The case is a rare exception, deviating from the norm of acquittals and light sentences passed in similar circumstances.

 

The army sergeant in question, whose identity was not revealed, shot an unarmed Palestinian man as he was climbing a ladder to fix a television antenna on the roof of a house near the Egyptian border, according to Israeli army sources.

 

The sergeant, part of the Desert Reconnaissance Brigade, was commanding a military outpost in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah at the time of the incident in October 2003.    

 

The court convicted the commander of "causing severe intentional harm, for shooting at a Palestinian without necessity and in violation of the rules of engagement, with the intention of hitting him", according to an Israeli army press release.

 

The accused soldier was not charged with murder, however. Even though the Israeli army said it initially believed the Palestinian man was killed but not injured, there was not enough evidence to support the account.

 

Harshest so far

 

A second soldier involved in the incident was acquitted of aiding the shooter and of obstruction of justice due to the presence of reasonable doubt.

 

The conviction is the harshest punishment imposed on an Israeli occupation soldier since the outbreak of the second intifada in September of 2000, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.

 

Critics say Israel turns a blind
eye to abuses by soldiers

Only one Israeli soldier has been found guilty of manslaughter during the entire course of the intifada, although about 1700 unarmed Palestinians have been killed, according to the rights group.

 

His punishment was four months in jail and a reduction of rank.   

 

While pleased to see justice being served, Ali Musa, director of the Yusuf Najjar Hospital in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, where the shooting took place, said the outcome of the trial and the mild sentence issued come as little surprise. 

 

"What do you expect from an occupying army? I'm surprised they even jailed this soldier for a year, usually they turn a blind eye to their crimes, as they did with the al-Hams girl's case," Ali Musa said.

 

Point-blank shooting

 

This past February, the same courts ordered the release of an Israeli army commander responsible for shooting to death a Palestinian girl at point-blank range last year.

 

Thirteen-year-old Iman al-Hams' body was found riddled with more than 17 bullets near an army post in the Rafah refugee camp last October.

 

"We have literally seen hundreds of such cases that were far worse that this one in the past four years, of innocent Palestinians being shot and killed with no pretext whatsoever, and nothing is ever done
about those"

Director Ali Musa,
Yusuf Najjar Hospital, Rafah

The commander accused of her murder was confined to an army base for only two months.

 

"We have literally seen hundreds of such cases that were far worse that this one in the past four years, of innocent Palestinians being shot and killed with no pretext whatsoever, and nothing is ever done about those," Musa added.

 

Critics say the strange circumstances surrounding the case, such as the missing identity of the Palestinian victim and the fact that this case was singled out among thousands of more serious ones, leads them to believe that discrimination was involved to set an example in the army's ranks.

 

"The judicial response I think has to do with the fact that he was beduin Arab, and there wasn't any pressure group to see that he didn't get tried," Israeli human rights lawyer Ada Ravon told Aljazeera.net.

 

"I believe that had it been a Jewish soldier there would have been a very strong pressure group to deny such a verdict."  

 

'Intolerable disregard'

 

B'tselem accuses the Israeli military of granting impunity to occupation soldiers who kill Palestinian civilians.

 

The Israeli army, they say, has an "intolerable disregard for Palestinian life, as reflected in the open-fire regulations which encourage a trigger-happy attitude among soldiers, and its policy to cover up and refrain from investigating the killing of civilians".

 

Israel  is accused of avoiding
investigation of civilian deaths

According to the Israeli rights group, of the thousands of cases of murdered Palestinians, only 90 were investigated by the military police, 29 of which were filed as indictments, resulting in just one conviction. 

 

"Shooting someone who's unarmed is a major human rights violation. I'm very satisfied that the army has at the very least done something about it," Sarip Michaeli, spokesperson for the human rights group, told Alazeera.net. 

 

"It's certainly a very rare case where Israeli soldiers are indicted and found guilty of causing death or of behaviour which is criminal."

 

B'tselem says that new open-fire regulations established at the start of this intifada permit soldiers to shoot at Palestinians in non-combat, non life-threatening situations. 

 

The orders, they explained in a report on the subject, are given to the soldiers orally so the senior command can escape responsibility in a trial situation.

 

Israeli response

 

The Israeli army brushed aside the accusations, saying their military police investigated cases as required and that indictments are made "according to the court's rules".

 

"Shooting someone who is unarmed is a major human rights violation"

Sarip Michaeli,
B'tselem spokesperson

"The only consideration of the courts systems in giving the verdict is the trial development and the facts that are presented during the trial.

 

"No soldier is invulnerable and the fact of the indictments and the verdicts are showing it more than anything," said a spokesperson.

 

When questioned about the 1700 unarmed Palestinians killed at the hands of Israeli soldiers during the course of this intifada, the spokesperson insisted the Israeli army does not kill innocent people, saying that they may have been involved in terrorist activity. 

 

"The 1700 unarmed Palestinians can be Palestinians that helped the Palestinians terrorist militia or people that were in the vicinity of terrorist during a terrorist attack," he said.

 

"The IDF does not kill innocent people on purpose ... [killing innocent people] stands in contrast to its policy."