Israeli Platoon Commander Suspended

Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — An Israeli platoon commander accused of firing a full clip of ammunition into the body of a Palestinian schoolgirl after she was lying on the ground dead or wounded has been suspended from duty pending an investigation, the military said today.

The case is unusual in that soldiers under the officer's command helped spur an army probe by providing detailed accounts of the Oct. 5 incident to Israeli media.

The 13-year-old Palestinian, Iman Hams, was fired on by soldiers as she walked near an army outpost near Rafah, at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. Her family said she was on her way to school. She was wearing her school uniform and carrying a knapsack filled with books.

At the time of the incident, the army said she deviated from the route toward her school and entered a so-called "sterile" area surrounding the outpost. The military said soldiers feared that the knapsack might contain explosives, though it did not.

The Israeli military's rules of engagement in Gaza permit soldiers to shoot any Palestinian who strays into areas close to army outposts, Jewish settlements and the border fence surrounding Gaza, if the troops suspect hostile intentions.

In and of itself, the girl's death would have been unlikely to prompt an inquiry. But the case caused an outcry when soldiers told Israeli journalists that after she had already been wounded, perhaps mortally, the commander approached her and "verified the kill" — army parlance for firing at close range at downed combatants to make sure they are incapacitated or dead.

"We were in shock — we grabbed our heads in disbelief. We couldn't believe what he was doing," a soldier who was present told the Yediot Aharonot daily this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Just a little girl; how do you spray a child with bullets from zero range?"

The girl was shot about 20 times, according to Palestinian medical officials and Israeli military sources.

Before detailed accounts of the killing emerged, the army's chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, told the cabinet that the girl had almost certainly been sent by Palestinian snipers to try to draw the soldiers from their outpost. Senior officers later distanced themselves from that account, saying a full investigation was needed.

Col. Eyal Eisenberg, commander of the Givati Brigade, told army radio today that the commander, who has not been publicly identified, had been suspended while the investigation was taking place. The colonel pledged there would be no "whitewash," and that all the army's findings would be disclosed.

Separate from the army's internal probe, Israel's judge advocate-general, Brig. Gen. Avi Mandelblit, on Tuesday ordered a criminal investigation by military police.

Criminal investigations of Israeli soldiers for actions against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are rare, and prosecution rarer. The military traditionally vests field commanders with broad discretionary powers when it comes to responding to threats.

Moreover, the army is a much-trusted institution among Israelis, in part because of the universality of military service. Nearly all young men and women are drafted. Men continue to do reserve duty, often in combat units, well into their 40s.

The case was given added impetus by the shooting Tuesday of another Palestinian pupil as she sat at her desk in a United Nations-run school in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza. Ghadeer Jaber Mokheimer, 11, died of her wounds today, the second such fatality inside a U.N. school in a month.

The army acknowledged firing shots in the area at the time, but said it was responding to mortar fire near the school.

More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in a large-scale military operation in the northern Gaza Strip meant to prevent Palestinian militants from firing crude homemade rockets at Israeli towns near the Gaza border. The two sides dispute the breakdown of combatant and civilian casualties, with Israel saying nearly all the dead were fighters. Palestinians and human rights groups say nearly 20 children were among those slain.

The Israeli incursion completed its second week today, and Eisenberg, the Givati commander, said it would end only after it had achieved its goal of quelling the rocket fire. Israel sent more than 2,000 troops and 200 armored vehicles into a swath of northern Gaza after two Israeli toddlers in the Negev desert town of Sderot were killed Sept. 29 in a rocket attack.

Israeli troops enlarged their zone of operations in northern Gaza today, moving into the agricultural village of Beit Lahiya. Three Palestinians, identified by both sides as militants, were killed in the latest fighting. Seven Palestinians were wounded. Hospital officials said the injured included four children.

The heavy Israeli troop presence has not been able to halt Kassam rocket firings altogether; two more projectiles were launched today from northern Gaza. But for the first time, a new early warning system in Sderot gave residents about half a minute's notice, broadcast over a public address system, that they should take cover. The rockets fell harmlessly in a field.

While recent Israeli military activity has been concentrated in Gaza, troops in the West Bank today achieved what they described as a significant success, capturing a 31-year-old Palestinian said by Israel to be the head of the local Hamas cell and the mastermind of an Aug. 31 double bus bombing that killed 16 Israelis in the southern town of Beersheba.

Military sources said Imad Kawasme gave himself up after soldiers surrounded his safehouse and ordered him to come out, stripped to his underwear to prove he was unarmed.

Members of the Kawasme clan have carried out more than half a dozen suicide bombings, and the Hebron cell of Hamas has been particularly difficult for Israeli intelligence to crack because it is drawn almost entirely from that extended family.

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