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In Gaza, rules of war favor Israel

Israel says it uses deadly force when soldiers' lives are at risk. Palestinians say they aren't shooting.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2000


NETZARIM JUNCTION, Gaza Strip -- This crossroads, scene of some of the bloodiest battles in six days of Israeli-Palestinian clashes, is ground zero in a growing debate: How much force is too much force?

Israeli military doctrine is simple: When soldiers' lives are threatened, deadly force is justified. But in places like Netzarim, where teenage Palestinian stone-throwers are being felled by live bullets and machine gun fire from helicopter gunships, the unequal matchup has Israelis on the defensive.

Israel argues that the presence of Palestinian gunmen among the demonstrators -- even if they are only a tiny minority in the crowd -- leaves its soldiers with no choice but to use live ammunition.

"Wherever we are fired upon, we will fire back," Ephraim Sneh, the deputy defense minister, told Israel radio Tuesday.

Since the unrest began last week, 56 people have died. Two of the dead were Israeli soldiers and one was a Jewish Israeli civilian, but 43 were Palestinians and the other 10 were Israeli Arabs.

"It's not a war. We're not shooting at them; they're shooting at us and we're dying," counters senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

At Netzarim Junction, a highway crossroad in the scrubby flatlands of the central Gaza Strip, a lone army outpost guards the access road to a Jewish settlement by the same name.

Like many other settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Netzarim is loathed by Palestinians living in nearby towns and refugee camps as a symbol of oppression and occupation.

The Israeli soldiers at Netzarim Junction, many of them teenage conscripts, are far outnumbered by mobs of rioters who have besieged their isolated post each day.

Given their state of hair-trigger jumpiness, it sometimes is only a matter of moments before a lower-level confrontation -- stone-throwing repelled by rubber bullets and tear gas -- turns into a full-scale battle with live ammunition.

On Tuesday at the junction, a chaotic scene erupted when a rioter on a warehouse rooftop adjacent to the army outpost was struck by a missile.

Onlookers said the man -- identified as 28-year-old Fahmi Abu Amounah -- was throwing stones. But the army said he was probably shooting toward the soldiers.

Friends who jumped to his aid saw that his brains had literally been blown out, sending them into a frenzy of shock, rage and grief. "Allahu Akhbar (God is great)!" they screamed.

Palestinian police tried to block the group from charging the Israeli outpost, but they snatched up rocks and furiously stoned the police, quickly breaking through their lines.

As firing broke out, some shots appeared to come from a building on the Palestinian side, pocked with bullet holes. Smoke billowed from piles of burning tires in the street.

Israeli helicopters circled overhead, as dozens of youths ran through the street, one waving a Palestinian flag. A veiled Palestinian woman stumbled as she tried to get out of the line of fire.

Demonstrators rushed to carry wounded to arriving ambulances. One drove off so fast that a roll of surgical tape unwound out its open back doors.

At least 41 people were hurt and two other men killed in the daylong battle, according to hospital officials. The army acknowledged the use of live fire and said helicopter gunships fired rockets.

Hospital emergency room director Moawia Hassan said a gaping wound like Abu Amounah's, which blasted away a huge chunk of bone, would likely have come from a high-caliber weapon, but he could not say what type.

More than 2,000 people packed the narrow concrete alleys of Nusseirat for Abu Amounah's funeral, held only an hour after he was killed. "My brother, my only brother," wept his 20-year-old sister, Falestine.

Netzarim Junction has been the scene of some of the most wrenching events in nearly a week of fighting. On Saturday, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy was shot dead and his father seriously wounded as the two huddled, terrified, trying to find shelter from a hail of bullets.

The army acknowledged Tuesday its soldiers had apparently fired the fatal shots and expressed sorrow over the incident -- but blamed Palestinians anew for "cynical use" of children in the confrontation with Israeli troops.

Speaking specifically of that incident, but referring generally to problems faced by soldiers manning outposts under siege, a top Israeli commander said the troops' field of vision was often limited. At the bunker-like outpost at Netzarim, for instance, soldiers are aiming through small slits, said Gen. Giora Eiland.

On Monday, nearly three dozen Palestinians were hurt by a single anti-tank missile, one of several fired at Netzarim.

Word of Tuesday's gruesome fatal shooting spread swiftly to the ranks of the young stone-throwers massing for a new wave of attacks against the Israeli outpost.

"We're a little terrified," said Yasser Abu Assi, 19. He and his friends were regrouping, having scattered when a helicopter gunship flew overhead.

"We have stones, and they have that," he said, gesturing toward it. "They are using much more force. But it's our land, and if I die, my death is a good one."

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