January 1, 2004
Controversy Erupts in Shooting at Fence
Talk about trading places. Last month, Gil Na'amati finished his three-year stint of compulsory military service after serving in Israel's artillery corps and spending time operating in the West Bank. Now the 22-year-old kibbutznik is the poster boy for Palestinian grievances against Israel.
During a demonstration last week by Palestinians and Israeli left-wingers against Israel's West Bank security barrier, Na'amati was shot by soldiers, who until recently might have stood shoulder to shoulder with him at a checkpoint. An American activist also was lightly hurt in the clash.
"I was in the military and am familiar with the rules of engagement. What I did was not even close to something that I think would warrant opening fire," Na'amati said from his hospital bed, where he was recovering from leg and hip wounds. "It's unbelievable."
The sentiments were echoed around the country after last week's incident at a section of the security fence outside Kalkilya. It was the first time an Israeli Jew had been targeted by forces meant to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorism.
The shooting was the latest incident to divide the country in the ongoing dispute over how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians and some left-wing Israelis have complained that the fence disrupts Palestinian civilian life and livelihood, while Israeli officials have maintained that it is a necessary bulwark against terrorism.
Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, army chief of staff, ordered an investigation of the shooting, which occurred when Na'amati and fellow members of a fringe pro-Palestinian group, Anarchists Against the Fence, were protesting, along with the International Solidarity Movement. They attacked the barrier with wire cutters.Â
Police questioned Na'amati under warning, meaning that his statements could be used against him if he is prosecuted for causing damage to the fence, unruly behavior and violating a military order prohibiting entry to the area next to the fence.
Na'amati's father, Uri, said he advised his son to exercise his right to remain silent. The investigator decided not to press the wounded man for answers at this stage, in light of Na'amati's medical condition, the Israeli daily newspaper, Ha'aretz, reported.
Ya'alon made no secret of where he believed blame for the incident lay. The protesters "masqueraded as Arabs, mingled with Palestinians and entered the Palestinian side of the fence illegally," he told Israel Radio.
The commander of the force involved reportedly told investigators that he thought it was a group of Palestinians trying to break through the fence into Israel, and that it might be a diversionary tactic aimed at allowing a terrorist to infiltrate the fence at another location.
Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim said soldiers followed orders by first shouting warnings and firing shots over the protesters' heads, before aiming at their legs. Witnesses disputed the account.
Television footage showed soldiers taking aim at the protesters from approximately 50 feet away, despite clear appeals to the soldiers in Hebrew not to shoot. The footage had a major impact on public opinion.
Ami Ayalon, a former chief of Israel's Shin Bet security service, said any orders to shoot the unarmed protesters were illegal and should have been disobeyed. His viewpoint was endorsed by Avshalom Vilan, a former commando, member of the liberal Meretz Party and a founder of the Peace Now movement.
"In a proper country, you don't shoot civilians," Vilan said.
At least one newspaper said the issue wouldn't have been a matter of such great debate had it been a non-Jew who was injured.
"Let's not kid ourselves," an editorial in Israel's daily Yediot Achronot said. "If a Palestinian" had been shot, "it probably would not have merited even one line in the newspaper." Â