Far more damaging than bulls in a china shop, Israeli tanks have for some weeks been prowling the streets of the Palestinian cities in the West Bank, wreaking destruction and also occasionally killing innocent civilians. There are not many other cities in the world - Grozny comes to mind - in which tanks have the run of the streets and fire shells into population centers.
Another increase has been recorded in the dosage of power that Israel is unleashing against the Palestinians: If until very recently, the phrase "light trigger-finger" referred to light weapons, now we are talking about a light trigger-finger on the cannons of tanks. If, initially, demonstrations were broken up with the use of gravel throwers, then with the help of tear-gas grenades, followed by rubber-coated steel bullets and afterward live fire using rifles and machine guns, now, difficult as it is to believe, the Israel Defense Forces is firing tank shells to intimidate innocent civilians, who the soldiers believe are violating curfews, or in order to disperse crowds. These frequent warning volleys of shells are lethal. More than once in the past few weeks, the IDF has been compelled to apologize for what it termed a "mistaken consideration" or an "error" on the part of its soldiers in the use of tanks.
The only solution to prevent such "mistakes" is to remove the tanks from the cities and dismantle the checkpoints at their entrances, as well as to put an immediate end to the practice of firing shells in population centers or even empty fields that are the target of the shells, according to the army.
Why is it necessary for tanks to shell in and around civilian populations, even if they are violating a curfew and even if the intention is only to frighten people? Have tanks become a means for dispersing demonstrations? And when the tanks cease to be effective, what's the next thing the IDF will bring out of its arsenal?
The army should tell its troops unequivocally: Do not shell crowds of civilians - period. There is no need for it; after all, the IDF is not fighting an army or anything resembling an army in the occupied territories, and the danger to the lives of innocent people inherent in this method is just too great. If the idea is to protect the lives of the soldiers who are roaming around the cities, armored personnel carriers or armored jeeps are enough. If the idea is to frighten the local residents, smoke grenades will do the trick.
The Palestinians know from the period of Operation Defensive Shield that they have to beware of tanks because their lives depend on it. The revolving turret of this terrifying war machine (the operators of which see, but cannot be seen), which rumbles through the streets crushing everything in its path and making the walls of houses tremble is a total nightmare for anyone who wants to pursue even a fraction of a normal life. For children, the impact is even more appalling. In Operation Defensive Shield, tanks destroyed civilian infrastructure and private property for no good reason. Wherever the IDF operated, it left behind rows of cars flattened by the tanks, ripped up roads, uprooted electricity poles and blasted telephone booths. Scars that the tank treads left in the road showed that in some cases they went out of their way simply to wreak havoc and destruction.
In the past few weeks, the tanks have also started to kill. Four-year-old Abir Zakarana, her six-year-old brother, Basal, and their mother, Fatma, from Qabatiyah, were killed, as the father of the family looked on, by a tank shell as they were picking grape leaves in their vineyard. The tank crew thought that the noise made by a tank tread that came lose was the explosion of a terrorist bomb and that the group in the vineyard had planted the device.
A few weeks later, soldiers from the same armored battalion shelled three brothers - Jamil, Tarek and Ahmed Abu Aziz from Jenin - as they were riding their bicycles. Thirteen-year-old Jamil and six-year-old Ahmed were killed, and Tarek, 15, was seriously wounded. A veterinarian who was driving alongside them was also wounded by the two shells the tank crew fired.
It was only by a miracle that five other Palestinians were not killed a few days later as they stood next to a group of taxi cabs in the village of Falusa, on the eastern outskirts of Nablus. They were wounded when a tank shelled them.
The case of Randa al-Hindi and her daughter, Nur, a two-year-old, who were killed as they traveled on a road south of Gaza City, is less clear: Local residents reported that they were killed by a tank shell, but the army reported that it was light-weapons fire. One way or the other, the IDF found that the soldiers had acted in contravention of their instructions.
Following its practice throughout the current intifada, the IDF did not conduct a serious investigation into any of these events. Palestinian eyewitnesses are not questioned at all. Of course, meting out significant punishment to the soldiers involved is out of the question. The soldiers who shelled the boys on the bikes were reprimanded. The next time soldiers consider whether to shell innocent civilians who violated (or perhaps did not violate) a curfew, they will know that in the worst case, they will be scolded.
Yet here, in contrast to the itchy trigger-finger syndrome, the solution is far simpler - removing the tanks from the cities and putting their shells in safety mode. Israel will chalk up its dubious military achievements as a result of the occupation of the cities in the West Bank even without the use of tanks. They are not what is needed to face up to people who violate curfews or even terrorist squads.
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