half dead” when he arrived at the military outpost, but actually died of wounds he received there, not from injuries inflicted at his home. Published reports from the long trial said the cause of death was a punctured lung, and that at least 12 of Shami’s ribs were broken.
Saw Him Lying on the Floor
Cpl. Haim Teferberg testified that he saw Shami lying on the floor at the outpost, and that he was beaten there.
“When they laid him on the floor,” Teferberg said, “I saw one of the soldiers from the compound quickly run to the Arab, fly through the air like in a karate exercise, and kick him in the upper part of his chest. After that, he lost his pulse. I don’t know what time of night it was, but that’s the way things are. A lot of soldiers beat prisoners, even (soldiers) who aren’t supposed to be in the compound.”
Arguments in the trial are scheduled to end Monday.