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"IDF admits `ugly vandalism' against Palestinian property"
By Amos Harel (Ha'aretz, 30 April 2002)
For information about how the Israeli army/military prosecutor handle investigations of crimes committed by soldiers, see recent reports of B'tselem (www.btselem.org)
IDF ADMITS 'UGLY VANDALISM' AGAINST PALESTINIAN PROPERTY
By Amos Harel
Israel Defense Forces sources have admitted that Palestinian claims of the systematic destruction of property, particularly computers, during the recent military operations in Ramallah are, for the most part, true. "There were indeed wide-scale, ugly phenomena of vandalism," a senior military sources told Ha'aretz yesterday.
And while another military source said that the army had yet to undertake a full investigation into the matter, there are already many individual cases that are being prosecuted through the military justice system.
Within the context of Operation Defensive Shield, an intelligence unit specialized in systematically going through public institutions of the Palestinian Authority and collecting hard disks from computers in offices, for the purposes of examining them based on the assumption that some would contain information on terrorist activity.
The IDF sources explained that because various PA institutions, including civil authorities, were involved in terror, some of the computers had indeed included valuable intelligence.
However, the sources admitted that in many cases the searches had turned into systematic
vandalism, without any justification.
"It was not an order from above," said a senior source, "but that's how it was understood in the field. The infantry, both the conscripts and the reservists who accompanied the intelligence teams, understood that they were allowed - or indeed expected - to destroy the property in the offices."
"The result," the source continued, "was damage running into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Soldiers smashed computer monitors and destroyed keyboards. There were places in which bank branches were destroyed and automatic tellers were raided. In some cases, theft accompanied the vandalism. It was significant damage, widespread and totally illogical."
The source said that while the extent of the damage was clear, the IDF had yet to undertake a serious investigation into what had taken place.
A reserve officer who played a senior role in the Ramallah area said that he believed most of the damage had been done during hunts for wanted men and munitions. "We found weapons and sabotage equipment in what were seemingly civil institutions," the officer said. "There were instances in which soldiers broke open doors because nobody was inside. Clearly there was looting, but most of the damage was done during the hunt for people and weapons. This was war, not a lab operation."
A veteran intelligence officer said the explanation for the IDF's behavior was to be found in the difference between the fighting in the territories and previous wars in Lebanon and the Sinai. "Those were clear-cut enemy territories; and it was clear to the intelligence units that they would take everything because everything was military
equipment. In the Palestinian Authority, everything was mixed up - civilian, security, terrorist. It is very difficult to make the distinction. Some of the damage was done by the unit, and some by other soldiers, at their own initiative."
Reservists who served in the Ramallah and Bethlehem areas said they had witnessed many instances of deliberate damage caused by soldiers to Palestinian property. Some also spoke of cases of looting.
"The extent of the looting is much greater than could have been expected in advance," a senior legal source told Ha'aretz. "This is an ugly and serious phenomenon."
Some cases involved two or three soldiers who had worked together, the source said, noting that reservists as well as conscripts had been involved. Some of the suspects were combat troops, the source added; and in certain cases, military defenders had reservations about representing suspects due to the nature of the crimes.
Most of the incidents are expected to end in plea bargains, with the convicted serving prison sentences. The majority of the looting took place in Ramallah, though there were reports of instances in Bethlehem as well. Most of the cases are in Central Command's JAG unit.