Israeli's death renews 'kill verification' debate


JERUSALEM -- The death of an Israeli army major in south Lebanon in December has revived questions about whether Israeli soldiers are taught to shoot to kill wounded enemies.

Israeli newspapers reported that the major, a Druze Arab serving in the Israeli army, may have been killed at close range by his own men, mistaking him for a wounded attacker.

The report prompted a discussion yesterday in a closed session of the Israeli Cabinet about the tactic of shooting a wounded soldier at close range. Military sources and Israeli newspapers are calling the tactic "kill verification."

The exact circumstances of the shooting of Maj. Kiwan Hamad on Dec. 19 are unclear. The army has taken the unusual step of appointing a former chief of staff of the military, Moshe Levy, to investigate.

The officer was killed when Israeli troops were ambushed by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, who are fighting to expel Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. Army officials initially told the major's family that he was killed by the guerrillas.

But two Haifa newspapers said Major Hamad apparently ran forward toward the ambushers, and may have been shot by his own men, who had lost sight of him. The newspapers quoted an unnamed soldier in the unit as saying that the Israeli troops saw the officer on the ground, and shot him in the head, thinking he was a guerrilla.

The army denies that there is a policy of "kill verification" that involves executing wounded enemies. But incidents involving wounded Palestinians have raised the issue before. After the death of Major Hamad, some are demanding a clarification of the army's practice.

"If a soldier's life is in danger, surely he can shoot to kill. But if there is no reasonable threat, there is no justification for killing" an enemy, said Eliahu Avram, a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel.

"Obviously, it violates the Geneva Conventions about prisoners of war," he said. "You're not supposed to kill wounded prisoners."

Military officials have said that soldiers are trained, if ambushed, to charge through their attackers' line, turn and shoot to kill all of the enemy.

"This is a pure military infantry tactic. We didn't invent it," said a military official, who refused under Israeli regulations to be named.

But accounts of the death of Major Hamad suggested that soldiers are taught to take the procedure a step further, and to execute wounded enemies to "ensure their death."

The Haifa newspapers, the weekly Kol Ha'ir and the Kolbo Haifa, quoted an unnamed soldier in the officer's unit as saying that the major was killed by mistake when he charged ahead of his fellow soldiers.

"Outside the building we saw a man. We opened fire. The man fell. We went close, a few soldiers, and saw that he was lying on his side. One carried out the verification killing procedure as we were taught in many exercises -- to shoot a wounded guerrilla in the head to make sure he is dead," the soldier was quoted in newspaper reports.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declined to comment on the matter after yesterday's Cabinet meeting. One of his ministers, Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet, defended the army.

"There is no practice whatsoever of 'reassuring the kill' of enemies, only [when] they present a threat to life in the middle of the battle," he told Israel Radio.

But last year, a television videotape showed an Israeli soldier shooting a wounded Palestinian in the head in Hebron. The army said the soldier thought that the man might still have had a bomb.

In July 1992, the father of an Israeli undercover officer, Sgt. Eli Aisha, complained bitterly that his son was shot in the head at point-blank range when two fellow members of the undercover unit mistook him for a wounded Palestinian.

In 1993, a report by Middle East Watch, a human rights organization, reported that Israeli special forces instructors "stress the need for trainees to 'ensure killing' by firing a number of shots at close or even point-blank range into wounded or dead enemies."

In March 1994, Israeli undercover agents ambushed six Palestinians in a Gaza Strip refugee camp who were distributing leaflets in support of the peace process. The agents killed several of the wounded men at close range, according to B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group.

Yizhar Be'er, head of B'tselem, said the government replied to his organization's inquiry into the close-range killing of a Palestinian last year by saying that the soldier "did it as a procedure."

Mr. Be'er, himself a former paratrooper, said that such a tactic is more defensible in an area of armed combat such as southern Lebanon than in the civilian areas of the territories.

"I remember very well in our training, if we had to fight, we were supposed to advance, and then turn back and shoot at the ground so that no one from the enemy would be alive to shoot you in the back," he said.

"A soldier in a battle situation has a full duty to keep his own life," said Mr. Be'er. But "common sense says if the battle is ended, and there is a wounded enemy soldier who does not threaten your life, you don't end his."

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