Ben-Eliezer Wants Findings of Probe Into Killings of Civilians

Following a spate of recent incidents in which Palestinian civilians have been killed during IDF operations in the territories, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer instructed IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon on Sunday night to launch an inquiry - to be headed by an officer ranked at least general - to examine the events.

Ben-Eliezer said he wanted the findings presented to him by the end of the week, with "operative recommendations to prevent the recurrence of such unfortunate accidents in the future."

Senior Palestinian cabinet member Saeb Erekat predicted that the Israeli investigation would come to nothing.

"The calls for an investigation are meant for media consumption because we have never heard of any result of these panels created after the killing of Palestinian civilians," he said. "We place full responsibility on the Israeli government for these crimes and this bloodletting."

Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh said Monday that a "deep examination" was needed to avoid damage to the army's image.

"There must be no impression of indifference to human life. Hurting the guilty hurts terror, but hurting the innocent increases terror," he told Army Radio.

Early Sunday morning, IDF soldiers shot and killed four Palestinians near the Beni Na'im stone-cutting plant, but there were contradictory accounts of the events leading up to the deaths.

According to eyewitness accounts collected by the Palestinian human rights organization, El Haq, the soldiers shot the four - who it claims were workers at the plant - at close range, after they had already been placed under arrest.

The IDF denies the Palestinian version of events, with a military spokesman saying that an IDF force identified several suspects who had broken into a Jewish-owned plot of land close to Beni Na'im. The soldiers opened fire on the group, which had already penetrated the compound.

The IDF also said that when they scoured the area after daybreak, they discovered the tools used to break into the grove, as well as weapons such as clubs, axes and several wirecutters.

In recent weeks, there had been several warnings of a planned attack on the plot, where several yeshiva students from Hebron were wounded by a bomb three months ago. The land belongs to an ex-member of the Jewish underground, Menachem Livni.

On Saturday, five Palestinians - including a militant, two teenagers and two children - were killed in a failed IDF attempt to assassinate a Palestinian on its wanted list in the West Bank village of Tubas, east of Nablus. The two children, aged 6 and 10, were killed when one of the missiles fired by an attack helicopter slammed into their home.

Another missile hit the car in which the militant and two teenagers were travelling. But the intended target of the operation - Jihad Sauafta, 27, a member of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - escaped.

That incident followed another attack, last Thursday, in which four Palestinians, including a mother, two of her children, and a cousin were killed when an IDF tank fired a shell into a Bedouin encampment in the Gaza Strip.

In late July, 15 civilians, including nine children, were killed when the IAF dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of Salah Shehadeh, the leader of the military wing of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Shehadeh was also killed in the strike.

In the wake of the killings, some Israeli leaders, politicians and ex-military men have begun to suggest that the army might have become somewhat trigger happy.

Labor MK Haim Ramon, who heads the prestigious Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security committee, said Sunday that the IDF had to check that the recent "series of mistakes" was not the result of a "change in policy" and an "easing of the finger on the trigger."

"Every harming of innocents," said Ramon, "adds people to the cycle of terror who would never have thought of joining, because they say (to themselves) that Israel does not distinguish between those who carry out acts of terror and those who don't."

A former head of Israeli forces in the West Bank, Zvi Poleg, suggested that soldiers at outposts in the West Bank were nervous because of the ever-present threat of attack, and that this was the reason for "a light finger on the trigger... I back the soldiers and the activities (against terror), but if we want to maintain the norms of an enlightened country then the killing of civilians has to be investigated."

President Moshe Katzav also called Sunday for the military to review the recent spate of killings, but he said he was sure that if the army reached the conclusion "that soldiers are trigger happy, it will obviously draw the necessary conclusions." He said it would be "a hasty conclusion to draw at this point."