Israeli Troops Accused Of
Major Looting On West Bank

By Stephanie Nolen

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - Majdi Malki can see why the Israeli army sliced his living-room curtains and emptied out his closets. But he cannot see how they might have felt justified in helping themselves to several thousand dollars worth of his wife's and daughters' jewellery, a couple of cameras, his fountain pens and even his sunglasses.
"I understand the searches," said Mr. Malki, a sociology professor at Ramallah's Bir Zeit University. "But why do they steal?"
As the Israeli army keeps up its house-to-house searches in towns under siege across the West Bank, there are hundreds of reports of looting by Israeli soldiers. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance says it has widespread reports of theft, although they are impossible to verify.
Lior Yavne, spokesman for the Israeli human-rights group B'tselem, said they have also received such reports, mostly from soldiers describing the actions of others.
"I think the problem is much more widespread than the army will admit," he said in an interview. "The problem for us is proving allegations. In unjustified killings, you have eye witnesses, but in this case there is no evidence."
Army spokesman Captain Jacob Dallal said the kind of stealing described in interviews with Palestinians in Ramallah, Qalqilya and Jenin is "not acceptable" and "against orders," although he said the reports are likely exaggerated. It is one thing for soldiers to take documents from the homes of people they suspect, he said, but not televisions and VCRs.
The Israeli army was known for looting during its time in Lebanon, especially Mercedes-Benz cars. Mr. Yavne called it the tradition of "putting a VCR in the tank." But theft is new in the treatment of civilians in the Palestinian territories.
Mr. Yavne said B'tselem heard reports of two kinds of looting: the taking of "souvenirs," such as prayer beads or pictures of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; and the theft of cash or objects of value, notably jewellery, cellphones and silverware. He said soldiers reportedly take Israeli shekels but leave piles of Jordanian dinars, which are also in use in the West Bank.
In several West Bank towns where Israeli troops had pulled out, Palestinians told similar stories. They said soldiers had directed members of the family into one room, then proceeded to search the rest of the house. When the soldiers left, the family found many items of value missing.
In Qalqilya, Zakiyah Pasha described how soldiers smashed the television screen, emptied out the cupboards and left with her family's savings of 1,200 shekels -- about $400.
In a village outside Jenin, a man named Eyad who fled a nearby refugee camp said soldiers took his cellphone, cigarettes and watch, pocketing the money from his wallet before herding him into a room with other men to be detained.
And in Ramallah -- on the second day of this offensive, 13 days ago -- an armoured personnel carrier burst through the doors of Max, a posh new supermarket. When soldiers broke into the storage area in the basement, neighbours reported hearing explosions.
It wasn't until a few days later, when its owner, Mahmoud Abdullah, was able to return to the store during a brief lifting of the curfew, that he was able to discover the reason for the blasts: In addition to helping themselves to boxes of food, perfume and cigarettes, the soldiers had tried to blast open the safe. The lock was destroyed but the heat from the explosion had sealed the box.
The same soldiers -- neighbours identified them by their armoured personnel carrier, with the number 3 on the hood -- came back yesterday an hour before the curfew was lifted again. There were the sounds of more explosions from the store, and when Mr. Abdullah came back, he found the safe's door off and its contents gone -- an estimated $18,000.
While many Palestinians said they were afraid to put their names to their stories, Mr. Abdullah said he would gladly make a complaint to the army, but for one problem. "Who do I complain to?" he asked, laughing in disbelief. "The tanks outside?"
(Captain Dallal, the army spokesman, said the army would accept complaints at its West Bank co-ordination office.)
Many Palestinians are convinced the army is, at best, turning a blind eye to the practice, or even may have given the soldiers the permission to pilfer.
Mr. Yavne said there is likely no direct order to loot. But he pointed out that the Israeli army doesn't initiate criminal investigations in cases of unjustified killings or shootings. When "you don't have accountability for cases of abuse or brutality, you can only expect this to happen," he said.
Copyright 2002 | Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.

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