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This week, the list of Palestinian passersby, including children, who passed over to the next world during "incidents" in the territories, grew longer. According to Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, the IDF takes cases of innocent civilians being hurt very seriously. According to Judge Advocat General Maj. Gen. Menachem Finkelstein, the IDF thoroughly investigates any suspicions of death by negligence, let alone deliberate attacks on civilians.

But if the military law enforcement agencies were to open a file after every "unfortunate incident of death," instead of looking for "wanted men," the commanders in the field would be busy looking for lawyers. The IDF's authorities have therefore ruled that it's up to field commanders to decide which cases of death justify a Military Police investigation, and which deaths of civilians are called an "unfortunate incident." In addition, the state attorney will be brought into action whenever outside agencies, like human rights groups or the press, draw the army's attention to unusual incidents.

For some months, this column has been tracking, alongside B'Tselem, two deaths in Nablus. The military prosecution recently decided to order Military Police investigations. The chain of events shows that if not for the intervention of B'Tselem and the press, these two cases, like hundreds of other "incidents," would have been buried along with the victims.

Ahmed Abdul Rahman al Karini, a 54-year-old municipal maintenance man, was shot to death on August 10, 2002 by an IDF curfew patrol, while Karini was repairing the city electrical grid. The chief military prosecutor, Col. Einat Ron, told B'Tselem on September 10 that she decided not to put the Military Police on the case.

She wrote, "The force's actions did not deviate from the realm of reasonablenesss expected of a military force in the area, under the conditions in which it was acting." The prosecutor said the soldiers were tasked with enforcing the curfew and "noticed a commercial van that approached and stopped suddenly in a way that raised their suspicions." A few lines later in her letter, she said the soldiers "fired in the air" since they believed the van, which she said "stopped suspiciously," was "trying to evade the force."

Col. Ron explained the mistaken identity of the vehicle by noting that "it did not have a flashing orange light on the roof." The experience of the last two years shows that the case would have been closed, if not for an Associated Press videotape that recorded the incident and which reached B'Tselem's hands. The tape clearly shows a blinking orange light on the roof of Karini's bullet-ridden van.

On November 17, 2002, B'Tselem gave the tape to the JAG prosecutors. On January 29, 2003, four-and-a-half months after JAG said it saw no reason for an inquiry, Col. Ron wrote to B'Tselem that JAG decided to initiate a Military Police probe.

The second incident also took place in Nablus. On October 11, 2002, during a lengthy curfew in the city, there was a burst of machine gun fire from a passing jeep near the home of the Abu Hijla family in Raffadiyeh.

Shaden Abu Hijla, a women in her 60s, well-known as a peace activist, was sitting in her garden, embroidering. She was killed on the spot, while her husband, a prominent doctor, and her son, a university teacher, were wounded.

Abu Hijla's death was widely reported in the press. Even President George W. Bush was personally told of it. In its first, unofficial version of the events, the army said the woman was killed (and her husband and son were wounded) by a single stray bullet. After the army learned that the family had found 14 empty shells from an automatic weapon on the scene, Ya'alon ordered the case reopened. This week, nearly five months after Abu Hijla's death, the IDF Spokesman said the JAG has ordered a Military Police inquiry.

These two "unusual" stories indicate what can be assumed to be the more usual routine for the hundreds of anonymous cases where the circumstances of the deaths are not known to the human rights groups or the press. This column will continue tracking the findings of the Military Police inquiries and the steps taken (if any are) in their wake against the guilty parties.

The round table

The dispute between the White House and the U.S. State Department regarding the road map is becoming more and more reminiscent of the worst days of the unity government. On one side is Elliott Abrams, Bush's new National Security Council adviser on Middle East affairs, who has deposed three top officials from his department: Flint Levert, Ben Miller and Hillary Mann. All three are ex-CIA, all three were professional appointments, and all three were suspected of supporting the road map of the Quartet, a forum, it should be remembered, that includes the U.S. Abrams is part and parcel of the neo-conservative gang surrounding Bush, and was appointed to make sure the road map is kosher.

At the same time, Secretary of State Colin Powell promises anyone who asks - including Ehud Barak, who dropped by recently - that the day after the attack on Iraq, indeed that very morning, the Bush administration will deliver the road map to Ariel Sharon.

Now, a respectable group of key players from former administrations - both Democratic and Republican - have lined up behind Powell. They've issued a document resulting from a New York Council on Foreign Relations round table, urging the president to immediately present an accelerated plan for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The task force, headed by Henry Siegman, hints that American concessions to pressure from Israel to postpone negotiations for peace has nothing to do with U.S. national security interests. The group included Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter; Lee Hamilton, a former chairman of the House International Relations Committee; Frederic Hof, former staff director of the Mitchell Committee; Geoffrey Kemp, former National Security Council senior director for Middle East Affairs; Robert Malley, former National Security Council director for Middle East Affairs in the Clinton administration; Thomas Pickering, former under secretary of state and ambassador to Israel; Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to President George Bush (Sr.), among others. Scowcroft and Brzezinski summed up the document in a February 13 Wall Street Journal article.

In addition to the explicit use of the term "double standard," the team states bluntly what it thinks about the gap between the determination Bush is showing on one side of the Middle East and his leniency with the other side.

"Arab countries and much of the Muslim world, as well as most European countries, see a direct linkage between their ability to be more forthcoming in supporting U.S. goals in Iraq and our seriousness in working for a fair settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict," says the document, adding, "We believe there is no national security reason for the President to delay elaboration of his June 24 vision. Indeed, there are important national security reasons to spell out without further delay the broad shape of the peace agreement for which the U.S. intends to work ... It would also facilitate international cooperation with the U.S. in its war on global terrorism and in its efforts to encourage the spread of democracy throughout the world."

The team proposes Bush get off the hobby horse of deposing Arafat. "We support President George W. Bush's view that the Palestinian people deserve political leadership and institutions not tainted by terrorism and corruption. However, the resumption of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians should not be conditioned upon the replacement of a particular individual.

"To do so invites resistance on the part of large segments of the Palestinian population that desire change in their leadership and accountable democratic governance, but do not wish to be seen as doing a foreign country's bidding. It also places the role of one man above the American interest in bringing a speedy end to the violence."

Instead of dealing with Arafat, say the round-table participants, it would be best to encourage an end to terror and changes in Palestinian society, through a peace process "that holds out a credible promise of viable Palestinian statehood."

The new document also rejects the one-sided condition imposed by the Bush-Sharon team, with regard to an end to the terrorist attacks. It proposes, "the U.S. administration and its Quartet partners must insist on a 100 percent Palestinian Authority effort to end violence that is unconditional and independent of actions demanded of Israel. The U.S. and its Quartet partners must similarly insist on an equally unconditional cessation of Israeli settlement expansion (including so-called natural growth) that is independent of actions required of Palestinians." The document says, "This parallelism is not to suggest moral equivalence. It is to recognize that no peace talks are possible if Palestinians fail to exert 100 percent effort to halt Palestinian terrorism or if Israel continues through its settlement policy to encroach on Palestinian lives and property."

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem has been getting some reports lately that Abrams, the senior pro-Israel official, won't be able to remain a vegetarian much longer on the issue of the settlements. But there's a long way to go from that, to imposing the road map, before, during or after the Iraq war. And if the "window of opportunity" opens after a military campaign in Iraq, the political advisers running Bush's election campaign will make sure it doesn't close on their boss's calloused fingers.