Mourners carry the body of Mohammed al-Kasbeh, 17, during his funeral in Qalandiya refugee camp, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 3, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

(Ramallah) – The evidence in an Israeli colonel’s fatal shooting of a Palestinian boy on July 3, 2015, indicates that the shooting violated international standards on the use of lethal force in policing, and possibly also Israel’s own open-fire regulations. A recently released video supports witness accounts and forensic evidence that Col. Israel Shomer killed Mohammad al-Kasbeh, 17, while al-Kasbeh was fleeing, apparently contradicting the military’s initial statement exonerating the colonel on the grounds that he faced a “mortal danger.”

Video footage obtained by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, supports accounts by Palestinian witnesses that Shomer, a brigade commander, shot al-Kasbeh in the back as he and others were fleeing after he threw a rock at close range at the windshield of a vehicle carrying the colonel. While a rock directed at a moving vehicle can pose a mortal danger, the fatal shooting appears to have occurred after the colonel left the vehicle and pursued the fleeing rock-thrower.

“A proper investigation into this killing should examine mounting evidence that Colonel Shomer shot Mohammad al-Kasbeh in the back as he fled, and not because he posed any ongoing mortal threat,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director.

Palestinian witnesses to the confrontation near the Qalandiya checkpoint south of Ramallah told the media and B’Tselem that they saw two or three soldiers get out of a military vehicle and chase stone-throwing youths, pause, and then shoot at their backs. Human Rights Watch obtained photographs of al-Kasbeh’s body from B’Tselem showing what appear to be three bullet entry wounds – in the upper back, side torso, and jaw. Israel has not performed an autopsy, B’Tselem said.

The grainy video from a nearby surveillance camera appears to show a figure approaching the vehicle as it drives by, throwing an object at its windshield, and fleeing on foot. The vehicle stops immediately, two soldiers get out and pursue the figure, while a third waits by the vehicle. The two soldiers return less than 30 seconds later to the vehicle, which then drives away.

Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, who is the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) commander of the area in which the incident occurred, concluded on the day of the shooting that Shomer had acted appropriately, according to a statement published on the IDF website. “I fully back the brigade commander and his handling of the situation,” Numa said. Shomer, according to the website, “felt in imminent mortal danger, left his vehicle, and conducted an arrest of a suspect.”

Echoing this claim, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan, and the Chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid all publicly came to the support of Shomer, saying he had acted in self-defense.

A proper investigation into this killing should examine mounting evidence that Colonel Shomer shot Mohammad al-Kasbeh in the back as he fled, and not because he posed any ongoing mortal threat.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East director

International standards governing the use of force by security officers during policing provide that the “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” IDF open-fire orders allow soldiers to use lethal force only as a last resort to counter a threat to life or serious injury.

Israeli law also permits soldiers, as a last resort and under specific conditions, to fire at the legs of fleeing suspects who refuse to stop when ordered to do so. However, any attempt to justify the shooting on the basis of the regulations on apprehending a fleeing suspect should explain why the three bullets that struck el-Kasbeh, which were fired from close range, hit him in his upper body rather than his legs.

International standards also require governments and law enforcement agencies to establish an “effective review process” by “independent administrative or prosecutorial authorities” for its officials’ use of force, and to allow victims or their families “access to an independent process, including a judicial process.”

Notwithstanding Numa’s defense of Shomer, the military police announced a criminal investigation into the killing and questioned Shomer following release of the video, the Times of Israel reported.

The Israeli military has a poor record of bringing soldiers to justice for such acts, Human Rights Watch said. In a recent report, B’Tselem identified 304 cases in which soldiers killed Palestinians between 2000 and 2011, yet found the military investigated only 73 of them, with 9 ending in an indictment. In 2011, in response to a lawsuit brought by B’Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the military changed its procedure to automatically investigate all cases in which people not taking part in hostilities were killed.

Mohammed’s mother, Fatema al-Kasbeh, told Human Rights Watch that her son was in love and they were preparing for his engagement. Mohammed is her third son killed by Israeli soldiers. Soldiers fatally shot her son, Yasser, in 2001 after he threw rocks. He was 11 years old at the time. Forty days later soldiers killed another son, Samer, who was then 15, during the siege on Yasser Arafat’s compound. “They kill because they know the justice system covers for them,” she said.

“The military and senior politicians rushed to support Shomer before considering all the evidence,” Whitson said. “Even if the new video pushes the IDF advocate-general to prosecute, it underscores the need, in any credible investigation, to collect and weigh all evidence, including, wherever possible, Palestinian eyewitness accounts.”