Sources: Palestinian Teen Killed by Bullet to Head, Despite Israeli Police Denial

Israeli pathologists who performed autopsy said to agree; death of Mohammed Sunuqrut, 16, has sparked violent protests in East Jerusalem.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Palestinians carrying the body of Mohammed Sunuqrut during his funeral in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Wadi Joz, September 8, 2014.
Palestinians carrying the body of Mohammed Sunuqrut during his funeral in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Wadi Joz, September 8, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Palestinian teenager who died Sunday of injuries incurred during a demonstration in East Jerusalem could only have been killed by a plastic or sponge-tipped bullet, not by a fall as police have claimed, according to Israeli and Palestinian sources.

Mohammed Sunuqrut, 16, was seriously injured during a demonstration in the Wadi Joz neighborhood on August 31. His family claimed he was shot in the head at close range with a rubber-coated bullet. But police insisted he had been shot in the leg, causing him to fall and hit his head on the pavement.

After he died, his family commissioned a Palestinian pathologist, Dr. Saber al-Aloul, to attend the autopsy, which was performed at Israel’s Institute of Forensic Medicine in Abu Kabir. According to Aloul, Sunuqrut died of a fractured skull and cerebral hemorrhage from the projectile fired from less than 10 meters away, said sources close to the Palestinian pathologist who performed the autopsy.

The Israeli pathologist who conducted the autopsy has not yet published his report. But Israeli sources agreed the boy’s fatal injury was caused by a nonmetal bullet rather than a fall, based on both the size of the wound and the nature of the fracture. The autopsy report has not yet been released.

If Sunuqrut was killed by a sponge-tipped bullet, he would be the first person in Israel killed by this ammunition.

In recent months Jerusalem police have been using a larger, heavier sponge-tipped bullet. Medical teams, journalists and Palestinian activists say the new bullet causes graver bodily harm than the previous kind and may even be fatal, as it appears in Mohammed Sunuqrut’s case.

The use of sponge-tipped bullets as a non-lethal weapon in Jerusalem demonstrations is very widespread. Police started using these bullets several years ago after the Or Commission banned the use of rubber-coated bullets in its report about the police’s killing of 13 Arab demonstrators in October 2000. The IDF still uses rubber-coated bullets in the West Bank.

Symbols of the conflict

The sponge-tipped bullet chains that Jerusalem police wear in a cross on their chests have become one of the conflict symbols in East Jerusalem. Palestinian officials say police officers hide these chains under their shirts and pull them out when deemed necessary.

Sponge-tipped bullets are made of 40-mm-diameter plastic with a sponge tip intended to reduce the bodily injury it causes.

A B’Tselem report issued some two years ago found that a sponge-tipped bullet “if used according to the safety regulations, is less dangerous than a rubber-coated metal bullet.”

Indeed, over the past few years, despite the common use of these bullets in violent demonstrations in East Jerusalem, they have only caused grave injury when hitting people in the eyes. Even then, in most of these cases, the injury ended with bad bruising and pain that passed in a few days.

But in recent months Palestinian activists and medical teams in East Jerusalem have noticed the appearance of the new, black sponge-tipped bullet, which is longer and heavier than the previous, blue one. It weighs 62 grams, compared to the blue one’s 30 grams and is denser. “It’s much heavier,” says Dr. Amin Abu Ghazaleh of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Jerusalem.

“Anyone shot by this bullet suffers an open wound and if it hits the head from a short distance, it could cause brain damage,” he says of the black bullets.

Police have been using black sponge-tipped bullets more frequently in Jerusalem in the past two months, when the city’s eastside was swept up in riots after the murder of local teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists.

A few hours after the 16-year-old Abu Khdeir’s murder, a few journalists stood near the family’s house to cover the clashes between neighborhood youths and policemen. Tali Mayer, a news photographer for the Walla! site, stood on one side talking to two other photographers when a sponge-tipped bullet hit her on the cheek and she collapsed to the ground.

“I heard a sort of shriek and checked with my tongue that my teeth were in place,” she says. She and the other photographers believe the police officer who shot her stood 70-100 meters away. Despite that, she suffered two jaw fractures and deep cuts.

All the officials in East Jerusalem who are familiar with the damage caused by the blue sponge-tipped bullets say a bullet like that couldn’t have caused such a serious wound, certainly not from such a distance.

Police regulations forbid firing the blue sponge-tipped bullet at the upper torso, which “can be dangerous.” The officers authorized to use these bullets undergo special training that includes “an emphasis on assessing distances,” the regulations say.

If Sunuqrut was hit in the head by a sponge-tipped bullet, then, as in Mayer’s case, the shooter apparently didn’t make sure to aim at the lower part of the body. The boy’s relatives say officers shot him from a range of 10-20 meters while he was talking to his aunt on the telephone. He was not involved in the protests in the neighborhood, they say.

The family has a photo of Sunuqrut lying on the ground, blood flowing from his head, still holding his mobile phone to his ear. But no eyewitness was standing near him at the moment he was shot.

Police deny the family’s claims and say the officers shot the boy while chasing him, after he had thrown stones.

The officers were the first to reach Sunuqrut after he fell. They surrounded him and for several minutes prevented anyone from getting near him. In the recorded telephone call to Magen David Adom rescue services, a man called Ahmed is heard describing the boy’s rapid deterioration after he had been shot.

“He was shot in the head, he’s unconscious,” says Ahmed. He told the operator that Sunuqrut’s head was swelling, blood was flowing from him and he was throwing up.

The teen was taken by the Red Crescent to Al Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem and later sent for treatment to Hadassah Ein Kerem, where he was diagnosed as clinically dead. He died a week later.

Jerusalem police said they would respond after the autopsy report is officially released.

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