Army to speed up probes into killings of Palestinian civilians

Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz has instructed the army to speed up the investigations of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli troops, a top military legal officer said Thursday. In the past, some investigations have dragged on for years. On Thursday, Capt. Timor Belan, an aide to the military's top lawyer, said the new procedures would require field units to inform the army's top lawyer of such killings within 48 hours and conclude an initial field investigation within 21 days so the army's top lawyer could decide within a month whether to open a criminal investigation. The Supreme Court has been examining the issue since the human rights organization B'Tselem filed a petition into the investigation of civilian casualties in 2002. The court has yet to rule on the case. The army did not have immediate information on the number of civilians killed, investigations opened, indictments handed down or convictions since the intifada broke out in September 2000. But B'Tselem said that of the 3,302 Palestinians killed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since then, 1,793 were not combatants when killed, though they might have been combatants at some time. In 559 other cases, there were questions over whether the Palestinians were involved in fighting at the time of their deaths. As of late June - the latest time the military forwarded data to the human rights group - the army had opened 131 investigations into civilians killed or wounded, 18 indictments were handed and seven soldiers were convicted, B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli said. During the first intifada, the IDF was involved in mostly policing duties and opened a criminal investigation into every Palestinian death, the military said. Since the beginning of the second intifada, however, the top military legal officer deemed the situation an "armed conflict" and ordered a criminal investigation only into deaths of "innocent civilians." Belan said there was no change in the overall policy, only an effort to expedite the process. "It's an improvement of the procedures, it doesn't change the substance, we are still in an armed conflict," he said. Michaeli welcomed Halutz's decision, saying it was a positive sign to see the top brass committed to more serious investigations. But she said B'Tselem still stands by its position that every non-combatant death should be investigated. On Wednesday, a separate human rights group, Human Rights Watch, called on the army to account for the killing of two Palestinian children in January. (AP)