Israeli Army Probes Slaying of Palestinian Grandmother

By Tracy Wilkinson, L.A. Times, 12/29/2002

NABLUS, West Bank -- The killing of Shaden abu Hijleh was both typical and not typical.

The 61-year-old grandmother sat on her front porch, embroidering. Her husband, a renowned local doctor, was next to her, tending the thyme plants he had taken to growing during the endless weeks in which Israeli military forces had confined Nablus residents to their homes.

Around dusk, two Israeli armored army vehicles -- the kind that passed every day -- stopped in front of the Abu Hijleh residence. One or more soldiers opened fire in the couple's direction, not 30 yards from where they sat in plain view, according to witnesses and survivors.

Fourteen bullet holes form an arc on the glass front door and part of the stone wall. One bullet apparently hit just above Shaden's head; when she cowered, another bullet penetrated her left side. That one killed her. Her husband, Jamal, 64, was nicked on the top of his skull.

Shaden abu Hijleh was one of 41 Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli forces in October as the Israeli-Palestinian war staggered into its third year and noncombatants on both sides had become the most common casualties. An average of one Palestinian civilian a day has been killed in the two months since, according to a tally kept by B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization. The oldest was 95; three were 2 years old.

(Approximately 45 Israeli civilians were killed in the same period, the majority in two attacks on buses by Palestinian suicide bombers.)

Where Abu Hijleh's case takes a turn, however, is in the way it was handled. The Israeli army, under pressure from the dead woman's children -- two of whom hold U.S. citizenship -- launched a detailed investigation. An initial report said she had been killed by a stray bullet, but top officials didn't accept that. The results of a second inquiry have not been made public.

With Israel facing criticism for repeated killings of Palestinian civilians, top military officials say they have begun conducting more vigorous probes of alleged use of excessive force or other abuses.

One year ago, The Times examined the Israeli army's practice of investigating the sins of its own and found that most probes were cursory and that serious punishment was rare. The failure to pursue alleged abuses worried some influential Israelis, who contended that it was corroding the morale and discipline of a people's army and nurturing a culture of impunity.

Since then, Israel's war with the Palestinians has metamorphosed into a protracted battle between the region's most powerful mechanized army and a string of ruthless guerrilla forces. In what it described as an attempt to cut off the march of suicide bombers into Israel, the army at midyear reoccupied most of the West Bank, positioning its forces in the middle of cities and refugee camps and entrapping 2 million Palestinians.

The toll among civilians rose steadily. Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, who in July took over as army chief of staff, issued new orders in October requiring that an internal investigation of each killing of a civilian be completed within 72 hours and that a full report arrive on his desk within 21 days.

Human rights activists who have long protested civilian deaths, however, say the changes are cosmetic. Only high-profile cases are investigated in any depth, activists say. The vast majority fall by the wayside.

Most investigations remain within the military chain of command, which outsiders view with suspicion. A number of cases are elevated to a stricter level of legal scrutiny within the military judiciary, and those cases almost always end in courts-martial.

A total of 281 cases had been opened by late this month; 20 involved the killing of Palestinians. In most of the rest, soldiers were accused of stealing, vandalism and improper use of firearms that did not result in injury.

Nearly 2,000 Palestinians and 700 Israelis have been killed in 27 months of violence.

The majority of killings continue to be attributed to the fog of war, according to top army officials interviewed for this report. Soldiers who fire back when shot at might hit civilians in congested residential areas, and they might miscalculate when having to decide whether an approaching Palestinian is friend or foe. These incidents are almost always considered by the army to be justified, the officials said.

"We are fighting in very crowded, intense areas, where you can hardly distinguish between a terrorist and a civilian," chief army spokeswoman Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron said. "It is extremely complex, and the ability to distinguish between an innocent man and a terrorist is almost impossible."

Yael Stein, a researcher with B'Tselem, said soldiers -- young, undertrained, confused and terrified -- are not being held accountable.

"Nothing happens to a soldier who kills a child," he said. "The policy of being trigger-happy is a natural consequence when there's a policy of impunity."

Of the 20 investigations into the killing of Palestinians, two involved tanks that opened fire on crowds inside the West Bank city of Jenin. In one incident, a journalist, Imad abu Zahra, was killed in July; in another, a youth working with international activists was shot.

The most serious punishment to be meted out involved a lieutenant colonel who said he shot into the air to disperse a crowd in the West Bank village of Nazlat Zeid on Oct. 4. A 15-year-old boy, Mohammed Zeid, was killed. The officer was discharged from command duty, was demoted and has no future in the army, Yaron said. He may yet face criminal charges.

When 16 people were killed in the Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis during a military operation Oct. 7, however, the commanding officer received nothing more than a mark on his file and probation. Most of the dead were killed when a helicopter gunship fired a missile into a neighborhood. The army concluded that eight of those were armed "terrorists" and that two others were unarmed members of the radical Islamic Hamas movement. The remaining six were classified as "unknown."

Palestinians identified the six as civilians, including a 50-year-old woman, a 13-year-old and two 16-year-olds.

The army has acknowledged disproportionate force. When soldiers fired three shells into a crowded refugee camp in southern Gaza on Oct. 17, killing six people, the commander later conceded that one shell would have been sufficient. Rules were rewritten after the incident, Yaron said, to prohibit the firing of mortars in densely populated areas "unless there is no other choice."

The Israelis also contend that Palestinian gunmen deliberately shoot from populated areas to draw return fire onto civilians.

Col. Daniel Reisner, who heads the Israeli army's international law division, said it is still too early to tell whether Yaalon's orders have made a big difference. The aim, he said, was to speed up the process.

"The global picture was: The longer we keep allegations on the table without refuting them, the more credible they become," Reisner said. "And when something really did happen, we need to know quickly."

Army officials also said there is no standard for how field investigations are conducted. Some delve deeply; others are quite superficial.

"Every commander determines whether he's reached the truth," Reisner said. "There is no textbook on investigations.... We see a great variety."

Reisner said the army has to strike a balance between issues of accountability and the ability of a unit or soldier to carry out a mission.

"You tell a unit that a lawyer is coming to brief you afterward, you kill the mission," he said.

In a report issued in September, Amnesty International blamed both Israel and the Palestinian Authority for failing to protect children. By its count, 250 Palestinian children and 72 Israeli children were killed in the conflict between September 2000 and the end of August.

It remains to be seen whether any real changes will come in the Israeli army's handling of cases.

Affluent and prominent, the members of the Abu Hijleh family have agitated for justice. They enlisted the support of the U.S. Embassy and hired an attorney to sue Israel. They took unusual steps to document their case, including photographing their mother's dead body minutes after it arrived at the hospital. They saved the bloodstained embroidery she was working on when she was struck down.

In her "martyr" poster -- every Palestinian killed by Israel receives such tribute -- Shaden abu Hijleh wears pearls and lipstick, looking more like Donna Reed than a dangerous radical.

Her son Saed, 36, a political science professor at the local university, built a special tomb for her in Nablus' crowded cemetery. He says he is determined that Israel answer for her death.

"If we can make it just a little bit harder for the soldiers to pull the trigger," he said, "then my mother won't have died in vain."