- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

JERUSALEM The Israeli army yesterday acknowledged that it was investigating widespread complaints of looting and vandalism by soldiers serving in the West Bank and said anyone found guilty will be punished "to the letter of the law."

Accusations against soldiers have been surfacing since the Israeli Defense Forces began withdrawing last week from Palestinian towns and cities occupied under the three-week Operation Defensive Shield.

The complaints range from defacing property to outright theft of cash, electronics and jewelry.

In the most alarming instances, soldiers are accused of ransacking government offices and destroying databases, files and equipment.

The investigation of the charges "is part of the IDF policy in dealing with exceptional incidents," said the army in a statement released yesterday.

"Actions such as these disgrace those who wear uniforms and cause great damage to the military, whose strength is within its purity."

Six soldiers already have been arrested on charges of theft or vandalism, according to an IDF spokesman, and more arrests are expected.

"We've received many, many, many complaints," Capt. Ron Edelheitz, an IDF spokesman, said yesterday afternoon.

"Military police are putting up investigations and if they find anyone guilty of such crimes they will be punished to the letter of the law."

IDF officials say that every complaint will be checked out, if not investigated. At least 24 investigations are already under way.

Three soldiers were arrested this week after they admitted stealing money from the wallet of a Palestinian in police custody. Two more were arrested on suspicion of stealing. And another has been accused of "looting computer equipment and cellular phones, among other charges."

During a tour of the Center for New Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah this week, a reporter and photographer with The Washington Times saw a ransacked library and offices and graffiti saying, "No Palestine. Ever."

Staff at the center, which produces the Palestinian version of "Sesame Street," also pointed out three empty tripods from which they said television cameras had been looted and an empty room that they said had held 12 computers.

The army declined to detail the timing and location of most of the suspected thefts already under investigation. A military police unit based in Bethlehem will take the lead in the investigations, according to the army.

Palestinians may register complaints through human rights organizations, military or civilian police, and at District Coordinating Offices located near every major town, a spokesman said.

Palestinians, apparently, have not been the only victims.

The army said yesterday that it had arrested soldiers accused of breaking into the cars of Israeli reservists who were called up for service. Many of the 20,000 mobilized reservists left their cars in large, secluded army lots and returned to find their contents, or the vehicles themselves, missing.

One recently released reservist was arrested on suspicion of breaking into cars, and an unspecified number of other soldiers are under investigation, according to the IDF.

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