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Wednesday, 18 October, 2000, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Israel accused of 'excessive force'
Palestinians demonstrate
Lives have been lost unnecessarily, says Amnesty
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

Leading human rights groups have criticised what they describe as the use of excessive force by Israel to curb demonstrations in the Palestinian territories.

Reports by Amnesty International and the US-based Human Rights Watch say lives have been lost unnecessarily because of methods used by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

We believe there is a policy to accept the deaths of civilians as part of collateral damage in policing riots

Elizabeth Hodgkin, Amnesty International
An Amnesty fact-finding team comprising Elizabeth Hodgkin and Dr Steven Males, a British former police officer and expert in riot control, visited the occupied territories and Israel between 4 October and 13 October.

Their report concludes that the IDF used "military methods - that is to say of eliminating an enemy, rather than policing methods of serving the community and preserving lives."

Rules of engagement

Ms Hodgkin told BBC News Online that she believed the IDF had used disproportionate force when attempting to defuse some situations.

She said that in many cases there was an "extremely rapid escalation to the use of firearms".

More than 100 people - many of them Palestinians and nearly 30 of them children - have been killed in the violence.

An IDF soldiers
The IDF says it only shoots when its soldiers have been fired at
The IDF's rules of engagement for a low-intensity conflict authorise soldiers to fight rocks and petrol bombs with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.

But when troops come under gun-fire, they are authorised to fire back with live ammunition. Molotov cocktails, too, can come under this authorisation.

"We are very strict with our firing orders," IDF spokesman Elian Sztulman told BBC News Online. "We only shoot live ammunition when we are shot at."

He maintains that many of the casualties of the conflict have been caught in crossfire. This is disputed by Palestinians.

'No imminent danger'

Amnesty has criticised Israel for failing to carry out investigations into the past 19 days of violence and is calling for an international inquiry.

A report by Human Rights Watch, also published this week, said that in investigating clashes it had documented "repeated excessive use of lethal force against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, who posed no imminent danger of death or serious injury to security forces or to others."

It also said it had witnessed indiscriminate use of force in responding to situations involving gunfire from the Palestinian side.

Both groups, along with local human rights groups, have criticised what the say is the IDF's improper use of rubber-coated bullets - usually metal ball bearings covered in a layer of black rubber and capable of causing lethal injuries.

Rules of engagement authorise soldiers to fire these at a minimum range of 40m, but the IDF's Mr Sztulman conceded that on occasions they are fired at a closer range.

Children near the Netzarim junction
Nearly 30 children have been killed in the violence
"People can get hurt badly if shot at close quarters, so this is only allowed if a soldier is forced to protect himself, say, from 10 youths pelting him with stones at close quarters," he said.

He added that if the IDF believed the rule had been applied improperly, the soldier could appear before a military court.

However, commentators say there have been few cases in the past in which Israeli soldiers have been prosecuted for shooting Palestinian protesters.

The IDF spokesman also said rules of engagement authorised soldiers who could identify the source of fire to shoot at that source with the intention of killing.

We use as much restraint as is possible and people get caught in the crossfire

Tuvia Israeli, Israeli deputy UN representative
But Amnesty's Ms Hodgkin said that at the site of one demonstration in Ramallah, where Palestinians had opened fire, examination of a wall indicated that the firing from the Israeli side had been indiscriminate and not directed at the source of the threat.

She also condemned what she described as the use of high-velocity bullets for crowd control.

Responding to the Amnesty report, Tuvia Israeli, Israel's deputy permanent representative to the UN in Geneva told BBC News Online: "The escalation is such that it went out of control on both sides."

He said in many cases the IDF was engaging with what he described as mobs with live ammunition. "We use as much restraint as is possible and people get caught in the crossfire."

He added that since the last intifadah - when both sides suffered high casualties - the army had been carefully trained to deal with civil unrest.

"The IDF has adopted exercises and manoeuvres to handle such events. We are more experienced and prepared now. It could have been much worse."

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