A probe into the deaths of two Palestinians killed in the West Bank village of Bitunia during a Nakba Day demonstration earlier this month took a dramatic turn on Wednesday, when a CNN video clip showed a non-combat soldier, who had accompanied his comrades on the mission, firing what appeared to be a rubber bullet during the incident.
The soldier, a member of an IDF communications division, apparently fired his bullet at around the same time that one of the Palestinians, Nadim Nuwara, 17, was killed. However, the IDF has found no evidence proving that this soldier's bullet caused Nuwara's death. The details of the case are under a military court gag order.
Non-combat soldiers who accompany combat units on such missions are unauthorized to use their weapons, unless shot at or under direct threat. The soldier, whose identity was discovered during the IDF’s operational inquiry into the incident, has been suspended from his job.
The operational inquiry is still ongoing, and the Military Investigative Police have also opened an investigation.
The IDF still does not know exactly what caused the deaths of Nuwara and another Palestinian, Mohammed Salameh, during the May 15 demonstration. Border Police officers were patrolling at the time, with an Artilley Corp unit present as back up.
The IDF has acknowledged that its troops fired rubber bullets during the incident – a fact confirmed by footage from both local security cameras and journalists. But the two Palestinians were apparently killed when they were relatively far away from the troops, which would seem to indicate that live fire was used. Yet the soldiers, officers and border policemen present at the scene have all denied that any live bullets were fired.
Last Thursday, a week after the incident occurred, the belated broadcast of footage taken by a CNN cameraman seemed to shed new light on what happened. That footage showed one member of a group of border policemen firing at the Palestinians. The camera then showed the Palestinians evacuating Nuwara, who was hit by a bullet in the chest and died of his wounds soon afterward.
The CNN video shows a soldier wearing the green IDF uniform, a different shade than the Border Police uniform. His sleeves are rolled up in a way that cannot be done on Border Police uniforms, and his helmet lacks the plastic shield of Border Police helmets.
The footage also shows the Border Police commander at the scene taking the rifle away from the soldier immediately after he fired the rubber bullet. The Border Police had been tasked with controlling the demonstration, with an IDF artillery unit present as back-up.
The belated revelation that this soldier opened fire during the incident reveals a problem that emerged during the second intifada (2000-05): Specialists from other units - from drivers to dog handlers, violated orders - who were attached to operational forces tasked with containing violent demonstrations or conducting arrests behaving inappropriately.
The fact that the specialist was not fully subordinate to the operational chain of command in the field makes it harder for field commanders to supervise his activities. Yet he is also far from his regular unit commanders back at base, which means they cannot keep a close eye on him either.
The IDF Spokesperson's Unit said in response: “A Military Police investigation has been opened into the matter. When it is finished, its findings will be sent to the military prosecution for an opinion.”