Palestinian farmers - Emil Salman - 02082011
Palestinian farmers trying to enter the settlement of Ofra earlier this month. Photo by Emil Salman
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The state prosecution has decided to indict a company commander in the army reserves who shot a Palestinian in the back and killed him. The commander, a well-known religious Zionist educator, opened fire in contravention of the rules of engagement.

The move is a fairly rare event: From 2002-2009, only 14 indictments were filed over the death of Palestinian civilians, out of 173 cases investigated, according to the Yesh Din organization. Many other deaths were not investigated at all.

The incident occurred in December 2007, when Firas Qasqas, an unemployed gardener and father of three from Batir, was spending the weekend with relatives in Ramallah. Together with two cousins, he went for a walk in the valley that separates Ramallah from the settlements to its west.

Soldiers spotted them climbing the terraces and opened fire, hitting Qasqas in the back, according to the case file, which Haaretz obtained. He died in the hospital a few hours later.

Later, the soldiers said they had yelled at the Palestinians to halt, but the three ran away. Qasqas' relatives said the three never even heard the soldiers' shouts.

Rules of engagement

The rules of engagement permit soldiers to open fire during an arrest only if the suspect is no more than 50 meters away.

The three Palestinians were at least 200 meters from the soldiers.

Following repeated requests by the B'Tselem organization, the Military Police began investigating. The case file shows that the soldiers contradicted each other in their testimony.

All the soldiers agreed that other soldiers at a nearby lookout post had seen Palestinians doing something with wires near the Yad Yair outpost (since evacuated) and, fearing they were planting a bomb, summoned a patrol.

The patrol vehicle contained the company commander, Captain S., and three soldiers.

A few minutes later, S. and his men saw three Palestinians about a kilometer from where the lookouts had seen the suspected bombers and assumed they must be the suspects. At that point, their statements diverge.

S. said they went through the normal routine for arresting suspects: First they shouted 'halt,' and when the men didn't stop, the soldiers fired in the air.

"After a few shots, I gave the order to shoot at them," he said. "Each time I gave the order to a different soldier to fire single shots, not to hurt them but to make them stop."

When he saw one man fall from the terrace, S. said, "it was clear in my view that he had slipped off the terrace, and that the shooting had no connection to his slipping. The range was 200 to 300 meters."

He also said the firing occurred "during pursuit; in my view, lives were in danger."

But another soldier said the shooting "was to intimidate and deter, so there wouldn't be further [such] incidents ... Stopping them physically was impossible. We didn't try to hurt them ... There was no arrest procedure because the distance was too great; the incident required a live fire response ... We never shouted at them, and that includes the company commander."

Another soldier, L., said S. had told them afterward that the shooting "was so that fear would make them come toward us and we'd arrest them."

Later, the soldiers said they thought the men were metal thieves.

The brigade commander, Col. Amir Abulafia, reprimanded S. for violating the rules of engagement by firing "at their legs" instead of only in the air, but told the Military Police he saw no grounds for prosecution.

The investigation was finished in mid-2009, but only in March did military prosecutors transfer the case to the civil prosecution, which has now decided to indict.

S. declined Haaretz's request for comment.