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Israel Eases Fire Restrictions Palestinian Officials Say Move Signals Further Escalation

By Lee Hockstader
THE WASHINGTON POST -- JERUSALEM

The Israeli army, determined to offer a tough response to Palestinian attacks, has given soldiers the green light to open fire without the somewhat restrictive guidelines it announced this spring, military officials said Tuesday.

Palestinian officials said the army’s more permissive rules of engagement signaled a fresh escalation in the bitter 10-month conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which has left 650 people dead, three-quarters of them Arabs.

The army’s new policy permits Israeli troops to shoot at Palestinians who appear to be preparing an attack even if they haven’t opened fire first. The policy replaces one announced in May, under which soldiers were supposed to hold their fire unless their lives were threatened by Palestinian rioters or gunmen whom they could identify.

Describing the shift in policy, an army official said: “Before, we said you had to identify very clearly the danger and the target if somebody’s shooting at you in order to fire back. Now, if you see three men with guns trying to prepare an ambush, you have the right to engage them before they open fire at you.”

Army spokesmen stressed that the new regulations, reported Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, do not constitute a fresh offensive against the Palestinians, and were set with self-defense in mind. They say the new rules were needed because of a doubling of Palestinian attacks, to 40 or so incidents a day from about 20 last spring, according to the army’s tally.

“It’s something which has been forced on us by the situation and not something that we wanted to do,” said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an army spokesman. “It’s not a change of overall policy.”

But Palestinians insist the army’s rules of engagement have never changed, and that Israel’s spring announcement of a policy of restraint was nothing more than a public relations move.

“We don’t regard these so-called new regulations as new because as far as we’re concerned, there was never any change in the army’s acts or measures,” Ahmed Qureia, speaker of the Palestinian parliament, told the Reuters news agency.