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Amnesty slams Israel for role in Mideast violence

LONDON, England (Reuters) -- Amnesty International said Wednesday that Israeli forces were using excessive force in battles with Palestinians, and that violations of human rights during five weeks of violence could constitute war crimes.

After returning from a visit to the Middle East, Amnesty researcher Claudio Cordone urged both sides in the conflict to show restraint, but reserved his harshest criticism for the Israelis.

"It tends to be children and others flinging stones, even Molotov cocktails, and the Israeli forces seem to have a pretty short fuse in their answer," he said, speaking for the human rights group at a news briefing.

"They therefore tend to react with combat reflexes as opposed to what would be proper policing methods."

At least 157 people, almost all of them Palestinians and many of them children, have been killed in fighting that has swept through the West Bank and Gaza Strip and buffeted already deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Cordone quoted an Israeli official as telling Amnesty that forces had been on a virtual war footing since the latest flare-up in fighting began in late September.

He quoted the official as saying investigations into deaths at the hands of Israeli forces had been called off.

"The rules they are applying now are what they apply in a war situation -- that these investigations are only the exception," he said.

One of only two cases being looked into was that of 12-year-old Palestinian boy Rami al-Durra, whose death in his father's arms in September was captured by the world's media and brought home the tragedy of the violence.


Amnesty called for an independent investigation into the crisis in order to study individual cases of human rights abuses and bring the guilty to justice.

"There is a pattern of gross human rights violations that may well amount to war crimes," Cordone said.

He urged both sides to react to attacks with proportionate force, saying that Israeli troops had appeared to move from firing tear gas to live rounds too quickly.

"If a kid is throwing stones at you, but is not putting any lives at risk, then you do not shoot him," he said.

Amnesty slammed the use of helicopters against Palestinian targets, and urged the United States and Britain to refrain from exporting to Israel equipment used for their maintenance.

Palestinian authorities also came in for criticism for failing to prevent children from joining street battles.

Palestinians had also used guns, meaning their opponents often had little choice but to fire back, Cordone said.

"In that situation, we would not object to the Israeli forces defending themselves and using whatever ... force, including lethal force, is necessary as long as it is proportionate."

He added that a promised Palestinian investigation into the mob killing of two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Ramallah last month was moving ahead only slowly, if at all.

"We were told that there has been a decision to set up a commission of investigation," Cordone said. "Clearly by the time we left, it did not seem that it had been set up."

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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