Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank are under orders never to shoot at Jewish settlers there, even if intervening to halt attacks on Palestinians, the inquiry into a settler's massacre of about 30 Palestinians was told Thursday.
The commander of paramilitary border police in Hebron, where the Feb. 25 massacre occurred, said standing orders prohibit security forces from firing upon Jews whatever the circumstance--whether to stop an attack on Palestinians, to prevent a crime or even to defend themselves.
"If a Jewish settler fires his weapon . . . at locals (Palestinians) to the extent that he is shooting with intent (to do harm) and not just firing warning shots in the air, it is still forbidden to shoot at him," Chief Supt. Meir Tayar testified.
"You take cover and wait for the clip to finish or for the gun to jam," Tayar continued, explaining what was required under the orders, "and then you stop him in some other way, but not by shooting."
Lt. Col. Yemini Canaan, the army's operations officer for West Bank forces, testified later that the order was confirmed and enlarged immediately after Israeli settlers from Hebron and nearby Kiryat Arba rampaged through central Hebron in December, attacking Palestinian residents and shooting wildly in the densely populated city. "The order was not to fire in any event, in any circumstance, against the settlers," Canaan said. "It was absolute."
In his testimony, Tayar said of the Hebron massacre, "Even if I had been there, I could not have done anything--there were special orders."
Tayar said the unwritten instructions, acknowledged Thursday by both paramilitary border forces and army officials, were issued by Meir Khalifi, the army battalion commander who testified earlier and never mentioned this point. Canaan said similar orders were given in all units operating on the West Bank.
Judge Abdel-Rahman Zouabi, the only Arab member of the five-man commission, asked Tayar: "You mean if a settler fires at worshipers and you see him, you are not allowed to shoot him even in the leg?"
Tayar replied: "According to the instructions, as I interpret them, yes (I cannot). . . . Perhaps it is an illegal order--I am not a lawyer."
The disclosure confirmed some of the most damaging accusations made against the Israeli forces by human rights activists over the years of occupation in the West Bank. It brought angry denunciations from political leaders.
"Anyone who pulls a gun and opens fire on unarmed people is a terrorist and should be shot," said Hagai Meirom, a leading member of Parliament from the ruling Labor Party. Avigdor Kahalani, a retired general and another Labor Party member of Parliament, commented, "Anyone who opens fire at Arabs should be shot in the legs immediately."
Ori Orr, a retired general who chairs the parliamentary committee on defense and foreign affairs, observed: "If such an order was given, it is a stupid thing to have done. It is clearly an illegal order."
Maj. Gen. Shaul Moufaz, commander of West Bank forces, confirmed that "the instruction is that soldiers do not fire on Jews because Jews are not an enemy."
But Moufaz, attempting to soften the disclosure's political impact, said the order was intended to cover confrontations between troops and Israeli settlers rioting in Palestinian towns and incidents in which settlers had opened fire on Palestinians, presumably in self-defense.
Settler leaders reacted self-righteously to the disclosure. "I am not surprised," said Noam Arnon, a settler in Hebron. The order "reflects the existing reality--that Jews almost never shoot at Arabs. Among Jews, 99.99% show restraint, despite thousands of attacks on Jews."
Aharon Domb, secretary general of the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said that even an overt attack would not warrant an armed response.
But Zeev Schiff, a leading military commentator, called the instruction "one of the gravest orders" ever given in the occupied territories, saying it showed "intolerable leniency toward the extremist settlers."
In other testimony, Col. Shalom Goldstein, military governor of Hebron, testified that he had alerted Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other top officials to rising tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in Hebron and nearby Kiryat Arba before the massacre.
Describing the atmosphere in Hebron over the last year as "very charged," Goldstein--no relation to Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who, testimony has shown, walked past Israeli security, then killed at least 30 and as many as 48 Palestinians as they prayed in the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs--said the army had registered 25 "incidents of friction" between Jewish and Muslim worshipers in the shrine last year, most of which resulted from Israeli harassment of the Palestinians.