World pressure to see Israeli soldiers tried

by Simon Freeman, The Times, 28 February 1988

FOUR Israeli soldiers who were filmed systematically beating up two young Palestinians in the West Bank town of Nablus are facing courts-martial and possible prison terms of up to six years. The incident has provoked horror and outrage in countries where it has been shown on television, although yesterday Israeli government ministers and officials were trying to minimise its impact.

The four soldiers and a captain, who faces lesser charges, are likely to be identified this weekend, the Israeli army said. There is intense international pressure to ensure that they are suitably punished.

The army leadership has moved quickly to try to repair the damage caused by the American CBS network film. Even Israeli television, which does not normally screen film shot by foreign television crews, broadcast the newsreel.

General Amnon Mitzna, the commanding officer in the Nablus region, assured Israelis on Friday that it was an exceptional incident. He was left "speechless", he said, and promised that the soldiers would be tried. If they were found guilty of using using unreasonable force, they would be punished. The affair could not have come at a worse time for Israel's deeply divided coalition government. George Shultz, the American secretary of state, is in Israel this weekend, shuttling between Jerusalem and the Arab capitals, trying to revive the moribund peace process. International condemnation of the Israeli army will only make Shultz's task more difficult.

The Israeli embassy in London has been swamped with angry calls. A spokesman said the telephones rung non-stop for 45 minutes after the film was first broadcast on British television. The reaction in Washington was similar.

Israeli politicians have played down the film's impact. Moshe Arens, a former defence minister and member of the right-wing Likud, said: This incident was an aberration. I am sure the army will make certain that it does not occur again. It changes nothing fundamentally.

"Violence breeds violence. It is perhaps too much to expect for an army always to behave absolutely correctly when they are constantly faced with provocation."

A close adviser of Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister, admitted that he too had been shocked. "It was an extraordinary event and everyone condemns the behaviour of the soldiers. But you have to understand that the violence comes from the Arab side. They invite this reaction."

Advisers to Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, were reluctant to identify too closely with foreign critics of the army. "Of course, it is shocking, but we did not need to see this to know what is happening in the occupied territories," one aide said. "The army says this is an exceptional case but we know the scale of the problem. "If you occupy territories, this us what happens. I do not believe the debate will change. It is a question not of how we occupy, but whether we should be there"

In the past few days the army has tried to clarify its orders on the treatment of demonstrators. The chief of the general staff, Lieutenant- General Dan Shomron, issued new guidelines to his commanders, saying that "under no circumstances should force be used as a means of punishment". The army has been reluctant to investigate allegations of brutality during the past three months of riots. But there are signs that this is changing. Last week, it said it was investigating the deaths of three Palestinians, allegedly from beatings, in February. Yesterday was what has become a typical day of demonstrations in the occupied territories. The Israeli army started by calling it a "quiet day" but by late afternoon Israeli soldiers had shot dead two Palestinians in the West Bank.

For the American secretary of state it was another exhausting and frustrating day of shuttle diplomacy. So far, Shultz has appeared more anxious to listen than to push his peace proposals. Yesterday, he visited Jordan and Syria and heard their ideas on solving the problem of I.5m Palestinians living under Israeli rule on the West Bank and in Gaza.

George Shultz and Farouq al-Shara. Syria's foreign minister, said last night they had failed to reach agreement on a new American Middle East peace initiative after intensive talks in Damascus. President Assad was reported to have told Shultz that the best formula for achieving a settlement was an international conference under the aegis of he United Nations involving all parties. In Tunis, Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, said the PLO had named a delegation of Palestinians from inside and outside the occupied territories which was prepared to meet Shultz "in any Arab, European or even American capital".