Evidence Points to Unlawful Killings by Israeli Forces
August 3, 2014
The Israeli military is responsible not only for reckless and deliberate unlawful killings in Gaza, but also for unlawfully killing Palestinian protesters in the West Bank. Because of the Israeli military’s long history of operating with virtual impunity, more unlawful killings are predictable unless Israel’s allies apply meaningful pressure.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

(Jerusalem) – Israeli soldiers unlawfully killed two men who had participated in a July 25, 2014 protest in the West Bank against Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip, according to all available evidence. Official medical reports and medical sources indicated that they died of gunshot wounds caused by live ammunition.

A third man at the same protest also appeared to have been killed unlawfully. Although witnesses said he threw stones, he was 35 meters away when he was shot and could not have posed an imminent deadly threat to Israeli forces. Israeli forces have killed 13 Palestinians in the West Bank, most during protests, since the Israeli offensive began in Gaza on July 7, according to reports by human rights groups.

“The Israeli military is responsible not only for reckless and deliberate unlawful killings in Gaza, but also for unlawfully killing Palestinian protesters in the West Bank,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Because of the Israeli military’s long history of operating with virtual impunity, more unlawful killings are predictable unless Israel’s allies apply meaningful pressure.”

Some offenses by Israeli forces in the West Bank as part of their occupation could be subject to prosecution as war crimes.

During the early afternoon of July 25, hundreds of residents of Beit Ummar walked to an Israeli military watchtower at the village entrance in a protest march against the Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Israeli forces on foot and in military vehicles near the watchtower fired teargas and rubber bullets at protesters who threw stones. The forces, on foot, then pushed the protesters several hundred meters back up the main street into the village.

“They left the [military vehicles], and there were lots of soldiers running up the street, in green uniforms,” A., 18, said. “Before, there were 200 people [protesting] in the street, but then they scattered, and some of the youth went into the alleyways to throw rocks.”

Israeli forces shot Hashem Abu Maria, who had participated peacefully in the protest before it was dispersed, at around 2 p.m., as he stood near a side-street several hundred meters inside the built-up area of the village, far from the military watch tower, witnesses said. Abu Maria was married with three children and worked with Defense for Children International – Palestine, a children’s rights organization. He had not thrown stones at any point during the protest, witnesses said, and was at least 5 meters away from anyone else at the time he was shot.

A. said that he was watching the protests from a window on the second floor of his uncle’s home, which overlooks the main street, and saw Abu Maria, about 10 meters from where A. was, when Israeli forces shot him. A. said that Abu Maria had been standing next to the wall of a building on the main street near the entrance to the side-street. M., 17, interviewed separately, said he was in the side-street behind Abu Maria, who it appeared was waiting for an opportunity to cross the main street when he was shot.

Witnesses said they believed a soldier positioned on the roof of a building about 100 meters away shot Abu Maria. Human Rights Watch found spent crowd-control weapons on the roof of the building, which had a line of sight to the place Abu Maria was killed, but could not confirm the precise location of the shooter.

A medical report stated that Abu Maria was admitted, unconscious and with fixed dilated pupils, to al-Ahli hospital in Hebron at 3 p.m., and despite efforts to resuscitate him, he died of a bullet wound that entered his chest and exited his back.

“Shooting a children’s rights advocate who evidence suggests was doing nothing but trying to cross a street shocks the conscience,” Whitson said. ”Yet if the past is any indication, the Israeli military will make weak excuses for his killing without any credible investigation.”

Israeli forces shot the other two men, Sultan Za’aqiq and Abd al-Hamid al-Brigheith, about 20 minutes later, witnesses said. The men were among a group of 30 to 40 boys and men who had gathered behind a house on a side-street, about 40 meters from where Abu Maria was killed. Israeli forces, who had walked along a parallel side street about 50 meters south, were advancing toward the group through a series of small groves between homes, as some members of the group threw stones at them, witnesses said.

At around 2:20 p.m., an Israeli soldier stationed on a rooftop about 60 meters away shot Za’aqiq, the 30-year-old father of two, in the chest, witnesses said. Two boys, 15 and 13, said they were in a home nearby and had seen Za’aqiq throwing rocks toward Israeli forces. “He was throwing them with his hand, not using a sling,” one of the boys said.

Another witness, M. Y., 16, interviewed separately, indicated the place that the nearest soldiers had reached at the time Za’aqiq was shot; it appeared to be about 35 meters away, in a small grove. Under the circumstances, it appears extremely unlikely that Za’aqiq posed an imminent lethal threat to Israeli forces. “His 7-year-old son was here [in the group behind the house], and was trying to wake him up after he got shot,” M. Y. said.

Immediately after Za’aqiq was shot, Abd el-Hamid al-Brigheith, 36, who was nearby, ran to help him, and Israeli forces shot him in the leg and abdomen, M. and M.Y. said. They and the other witnesses said al-Brigheith had not thrown stones.

Medical sources at al-Ahli hospital confirmed that both men died from gunshot wounds.

Mohammad Awad, a volunteer cameraman who works with the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, filmed part of the demonstrations on July 25. “It was very unusual that they were using live ammunition and shooting people in the chest,” Awad said. “There have been clashes before but it was always just teargas and rubber bullets, and a few times live fire at the legs, but not at the upper body.”

Israeli forces have on numerous occasions used live ammunition against Palestinians who posed no imminent threat during West Bank protests, and the Israeli military has a poor record of bringing soldiers to justice for such acts, Human Rights Watch said.

B’Tselem documented at least 46 cases from 2005 to early 2013 in which Israeli forces killed Palestinians in the West Bank “by firing live ammunition at stone throwers.” Since September 2000, Israeli forces have killed more than 3,000 Palestinians who did not participate in hostilities in the West Bank and Gaza, according to B’Tselem’s data. But the military justice system has convicted only six Israeli soldiers for unlawfully killing Palestinians, with seven-and-a-half months as the longest jail sentence, according to Yesh Din, another rights group.

The Palestinian justice minister and attorney general submitted on July 25 a request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor to investigate serious crimes allegedly committed in Palestine since 2002, but did so on the basis of a “declaration” from 2009 recognizing the court’s jurisdiction that the ICC prosecutor had deemed to be legally invalid. Palestine has yet to accede to the court’s treaty or file a new formal declaration – the avenues that are open to it to seek ICC jurisdiction.

“In the course of half an hour in Beit Ummar, Israeli forces left three families without a father,” Whitson said. “And while evidence of war crimes in Palestine mounts, Palestinian leaders are still dithering rather than diligently seeking the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.”