By GREG MYRE
Published: December 28, 2003
JERUSALEM, Dec. 28 — At first glance, the confrontation on Friday along Israel's separation barrier seemed unremarkable.
About 20 protesters shook the chain-link fence, and some then took out pliers to cut it. After calling out warnings and firing shots into the air, Israeli troops shot at the legs of the protesters with live ammunition, the military admits. One man was hit in both legs and seriously wounded.
The surprise was that the man, Gil Naamati, is a 22-year-old Israeli who had just completed three years of military service as a combat soldier.
The soldiers apparently did not realize that Israelis were among the demonstrators. In a statement, the military said soldiers shot at the man "who led the rioters." A woman was also lightly wounded, a 26-year-old American, Anne Farina.
The episode happened on Friday afternoon 25 miles from here, on the edge of a Palestinian village, Masha, in the West Bank. By today, almost everyone in Israel, from President Moshe Katsav on down had joined a national debate on why soldiers had used live ammunition to shoot the unarmed Israeli demonstrator.
"I am in favor of building the fence," Mr. Katsav said on Israeli radio. "Israeli citizens are allowed to protest against the fence. But the reaction to this cannot be live fire."
The Army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, visited Mr. Naamati in the hospital today and promised a full investigation.
Palestinian officials said the episode supported their longstanding contention that Israeli troops are too quick to use lethal force. "It shows how liberal the army is in using live ammunition against peaceful demonstrators," said Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who leads a Palestinian group that has monitored the violence.
In many previous shootings involving Palestinians, the Israeli military routinely said that soldiers followed strict rules of engagement on the use of live ammunition. The military does not divulge the specific rules, but in most instances, soldiers are to use other means, such as tear gas or rubber bullets, unless they believe they are in danger, military officials say.
The protesters say that they had no weapons and did not throw stones or otherwise endanger the soldiers, who they said were 20 to 40 yards away, on the far side of the fence.
"We didn't threaten soldiers," Mr. Naamati said in the only interview he gave from his hospital bed, to Israeli Army radio. "All we hurt was the fence. The fence does not threaten lives, we did not threaten anyone's life."
Mr. Naamati acknowledged that he was among those shaking the fence and trying to cut through it. But he added, "I am familiar with the rules of engagement, and what I did was not even close to something that I think would warrant opening fire."
Video images on Israeli television showed soldiers standing next to a military vehicle. In a deliberate manner, one soldier goes down on his belly and points his rifle at the protesters.
Shortly afterward, shots ring out, and one of the protesters shouts in Hebrew, "Don't shoot!"
Mr. Naamati's father, Uri Naamati, said he and his son support the barrier that Israel is building to separate them from Palestinians, believing it will greatly reduce Palestinian suicide bombings. But Gil Naamati opposes its route, which is running well inside the West Bank and disrupting the lives of many Palestinians, his father said.
The son went with an Israeli friend to take part in the protest, his father said.
Some Israeli news reports said the younger Naamati belonged to a group identified as "Anarchists Against the Wall," but his father denied this. "Gilly is a sensitive kid, and is not part of any extreme group," Mr. Naamati said in a telephone interview from the hospital where his son is being treated.
The elder Naamati said that his son had been a willing soldier but that he was particularly critical of the way the soldiers were operating at checkpoints.
"He always said, `Dad, we are doing terrible things to the people over there,' " Mr. Naamati said.
Many liberal Israelis say that soldiers use lethal force too quickly and too often, resulting in many civilian casualties.
"An order to fire on people that do not fire on you is a completely illegal order," Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, said.
But other Israelis say that soldiers and the police face daily attacks by armed Palestinians and should not be quickly second-guessed. Uzi Landau, a cabinet minister, defended the soldiers, saying, "Anyone who destroys the fence is assisting terrorism."