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Israel War Crimes: Israeli commander: 'We rewrote the rules of war for Gaza'

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  • Zafar Khan
    Israeli commander: We rewrote the rules of war for Gaza Civilians put at greater risk to save military lives in winter attack - revelations that will pile
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 6, 2010
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      Israeli commander: 'We rewrote the rules of war for Gaza'
      Civilians 'put at greater risk to save military lives' in winter attack - revelations that will pile pressure on Netanyahu to set up full inquiry

      By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem
      Wednesday, 3 February 2010

      http://www.independent..co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israeli-commander-we-rewrote-the-rules-of-war-for-gaza-1887627.html

      A high-ranking officer has acknowledged for the first time that the Israeli army went beyond its previous rules of engagement on the protection of civilian lives in order to minimise military casualties during last year's Gaza war, The Independent can reveal.

      The officer, who served as a commander during Operation Cast Lead, made it clear that he did not regard the longstanding principle of military conduct known as "means and intentions" – whereby a targeted suspect must have a weapon and show signs of intending to use it before being fired upon – as being applicable before calling in fire from drones and helicopters in Gaza last winter. A more junior officer who served at a brigade headquarters during the operation described the new policy – devised in part to avoid the heavy military casualties of the 2006 Lebanon war – as one of "literally zero risk to the soldiers".

      The officers' revelations will pile more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to set up an independent inquiry into the war, as demanded in the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report, which harshly criticised the conduct of both Israel and Hamas. One of Israel's most prominent human rights lawyers, Michael Sfard, said last night that the senior commander's acknowledgement – if accurate – was "a smoking gun".

      Until now, the testimony has been kept out of the public domain. The senior commander told a journalist compiling a lengthy report for Yedhiot Ahronot, Israel's biggest daily newspaper, about the rules of engagement in the three-week military offensive in Gaza. But although the article was completed and ready for publication five months ago, it has still not appeared. The senior commander told Yedhiot: "Means and intentions is a definition that suits an arrest operation in the Judaea and Samaria [West Bank] area... We need to be very careful because the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] was already burnt in the second Lebanon war from the wrong terminology. The concept of means and intentions is taken from different circumstances. Here [in Cast Lead] we were not talking about another regular counter-terrorist operation. There is a clear difference."

      His remarks reinforce testimonies from soldiers who served in the Gaza operation, made to the veterans' group Breaking the Silence and reported exclusively by this newspaper last July. They also appear to cut across the military doctrine – enunciated most recently in public by one of the authors of the IDF's own code of ethics – that it is the duty of soldiers to run risks to themselves in order to preserve civilian lives..

      Explaining what he saw as the dilemma for forces operating in areas that were supposedly cleared of civilians, the senior commander said: "Whoever is left in the neighbourhood and wants to action an IED [improvised explosive device] against the soldiers doesn't have to walk with a Kalashnikov or a weapon. A person like that can walk around like any other civilian; he sees the IDF forces, calls someone who would operate the terrible death explosive and five of our soldiers explode in the air. We could not wait until this IED is activated against us."

      Another soldier who worked in one of the brigade's war-room headquarters told The Independent that conduct in Gaza – particularly by aerial forces and in areas where civilians had been urged to leave by leaflets – had "taken the targeted killing idea and turned it on its head". Instead of using intelligence to identify a terrorist, he said, "here you do the opposite: first you take him down, then you look into it."

      The Yedhiot newspaper also spoke to a series of soldiers who had served in Operation Cast Lead in sensitive positions.. While the soldiers rejected the main finding of the Goldstone Report – that the Israeli military had deliberately "targeted" the civilian population – most asserted that the rules were flexible enough to allow a policy under which, in the words of one soldier "any movement must entail gunfire. No one's supposed to be there." He added that at a meeting with his brigade commander and others it was made clear that "if you see any signs of movement at all you shoot. This is essentially the rules of engagement."

      The other soldier in the war-room explained: "This doesn't mean that you need to disrespect the lives of Palestinians but our first priority is the lives of our soldiers. That's not something you're going to compromise on. In all my years in the military, I never heard that."

      He added that the majority of casualties were caused in his brigade area by aerial firing, including from unmanned drones. "Most of the guys taken down were taken down by order of headquarters. The number of enemy killed by HQ-operated remote ... compared to enemy killed by soldiers on the ground had absolutely inverted," he said.

      Rules of engagement issued to soldiers serving in the West Bank as recently as July 2006 make it clear that shooting towards even an armed person will take place only if there is intelligence that he intends to act against Israeli forces or if he poses an immediate threat to soldiers or others.

      In a recent article in New Republic, Moshe Halbertal, a philosophy professor at Hebrew and New York Universities, who was involved in drawing up the IDF's ethical code in 2000 and who is critical of the Goldstone Report, said that efforts to spare civilian life "must include the expectation that soldiers assume some risk to their own lives in order to avoid causing the deaths of civilians". While the choices for commanders were often extremely difficult and while he did not think the expectation was demanded by international law, "it is demanded in Israel's military code and this has always been its tradition".

      The Israeli military declined to comment on the latest revelations, and directed all enquiries to already-published material, including a July 2009 foreign ministry document The Operation in Gaza: Factual and Legal Aspects.

      That document, which repeats that Israel acted in conformity with international law despite the "acute dilemmas" posed by Hamas's operations within civilian areas, sets out the principles of Operation Cast Lead as follows: "Only military targets shall be attacked; Any attack against civilian objectives shall be prohibited. A 'civilian objective' is any objective which is not a military target." It adds: "In case of doubt, the forces are obliged to regard an object as civilian."

      Yedhiot has not commented on why its article has not been published.

      Israel in Gaza: The soldier's tale

      This experienced soldier, who cannot be named, served in the war room of a brigade during Operation Cast Lead. Here, he recalls an incident he witnessed during last winter's three-week offensive:

      "Two [Palestinian] guys are walking down the street. They pass a mosque and you see a gathering of women and children.

      "You saw them exiting the house and [they] are not walking together but one behind the other. So you begin to fantasise they are actually ducking close to the wall.

      "One [man] began to run at some point, must have heard the chopper. The GSS [secret service] argued that the mere fact that he heard it implicated him, because a normal civilian would not have realised that he was now being hunted.

      "Finally he was shot. He was not shot next to the mosque. It's obvious that shots are not taken at a gathering."
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      UN find challenges Israeli version of attack on civilian building in Gaza war
      UN team find remains of aircraft-dropped bombs, contradicting Israeli report on military conduct during three-week conflict
      ory McCarthy in Jerusalem
      guardian.co.uk, Monday 1 February 2010 20.25 GMT

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/01/gaza-war-report-accuses-israel

      A new Israeli report defending the military's conduct in the Gaza war was challenged tonight after evidence emerged apparently contradicting one of its key findings.

      Israel submitted a 46-page report to the UN on Friday saying its forces abided by international law throughout the three-week war last year. It was meant to avert the threat of international prosecutions and to challenge a highly critical UN inquiry by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which accused both Israel and Hamas of "grave breaches" of the fourth Geneva convention, war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.

      The Israeli report looked in detail at a handful of incidents, including the attack on the al-Badr flour mill in northern Gaza, which was severely damaged.

      The UN mine action team, which handles ordnance disposal in Gaza, has told the Guardian that the remains of a 500-pound Mk82 aircraft-dropped bomb were found in the ruins of the mill last January. Photographs of the front half of the bomb have been obtained by the Guardian.

      This evidence directly contradicts the finding of the Israeli report, which challenged allegations that the building was deliberately targeted and specifically stated there was no evidence of an air strike. Goldstone, however, used the account of the air strike as a sign that Israel's attack on the mill was not mere collateral damage, but precisely targeted and a possible war crime.

      The flour mill attack was not the most serious incident of the war: although nearly 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in just three weeks, no one died at the mill. However, because it was a civilian building producing food – the only operational mill in Gaza – the incident received particular criticism from Goldstone, who concluded that the building was hit by an air strike, the attacks were "intentional and precise", and they were "carried out for the purpose of denying sustenance to the civilian population". He added that the attacks violated the fourth Geneva convention and customary international law and may constitute a war crime.

      In its defence, the Israeli report admitted the building had been hit by tank shells but said it was a "legitimate military target" because there were Hamas fighters "in the vicinity of the flour mill". It said the mill was "not a pre-planned target" and specifically denied it was hit by an air strike.

      "The military advocate general did not find any evidence to support the assertion that the mill was attacked from the air using precise munitions, as alleged in the human rights council fact-finding report," it said. The military advocate general "found no reason" to order a criminal investigation.

      But the Guardian visited the mill days after the war last year and on the first floor of the building saw what appeared to be the remains of an aircraft-dropped bomb in the burnt-out milling machinery.

      The UN mine action team said it identified an aircraft-dropped bomb at the mill on 25 January last year and removed it on 11 February. "Item located was the front half of a Mk82 aircraft bomb with 273M fuse," according to the team. "The remains of the bomb were found on an upper floor in a narrow walkway between burnt-out machinery and an outside wall." The bomb was made safe by a technical field manager and removed.

      The team also provided two photographs of what it said were the bomb remains, marked with the date and time it was identified: "25 Jan, 14:38". The team did not do a damage assessment of the building to see what other ordnance hit because that was not its task.

      Asked to explain the new evidence today, the Israeli military referred the Guardian to an Israeli foreign ministry statement that summarises last week's report and states that the military is "committed to full compliance" with the law of armed conflict and to investigating any alleged violations.

      As well as the heavy death toll, the Gaza war damaged a large amount of civilian infrastructure: more than 21,000 buildings and apartments were wholly or partly destroyed, including more than 200 major factories.

      The al-Badr flour mill was the largest mill in the strip, with production lines spread over five floors – each of which were hit. Gaza's largest concrete factory, at a different site a few miles away, was also destroyed, as were several large food processing plants.

      Goldstone said the nature of the attack on the flour mill "suggests that the intention was to disable its productive capacity" and said there was no plausible justification for the extensive damage. "It thus appears that the only purpose was to put an end to the production of flour in the Gaza Strip," his report said. It is not clear why Goldstone did not use evidence from the UN team in his report.

      Rashad Hamada, one of two brothers who owns the mill, gave evidence at a public hearing in Gaza last June and said the mill was hit by an air strike. He said the factory twice received phone calls from the Israeli military telling them to evacuate the building in the days before the strike, but the factory was not used by Hamas or other Palestinian fighters.

      Both Hamada brothers possess hard-to-obtain businessmen's permits to enter Israel and were therefore regarded as credible witnesses by the Goldstone team.

      "What happened at the mill is total destruction of the whole production line of the factory," Hamada said.. He estimated his losses due to the destruction were $2.5m (£1.7m) and said he believed that the mill had been targeted because it was working.

      Four other flour mills in Gaza that were not operational were not targeted, he said. "As for the targeting, it is because [it was] a flour mill that is working," he said.
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      Israeli soldiers 'disciplined' over UN compound attack in Gaza
      Israeli military report says troops 'fired artillery shells in violation of rules of engagement in populated areas' last year
      Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem
      guardian.co.uk, Monday 1 February 2010 11.03 GMT

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/01/israeli-soldiers-disciplined-un-attack-gaza

      Two senior Israeli army officers have been "disciplined" over the firing of artillery shells towards a United Nations compound in a crowded urban area during the war in Gaza last year.

      It is the first acknowledgement by the Israeli military of any of the serious allegations raised by international human rights groups and two UN investigations, which have found grave breaches of international law and evidence of possible war crimes.

      The UN compound was hit and its main warehouse burned to the ground, and three people were injured during the attack in Gaza City on 15 January last year. Several other buildings in the area were hit that day, including a Palestinian hospital.

      The two officers were named in Israeli press reports today as Gaza Division Commander Brigadier General Eyal Eisenberg and Givati Brigade Commander Colonel Ilan Malka. It is not clear what form of discipline the men faced, but both were accused of "exceeding their authority in a manner that jeopardised the lives of others", according to an Israeli report on the conduct of the war that was submitted to the UN on Friday.

      The report found Israeli troops "fired several artillery shells in violation of the rules of engagement prohibiting use of such artillery near populated areas". However, it also stated that Israel's military advocate general "found no basis" to order a criminal investigation into the incident in Tel al-Hawa. So far only one Israeli soldier has been prosecuted over the war – for stealing a credit card from a Palestinian house.

      Last year, a UN Board of Inquiry report investigated Israeli attacks on UN buildings and staff in Gaza during the war and accused the Israeli military of "negligence or recklessness". It singled out several incidents, including the attack on the UN compound. The warehouse, run by the UN Relief and Works Agency which supports Palestinian refugees, was the biggest in Gaza and was full of food and aid for the population.

      In the past two weeks Israel has paid $10.5m (£6.6m) in compensation to the UN for the damage.

      But in its report, the Israeli authorities maintained that their use of white phosphorus munitions "was consistent with Israel's obligations under international law" and said the military advocate general found no grounds for any disciplinary measures over their use. The disciplining of the two officers was specifically about the firing of "artillery shells". The two were disciplined by their senior officer, Yoav Galant, the head of the Israeli military's Southern Command.

      A report by the South African judge Richard Goldstone, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, described how UN staff that day called Israeli authorities at least seven times asking them to stop the shelling of the compound. Goldstone found that three high-explosive shells and seven white phosphorus artillery shells, probably from a 155mm howitzer, had hit the compound. It concluded that the Israeli military violated customary international law.
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      Israel denies Gaza war crimes in report to UN
      Israel insists troops did not violate international law despite 'operational lapses and errors'
      Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem
      guardian.co.uk, Sunday 31 January 2010 17.02 GMT

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/31/israel-war-crimes-un-report

      Israel has delivered a report to the UN defending its actions in last year's Gaza war and insisting its troops did not violate international law, but has not agreed to hold an independent investigation as demanded.

      In the 46-page report, submitted on Friday and released late that night, Israeli authorities admitted some "operational lapses and errors in the exercise of discretion". But they strongly denied allegations of war crimes raised by international human rights groups and by two separate UN investigations.

      The report reveals there has so far been only one criminal conviction in relation to the war – one soldier was jailed for seven and a half months for stealing a credit card from a Palestinian home and using it to withdraw £250 in cash.

      Last September, the South African judge Richard Goldstone published a highly critical 575-page report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council which accused both Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas of "grave breaches" of the fourth Geneva convention, war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. It called on both sides to start their own credible, independent investigations or risk international prosecutions. Neither Israel nor Hamas has done so and the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, will report on this to the UN general assembly in the coming days. The three-week war left nearly 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead..
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      Israel disciplines army officers

      http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/02/201021707319235.html
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      Israel Blamed for Hamas Murder

      http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1264249882548&pagename=Zone-English-News/NWELayout
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      Israel 'to keep' parts of West Bank

      http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/01/201012417289707969.html

      Israel's prime minister has reaffirmed his country's commitment to retaining parts of the occupied West Bank, undermining US efforts to restart talks aimed at eventually establishing a Palestinian state.

      During a tree planting ceremony in a West Bank settlement, Binyamin Netanyahu said that parts of the territory would be kept by Israel under any final peace agreement reached with the Palestinians.

      "Our message is clear: We are planting here, we will stay here, we will build here, this place will be an inseparable part of the state of Israel forever," he said.

      Netanyahu also pledged that Israel would keep its two biggest settlements in the West Bank, Maale Adumim and Ariel.

      The Israeli prime minister's comments came as George Mitchell, the US envoy to the region, visited in an attempt to restart negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, which were suspended a year ago.

      'Interesting ideas'

      Netanyahu said after meeting Mitchell on Sunday that he had "heard some interesting ideas for renewing the [peace] process".

      "I also expressed my hope that these new ideas will allow for the renewal of the process," he said.

      "Certainly if the Palestinians express a similar readiness, then we will find ourselves in a diplomatic process."
      But Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said that Netanyahu's statement about retaining areas of the West Bank undermined the US efforts.

      "This is an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts being exerted by senator Mitchell in order to bring the parties back to the negotiating table," The Associated Press news agency quoted him as saying.

      Netanyahu has also said this week that Israeli security forces would have to maintain a presence inside any future Palestinian state.

      He said on Thursday that Israel would need to operate along the West Bank's eastern border to prevent weapons being smuggled to Palestinian fighters.

      Statehood hopes

      Netanyahu's remarks are unlikely to be compatible with the Palestinians' demand for a sovereign state within the two entities pre-1967 borders.

      Palestinians want to create an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem with full control of its own borders.

      Since Netanyahu took office last year, he has been hesitant to refer to the concept of a Palestinian state and has not outlined how much, if any, of the occupied West Bank he would be willing to give over to Palestinian control.

      Palestinian leaders have said they will not resume peace talks until Israel halts all construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

      Netanyahu has called a limited and temporary halt to the building of new housing units in the West Bank, but the Palestinians have dismissed the move as not going far enough.
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      What the Gaza war meant for Israel
      By Orly Halpern

      http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/gazaoneyearon/2010/2010/01/201011392050370701..html

      Omri Buson says his "blood boils" every time he hears about the negotiations between Hamas and Israel over the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

      From his point of view, Israel should have never ended last year's military offensive on Gaza without Shalit's return.

      "We needed to hurt them and not have mercy ... to destroy every house till [we] found that soldier," says Buson, who dropped out of law school to open clothing shops in Jerusalem.

      He admits that his views have become "very extreme in the last year because of the war".

      But he is not alone. Israeli Knesset members have expressed similar views.

      Operation devastation

      The Israeli military offensive named Operation Cast Lead killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, more than 1,000 of them civilians, including 400 children.

      Thirteen Israelis were also killed, three of them civilians.

      Its declared goals were to "Bring Gilad Home" and to stop Qassam rocket attacks on Israel. It ended after 22 days due to international pressure on Israel.

      Despite the high number of civilian Palestinian casualties, most Israelis consider the operation a success because, although Shalit did not "come home", the rockets stopped.

      War against protests

      Now, one year since Operation Cast Lead, not only have the so-called red lines for what you can do to your enemy moved dangerously forward, but so have the lines of what the government can do its own people.

      Israeli polls and surveys reveal that Israeli society and government are less tolerant than ever of views that oppose the government stance, which is held by the mainstream.

      Last month the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) revealed an alarming trend in its annual survey on the protection of human rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories - the conditioning of rights.

      "The realisation of the entire spectrum of rights is now more than ever dependent on what we say or believe, what ethnic group we belong to, how much money we have, and more," says the ACRI.

      "We have the freedom to express ourselves and demonstrate - only if we don't say anything displeasing; we have the right to equal treatment and opportunities - only if we are "loyal" to the state."

      In the streets, the Israeli security forces are waging a war against protests by Jewish left wing and human rights activists, who non-violently protest against Israel's separation barrier or against Jewish settlers taking over Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.

      Many have been arrested and some were attacked by the security forces.

      However, right-wingers protesting against the government's decision to temporarily freeze building in settlements are accorded much more leniency by Israeli law enforcement agencies.

      During Operation Cast Lead about 800 Israeli citizens, most of them Arab, were arrested, with criminal charges brought against most of them.

      In a recent editorial, the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz called the arrests "an evil omen regarding the state's attitude toward protesters" and said that as a result, "concern is growing over Israel's image as a free and democratic country".

      'Moral bankruptcy'

      The infringement on the rights of Jewish Israelis comes as no surprise to Neve Gordon, an Israeli political science professor at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev.
      "The war itself revealed the moral bankruptcy of Israel because if we look back we see the vast majority killed were citizens including hundreds of children," said Gordon, who has been under attack for his criticism of Israel and most recently for his call for an international boycott on his country until it ends the occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

      "I don't think it's good for the morality of the country to kill children."

      Buson disagrees: "If it were up to me I would close the water and electricity [to Gaza] until they return Gilad. Let them starve and die."

      He says he opposes a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas. "I'd rather Shalit die there than do a deal with Hamas.

      "It's not about one soldier's life. It's about deterrence. They need to understand with whom they are dealing. Our deterrence was damaged after the second Lebanon war. Now we got it back."

      'Lesson through force'

      Indeed many Israelis were more concerned about 'teaching the other side a lesson' by using overwhelming force, than with the hundreds of dead civilians and the devastating destruction of infrastructure.

      For the Israeli political leadership, military and much of the Israeli public, the Gaza war, as Israelis refer to it, was about scaring the other side into submission, so that it will not dare to hurt Israel again. And, many believe, that was what Israel succeeded in doing.

      Yehuda Shaul, the co-director of Breaking the Silence, the Israeli human rights organisation that collects the testimonies of soldiers about abuses committed while serving in the Occupied Territories, says: "What I find most disturbing is that the military and most Israelis perceive [the war on Gaza] as a great success. They don't recognise the price tag."

      "And the fact that the military sees it as a great success means that the second round will be similar," Shaul adds.

      Shaul's organisation was attacked by the office of the Israeli military spokesperson, but he nevertheless hopes that some Israelis recognise the gravity of their actions.

      He points to the poll by Tel Aviv University's War and Peace Index.

      When testimonies from soldiers were published soon after the war, few Israelis believed them, according to the index. But when Breaking the Silence published its report of chilling testimonies in July, the War and Peace Index found that the numbers who believed the testimonies rose from about 20 per cent to 43 per cent.

      'Cast Lead II'

      Still, the overwhelming majority of Israelis (76 per cent) saw no need to reinvestigate the operation in light of the testimonies. The pollsters believe that because of the prevailing view that the campaign was moderately or very successful (79 per cent), "the Israeli Jewish public is reluctant to deal with the question of its moral and human cost".

      Some Israelis who supported the war see it very differently.

      Marek Glezerman, the director of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Rabin Medical Center, says: "I thought it should be a short operation to stop the rockets."

      "But it turned it to be a full blown war without concern for the other side and that leaves a very bad feeling," adds the doctor who is a friend and colleague of the Gaza doctor Ezzedin Abouelaish.

      Glezerman believes that the quiet from the Gaza Strip is temporary: "The violence will come back. But at what price? It has not brought us closer to peace."

      Meanwhile, some Israelis are talking about when Operation Cast Lead II will begin.
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      Israel accused of interrogating medical patients from Gaza
      • Palestinians interrogated and held without charge
      • Questioning is a security measure, government says
      Rory McCarthy in Jabaliya
      guardian.co.uk, Sunday 6 December 2009 19.08 GMT

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/06/isarel-gaza-patients-accusation-interrogation

      Israeli security agents held a Palestinian patient for three weeks without charge, interrogated him repeatedly and offered access to hospital care if he agreed to become an informant, the Guardian has learned.

      The treatment of Abd al-Karim al-Atal, 28, is the latest in a series of cases over the past two years in which patients from Gaza referred for hospital treatment in Israel have been held without charge and pressed to become Israeli collaborators, human rights groups say.

      Atal, who is losing his sight, is still waiting for a permit to travel from his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp, in Gaza, to an eye hospital in east Jerusalem for a cornea transplant operation now scheduled for tomorrow.

      Physicians for Human Rights, a leading Israeli rights group, says the pressure exerted on these patients amounts to coercion, which is illegal under the fourth Geneva convention, and may even constitute a breach of the UN convention against torture. It says around one in five Gazans who apply for permits to enter Israel for medical care are now submitted to detailed interrogations.

      B'Tselem, another human rights group, says Israeli security agents "exploited the questionings to exert inappropriate pressure on ill persons, with the aim of forcing them to collaborate with the agency".

      Israel says such questioning is a necessary security measure to prevent terrorist attacks and says that 5,000 people – patients and their relatives – have been allowed out of Gaza for medical reasons this year. But Ami Gil, of Physicians for Human Rights, said while initial screening of patients referred for treatment in Israel was a legitimate security consideration, the problem lay in the pressure put on patients under interrogation.

      "There is a screening process to prevent a security threat and another to pressure patients to gather intelligence information that has nothing to do with their own case or background," he said. "That is not about screening. It is about gathering information for intelligence purposes."

      Atal has a referral from Gazan health officials supported by the St John Eye Hospital in east Jerusalem, which states that he needs a penetrating keratoplasty – a cornea implant. In the west that would be routine, but no hospital in Gaza can perform the operation.

      He applied for a permit to enter Israel and in early September was called to the Erez crossing which leads into Israel.. He was blindfolded and handcuffed for a time. An Arabic-speaking Israeli security officer accused him of falsifying his medical papers. In fact, his vision is so poor he can barely see out of his left eye and has limited vision in his right. Atal, a former member of Gaza's Fatah-led police force, was asked to give detailed information about his five brothers and an uncle living in Egypt. He was accused of involvement in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of the Fatah movement.

      "They said if I accepted and gave them information they would allow me to return home and to get a permit in future. If I refused they said they would arrest me," he said. When he said he had no information to give he was taken to a detention centre in the nearby city of Ashkelon.

      He was photographed, fingerprinted and then held for 19 days alone in a cell with no windows. He was interrogated for hours at a time while seated on a small chair with his hands cuffed behind his back underneath an air conditioner pouring out cold air.

      Eventually he was questioned while attached to what he was told was a polygraph machine. He was asked about his relatives, about his neighbours and about any Hamas leaders he knew. Again he was accused of involvement in militant groups. "I looked around and said: 'Are you talking to me? I can hardly recognise people in the street?'

      "They said if I collaborated with them it would be a good thing for the Palestinians, that it would help them target Hamas leaders, not accidentally kill civilians," he said. "They said I should call them and tell them about my neighbourhood: who is living where, is anyone from Hamas there. They said I would get a permit to enter Israel in return. They offered money, they said I would be allowed to travel abroad."

      Israeli officials deny that entry to Israel for medical reasons is conditional on patients becoming informants but they say security is an issue. In June 2005 a female suicide bomber wearing an explosives belt tried to cross through Erez and Palestinians have used false medical papers in the past. Last year a government official wrote to Physicians for Human Rights saying the questioning was "intended to evaluate the degree of danger posed by the applicant".

      "For us it is not only a legal issue, but a very basic moral issue," said Gil. "We are talking about patients here."
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