Richard Bourdreaux
The Los Angeles Times
August 8, 2008 - 3:36pm

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli battalion commander and a staff sergeant caught on film allegedly abusing a handcuffed, blindfolded Palestinian detainee were indicted by a military court Thursday on the charge of "unworthy conduct."

The July 7 incident, in which the sergeant fired a rubber-coated bullet at point-blank range, bruising the detainee's toe, embarrassed the army and focused renewed attention on its role in policing unruly demonstrations in the West Bank.

Lt. Col. Omri Borberg resigned his command of an armored battalion on the eve of Thursday's indictment but will continue to serve elsewhere pending trial in military court, a military spokesman said. The commander and the sergeant, who wasn't identified in the indictment, could each receive a maximum jail sentence of one year.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak had condemned the two soldiers' behavior. A statement reporting the military advocate general's decision to indict the men said their conduct reflected a "severe moral failure of command."

But the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, which brought the incident to light and branded it a war crime, said the decision by the army not to press more serious charges "disgraces the values it pretends to uphold."

Video distributed by the group showed Borberg holding 27-year-old Ashraf abu Rahmeh by the arm while the sergeant took aim and fired at the detainee's foot.

The images were captured by a 17-year-old Palestinian girl documenting a rock-throwing protest in Nilin, a Palestinian village near the West Bank administrative capital of Ramallah.

The sergeant told a closed military hearing this week that he opened fire at Borberg's order, according to an army summary.

Borberg said he told the sergeant only to shake his rifle to frighten the Palestinian.

The protest was part of a near-daily Palestinian campaign that employs violent and peaceful tactics to prevent Israeli work crews from installing a barrier to seal off the Jewish state from the West Bank. Army units policing the work are frequently pelted with rocks and respond with tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and, at times, live ammunition.

Israeli rifle fire killed a 10-year-old boy last week after a protest in Nilin against the barrier, which is separating the village from hundreds of acres of its olive groves. The army is investigating that episode.

The shooting that led to Thursday's indictment got far more public attention in Israel, and not only because it was filmed. It provoked discussion about the obligation of soldiers to disobey commands that are clearly illegal.

Several soldiers were tried for carrying out such commands during rock-throwing demonstrations of the first intifada, a Palestinian uprising that began in the late 1980s. Israelis call them "black flag orders," a reference to the black flags placed on their Mediterranean beaches to prohibit swimmers from entering treacherous waters.

Ilan Katz, the attorney representing the accused sergeant, said soldiers were being mobilized in increasing numbers, as they were two decades ago, to perform police duties for which they are inadequately trained.

"The lessons of the black flag orders of the first intifada have not been learned," he told Israel Radio.

Recent demonstrations against the barrier, which began going up in 2002, are not as widespread as those of the first intifada, but they appear to be intensifying. Many protesters, instead of rock-throwing, use nonviolent methods such as kneeling in prayer at barrier construction sites and using mirrors to reflect sunlight into soldiers' eyes. They use video cameras to record the army's behavior.

The barrier is a planned 490-mile-long series of tall concrete walls, fences, patrol roads and trenches that is about two-thirds completed. Israel says the barrier is a defense against armed Palestinian militants; Palestinians, noting that the barrier would enclose about 8% of the West Bank's land on the Israeli side, call the project a unilateral redrawing of the border.


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