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Israeli Army Hand Command Not to Shoot Armed Settlers

By David Hoffman
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

The Israeli army has in recent months had strict orders not to shoot at armed Jewish settlers even if they are opening fire on Palestinians, a senior commander in the paramilitary Border Police disclosed Thursday to the commission probing the Hebron massacre.

Meir Tayar, chief superintendent of the Border Police force in Hebron, surprised the five-member panel when he said there were special "open-fire" rules concerning settlers. The panel is investigating the Feb. 25 massacre in which militant settler Baruch Goldstein shot and killed 30 Muslims as they prayed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Tayar's testimony, which stirred controversy here, seemed to provide fresh evidence that armed, militant Jewish settlers have been permitted free rein in the streets. The testimony may further undercut the army's claim that the massacre was the work of an isolated lunatic and could not have been prevented.

"The order was that if a Jewish settler shoots his gun, even in the street toward locals, to the extent it was directed fire, not warning shots in the air, it was forbidden to shoot him," Tayar said.

"You take cover and wait for the clip to finish," he added, "then stop him in some other way, not by shooting."

According to Tayar, the orders not to fire at settlers were given in December after Israel television broadcast a report in which settlers were seen opening fire in Hebron at Palestinians and the army did nothing to stop them. A soldier was seen running away while the settler discharged his machine gun in the direction of the Palestinians.

Tayar said the orders, which were not written, were issued by Meir Khalifi, the army battalion commander. Khalifi testified earlier before the commission but did not mention the special orders.

When operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Border Police follow army instructions. The orders were "first of all, to hide oneself so as not to be hurt," and "under no circumstances" shoot at the settler, but to try and overpower him, Tayar said.

It is not clear whether the orders bear directly on the Hebron massacre, since no police or soldiers got to the scene until after Goldstein's slaughter was over.

But the disclosure is certain to fuel debate over the army's open-fire practices against Palestinians. In general, soldiers are permitted to shoot when they judge their lives to be in danger and in limited circumstances when trying to apprehend a suspect.

However, human-rights groups have charged that soldiers have often opened fire indiscriminately, especially during clashes with stone-throwing youths, shooting Palestinians who did not threaten their lives. Furthermore, critics say, the army has failed to take any action against armed settlers.

Members of the inquiry grilled Tayar closely about the open-fire rules. Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, head of the panel, questioned whether the procedure was logical. "Not so much," Tayar said. "I was not 100 percent comfortable with it."

Later, Shaul Mofaz, a senior commander of army forces in the West Bank, confirmed the existence of the order but said it applied when settlers were caught in demonstrations. He told the panel, "The Jews are not an enemy in the context of riots." He said the procedure was to disarm a Jewish settler who opened fire but not to shoot him.

However, Mofaz also said that had he been at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, "I assume I would have shot" Goldstein.

Although the army maintains detailed open-fire rules for when soldiers confront Palestinians, Mofaz said the orders concerning settlers were passed orally to soldiers. "There is no manual about these orders for Jews, because the Jews are not the enemy," he said.

Hagai Meirom, a Labor Party member of Parliament, criticized the separate orders for Jewish settlers. "Security instructions are security instructions for everybody," Meirom said.

The commission has previously been told that the Israeli military and security establishment had never prepared for the possibility of Jewish terrorism, and that all the rules were aimed at preventing Arab attacks on Jews. Goldstein was not stopped by Israeli army officers - and they apparently did not suspect anything - when he walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs carrying a submachine gun, up to seven clips of 32 bullets each, and special ear protectors to guard against the noise.