Al-Jazeera — 27 February 2014
The first bullet struck 16-year-old Samir Awad in his left leg. He staggered away as fast as he could, but was too slow. A second round slammed into his left shoulder, exiting from the right side of his chest. Then, moments later, a third bullet penetrated the back of his skull and exited from his forehead.
The live rounds were fired by a group of Israeli soldiers guarding a section of Israel’s separation barrier built on the lands of Samir’s village in the occupied West Bank. The wall has been used by Israel to make large areas of the town of Budrus’ farmland inaccessible to the villagers.
On the day he died in January 2013, Samir and his friends had celebrated the end of the school term by walking into the hills along a path close to the steel barrier, said Ayed Murrar, head of Budrus’ popular struggle committee. An army patrol, laying in wait, ambushed them. Samir was grabbed as his friends fled. When moments later he managed to break free, the soldiers opened fire.
Samir’s friend, Malik Murrar, who witnessed the shooting, said: “How far can an injured child run? They could easily have arrested him. Instead they shot him in the back with live ammunition.”
Samir’s story is one of several harrowing accounts of killings of Palestinian civilians told in a report “Trigger-happy“, published Thursday by Amnesty International.
The international human rights organisation said the evidence suggests Samir’s death was an extra-judicial execution, which constitutes a war crime under international law.
“It’s hard to believe that an unarmed child could be perceived as posing imminent danger to a well-equipped soldier,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Dozens killed, hundreds wounded
The report identifies a pattern of behaviour by Israeli soldiers of shooting live ammunition at unarmed Palestinians, sometimes as they are fleeing. Over the past three years of Amnesty’s study, dozens of Palestinians have been shot dead in the West Bank and hundreds seriously wounded. Thousands more have sustained injuries from rubber-coated bullets and tear gas.
The number of casualties rose dramatically last year, with 25 Palestinians in the West Bank, four of them children, killed by live rounds — more than the total in the previous two years of the study combined.
Many were targeted during largely non-violent weekly demonstrations in more than a dozen Palestinian villages in the West Bank against the separation barrier Israel has built on their land. The wall has entailed the confiscation of hundreds of hectares of farmland on which the inhabitants depend.
Ayed Murrar attributed the rise in killings to a fear in the army that unrest is growing in the occupied territories and may lead to a new intifada, or popular uprising, against the occupation.
“They want to make an example of us to stop others from adopting our way of mass protest against the occupation. They want to keep us submissive and passive.”
Last summer Nitzan Alon, the Israeli commander in charge of the West Bank, warned that Israel was facing a wave of unrest unless peace talks were revived.
‘All kinds of resistance’
But as the recent US-brokered negotiations have faltered, senior Palestinian officials in the West Bank have called for a return to “all kinds of resistance” against Israel, including popular protests. Last Friday dozens of Palestinians were reported to have been injured by Israeli soldiers firing rubber-coated bullets and tear gas canisters against demonstrators opposed to Israel’s wall.
Other kinds of popular protest have also emerged over the past year, including Palestinian groups setting up encampments to reclaim land Jewish settlers have grabbed in Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank.
In the latest example this month, soldiers beat and arrested protesters as they removed a camp named Ein Hijleh in the Jordan Valley, which had been established to highlight Israeli efforts to annex the valley as part of the peace talks.
And 13 Palestinians in Hebron were injured in clashes with Israeli soldiers last week when 2,000 demonstrators marched down Shuhada Street, the city’s main street, which Israel has closed to Palestinians for the past 20 years.
The Amnesty study did not include Gaza, where Israel usually claims Palestinian civilians killed by its forces were “collateral damage” during military operations. The report notes that this context of armed conflict does not apply to the casualties in the West Bank.
In many West Bank locations, said Amnesty, Palestinian residents face “collective punishment”, with Israeli forces declaring areas to be “closed military zones”, blocking access roads, launching night raids where sweeping arrests are made, using excessive force against protesters and bystanders, and damaging residents’ property.
Amnesty says Israeli soldiers’ decision to fire live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at Palestinian civilians who pose little or no immediate threat to them raises troubling questions about the army’s undeclared rules of engagement.
The report dismisses claims by the Israeli military justifying its harsh actions on the grounds that Palestinians have thrown stones at soldiers. It said “stone-throwing poses little or no serious risk to Israeli soldiers”, and chiefly serves as an “irritant”. The stones are thrown from too far away to harm the soldiers, who in any case are usually too well-protected to suffer injury.
Israeli human rights groups have long criticised the army’s repressive methods towards Palestinian protests against the occupation. In the late 1980s, during the first popular uprising, Israel’s defence minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, publicly urged soldiers to “break the bones” of any Palestinians they caught.
During the early stages of the second intifada, beginning in late 2000, the Israeli army again resorted to massive use of force. In three weeks during October 2000, before Palestinian factions started taking up arms, Israeli military records show soldiers fired one million live rounds.
Amnesty describes the Israeli army’s use of force against Palestinians in its three-year study as “unnecessary, arbitrary and brutal”. It adds that in all the cases it examined, including Samir’s death, there was no evidence the Israeli soldiers’ lives were under threat.
“The frequency and persistence of arbitrary and abusive force against peaceful protesters in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers and police officers — and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators — suggests that it is carried out as a matter of policy,” Luther said.
Shot in the back
In addition to 45 unarmed Palestinians shot dead with live ammunition over the past three years, many of them at protests, another 261 have been seriously injured, including 67 children. Several were shot in the back, indicating they had been targeted as they were fleeing.
Many more civilians have been injured by means other than live rounds. Amnesty cites as “astonishing” the fact that in three years Israeli soldiers have wounded 8,500 Palestinians with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas. Among that number were 1,500 children.
Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem, an Israeli group monitoring abuses in the occupied territories, said her organisation had been distributing video cameras to Palestinians as a way to help document the use of violence by soldiers and settlers. In December, B’Tselem released video footage shot by Muhammad Awad, a Palestinian in the village of Beit Ummar, showing a soldier firing a tear gas canister into his chest. He had to be treated in hospital.
Amnesty criticises the lack of proper investigations by the army of the many incidents it records, calling the response “woefully inadequate” and lacking in “independence and impartiality”. The human rights group says it cannot identify a single case of a member of the Israeli security forces being convicted of “wilfully killing” a Palestinian in the occupied territories for the past 25 years.
According to figures compiled by Yesh Din, another Israeli human rights group, only four soldiers have been convicted of negligent manslaughter and another of negligence in the past 13 years. None was discharged from the army or received a prison sentence of more than a few months.
Michaeli was herself injured last July when a police officer fired a rubber-coated bullet at her from close range while she was filming a demonstration in Nabi Saleh.
“It’s clear there is a policy from the commanders of turning a blind eye when open-fire regulations are violated. When I recently spoke to the officer investigating my case, he said that there had been no developments — that was six months after the events happened. When the security services know the policy is to do nothing, there is no deterrence.”
Requests by Amnesty to meet army officials to discuss the cases in its report were rejected. The Israeli defence ministry was unavailable for comment when approached by Al Jazeera.
An Israeli army statement said: “The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] holds itself to the highest of professional standards and trains and equips itself as such. When there is any suspicion of wrong doing, or breach of discipline, the IDF reviews, investigates and takes action where appropriate.”
Numbed to aggression?
A recent academic study of Israeli soldiers’ testimonies suggested their operational routines quickly numbed them into treating harassment and aggression towards Palestinians as normal. The young soldiers came to enjoy a sense of power and their ability to impose “corrective punishment”.
Avner Gvarayahu of Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who compile testimonies of soldiers’ abuses, agreed. He said the real rules of engagement issued by commanders were “flexible” and allowed soldiers to open fire on civilians.
“Soldiers are educated by the army to see the conflict as a zero-sum game: It’s either us or them. Then every Palestinian comes to be seen as a threat, as a potential terrorist, whether they are young or old, man or woman, able-bodied or disabled. They are all the enemy.”
Gvarayahu, who once commanded a special operations unit, said the army command also approved of what he called “revenge attacks”, raids on random Palestinian communities in retaliation for the deaths of Israelis. “There is no way these kinds of attacks can be carried out by ordinary soldiers without authorisation from the very top. I think the decision even comes from the political level.”
He said political and military leaders established the norms of behaviour within the army.
“Remember that the current defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, when he was the chief of staff [in 2002], said the army’s job was to ‘burn into the consciousness’ of the Palestinians their defeat. The only aim one can infer from that is that the army’s role is to use force to make the Palestinians weak and compliant.”