(Jerusalem) – Multiple witnesses have described how a senior Palestinian official who died on December 10, 2014 had been assaulted by at least three Israeli border police. The witnesses all stated that the official, Ziad Abu Ein, 55, had not used any force against the Israeli forces, and that the security forces were suppressing a peaceful demonstration against Israel’s unlawful West Bank settlements. The evidence of the witnesses all suggested that Abu Ein could not reasonably have been seen to pose any threat to the security forces, meaning the assaults on him were unlawful.
The border police had blocked Abu Ein, the Palestinian Authority minister responsible for dealing with Israeli settlements and the separation barrier in the West Bank, and a group of about 120 other people from reaching an area near Turmus Ayya, a Palestinian town north of Ramallah, where they planned to plant olive trees. Four witnesses said that the protest was peaceful, accounts that video recordings and photographs of the confrontation by news media and protest participants corroborated.
“Israeli forces marked Human Rights Day by assaulting Palestinians peacefully attempting to plant olive trees, including a senior official who posed no physical threat and then died,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Israel’s allies should demand accountability for the assault, and for an end to the illegal settlement land-grabs that Abu Ein was protesting.”
Abu Ein’s ministry and the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, a Palestinian nongovernmental group, had planned to plant olive trees on land belonging to a resident of Turmus Ayya near an Israeli settlement outpost, Adei Ad, witnesses said. Four Israeli army vehicles, six border police vehicles, a police vehicle, and 50 to 60 armed security officers blocked the group’s route toward the area at the bottom of a hill. Israeli forces ordered the crowd to disperse, and then shoved and slapped protesters. Abu Ein, whose family said he suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure, according to news reports, got into a shouting match with several border police officials, witnesses said. Witnesses said Israeli forces then assaulted him.
Four witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the group had been demonstrating peacefully. The Israeli military issued a statement that claimed its forces had used “riot dispersal means” to “halt the progress” of “approximately 200 rioters” towards “the civilian community of Adei Ad.”
On December 10, four Palestinian village councils and an Israeli rights group, Yesh Din, filed a lawsuit with Israel’s high court demanding that Israel dismantle Adei Ad. They said it was built unlawfully under both international and Israeli law, with the assistance of state authorities, and contributed to ongoing abuses including settler violence and land expropriation.
The Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has ratified, prohibits the transfer by an occupying power of its civilian population into occupied territory and treats it as a war crime. That crime is among those that can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court where it has jurisdiction, although currently it has none in the West Bank.
Sara al-`Adra, 27, a journalist with Palestine TV, told Human Rights Watch that she was filming the standoff when Israeli forces assaulted Abu Ein. “Things started to go bad when one of the border police grabbed his neck,” she said. “Ziad was shouting, ‘Don’t touch me, don’t get close to me.’ Then [another official] hit him in the chest with his head.”
Sa’ir Shreiteh, 30, the manager of Abu Ein’s office, said he was standing next to Abu Ein at the time of the assault. “One border police [official] grabbed him by his throat,” he said. “Then another one hit Ziad with his head, in the center of the chest.” `Awad Abu Samra, 47, a Palestinian security officer in the Turmus Ayya area, interviewed separately at the location where Abu Ein was assaulted, gave the same account.
Photographs published by news agencies show two border police officials holding Abu Ein by the throat. The Guardian newspaper, citing another witness, Muhammad Mohesin, reported that “over the course of a few minutes one policeman grabbed Abu Ein by the throat, a second struck him in the throat, and a third head-butted him in the chest.”
The journalist, al-`Adra, told Human Rights Watch: “He fell on the ground and he was looking at me, then his eyes rolled back in his head. The [Palestinian] paramedics tried to get him to swallow a pill but he wouldn’t. The hardest thing as a journalist is to be filming someone dying right in front of you.”
Saadi al-Qam, an ambulance driver at the Palestinian military medical clinic in Turmus Ayya, said he received a call at 10:47 a.m. requesting assistance at the scene. The clinic director, Dr. Sabil Salameh, said Abu Ein was being treated in the hospital by 11:15 a.m. Medical staff who treated Abu Ein at the clinic said they put him on oxygen and a saline IV drip, that he vomited, and that they administered CPR and a defibrillator when they could not detect a pulse. He did not have broken ribs or a broken sternum, they said. The staff transferred Abu Ein to Ramallah hospital, but he was reported by local news media to have been dead on arrival.
Israeli news media quoted unnamed security officials as stating that Abu Ein died of a heart attack. According to the Israeli military’s December 10 statement, Israel requested that an Israeli physician attend an autopsy to be performed by Jordanian pathologists at the Palestinian Institute of Forensic Medicine, and proposed establishing a joint investigation with Palestinian authorities into Abu Ein’s death.
“The medical cause of Abu Ein’s death is yet to be determined, but the context is Israel forces using unjustifiable violence again to support unlawful settlements,” Stork said.