Charge of excessive force is tarnishing Israels image

JERUSALEM– Streams of words have been written and spoken about the Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted in late September and still continues.

But one phrase in particular stands out: "excessive force." It has been used repeatedly to describe Israel's treatment of the Palestinian uprisings and has badly tarnished Israel's international image.

Although the conflict evolved from popular Palestinian riots into a far more complicated guerrilla-style campaign, the debate over Israel's use of force against Palestinian demonstrators and rioters is still on the international agenda. Since the beginning of the crisis, more than 200 Palestinians have been killed, including dozens of children.

The issue came up again Monday, when Mary Robinson, head of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, accused Israel of using excessive force against the Palestinians. In a report to the U.N. General Assembly, she called for an "international monitoring presence" to be set up in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Along with the conflict itself, the "excessive force" discussion is heading into new territory. As Palestinian attacks intensify, and Israel's ever-harsher retaliations expose the enormous imbalance of military power in Israel's favor, questions are being raised about the legal limits of Israel's response in a warlike conflict that falls short of an all-out war.

B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group in the territories, contends it is better qualified than international organizations to investigate Israel's human rights record during the current conflict.

"We have a better ability to see the complexity of the situation than international organizations," said Tomer Feffer, spokesman for B'Tselem.

"We are not trying to say which side is right, but to examine from a human rights perspective how each side is violating or not violating human rights."

The group's reporting includes criticism of Palestinians for not keeping children away from flashpoints, and unequivocal support for the right of Israeli soldiers to shoot to kill any armed Palestinian firing at them.

Nevertheless, B'Tselem criticizes Israel for never having invested seriously in nonlethal methods of crowd control — such as water cannons — despite years of demonstrations and riots in the West Bank and Gaza.

It also says, based on extensive field work, that Israel's widespread use of rubber-coated metal bullets is inappropriate for dispersing riots because the bullets are lethal ammunition and have caused the deaths of many unarmed Palestinians.

According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, 9,093 Palestinians had been injured in the conflict through late November, including 3,649 by rubber-coated bullets. B'Tselem says there are no official statistics on how many of the deaths were caused by rubber-coated bullets.

"Rubber-coated metal bullets do not disperse riots; they kill people," says Feffer. "According to international law, it is forbidden to mix armed people with unarmed civilians since this endangers the unarmed people."

Col. Daniel Reisner, head of the Israel Defense Force's international law department, disputes B'Tselem's criticism.

He says the army had developed nonlethal weapons to deal with the 1987 to 1993 Palestinian uprising, when riots were rarely accompanied by gunfire.

But these are inappropriate in the current situation, he says. Water cannons, for example, could not be used because the driver would be exposed to gunfire.

In recent weeks, military representatives have fruitlessly scoured the globe for long-range nonlethal riot control equipment, according to Reisner, but "no such equipment exists anywhere in the world."

He defends the use of rubber-coated bullets, saying they are meant to cause harm, but not to kill, if used properly. But he admits that when they're shot less than 150 feet from their target, they can be lethal.

B'Tselem has not yet given its official opinion on the use of Israeli helicopter gunships to retaliate against Palestinian attacks. But it contends that short of a full-scale armed conflict between two sovereign states, the use of force must be proportional.

This would mean that, according to B'Tselem's interpretation of international law, Israel would not be entitled to use helicopters to strike at lightly armed Palestinians.

The definition will be critical to determine what exactly constitutes excessive force.