Israeli Forces Admitted to Killing Downed Palestinian Assailant, but Incident Was Never Probed

Despite border policemen's admission they continued shooting after Basel Ragheb Sidr was lying wounded on the ground, the Justice Ministry department that probes police misconduct twice refused to investigate

Scene of the incident near Damascus Gate, October 14, 2015
AP

On October 14, 2015, a 19-year-old Palestinian from Hebron went to Jerusalem’s Old City to stab border policemen. He wore clothing that resembled a uniform, and when he saw that the policemen had spotted him, he ran toward them, knife in hand.

The border policemen shot him once, hitting his leg. He fell to the ground, but the knife was still in his hand. The policemen fired again, hitting him in the head. Basel Ragheb Sidr was pronounced dead on the spot.

The police in Jerusalem investigated the incident, including by questioning the three policemen who shot Sidr. One said he fired from 7 meters after Sidr was already on the ground. Another said he fired a second bullet because he saw Sidr move his head. The third said, “We confirmed the kill.”

Despite that blunt admission, and the policemen’s acknowledgment that he and his colleagues continued shooting after Sidr was wounded on the ground, the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct twice refused to investigate the incident.

The department, known by its Hebrew acronym Mahash, said there wasn’t even a suspicion that the shooting “exceeded the bounds of reasonability,” because the policemen felt their lives and the lives of others around them were threatened.

The police said they regretted Haaretz’s attempt to impugn the functioning of policemen who “neutralized an armed terrorist” during a period rife with terror attacks, including many at that very spot.

What follows is testimony by the three border policemen to the Jerusalem police.

The commander of the Border Police force at Damascus Gate, R., gave his testimony about half an hour after the incident (Haaretz has all the policemen’s full names). He said he and M., another policeman, spotted Sidr about 45 meters away. M. told Sidr to “come here,” but as he approached, M. saw that he had a knife. M. shouted “terrorist” and fired a sponge-tipped bullet.

“The terrorist began fleeing down the steps to Damascus Gate,” R. said. “We pulled out our guns and began shooting at him.”

He said they used live bullets because Sidr, whose knife was still in hand, now posed a threat to the policemen and civilians around Damascus Gate, where he was headed.

“I yelled at him in Hebrew, ‘Stop, police!’ He didn’t stop,” R. said. “I fired one bullet at him. He fell down on the plaza by the gate. I was 7 meters from him.”

Six border policemen from R.’s force then surrounded Sidr from one side, with another group of border policemen on the other. Nevertheless, R.’s men continued shooting.

An emergency response team carrying Sidr's body, October 14, 2015
Tomer Applebaum

“He was still moving, with the knife in his hand,” R. said. “I fired another bullet at his head to neutralize the threat.” Two other policemen, A. and T., also fired, R. said.

Asked by a police investigator whether the assailant had tried to stab anyone, R. said no. “But if we hadn’t reacted, there’s no doubt he’d have stabbed us,” R. added.

A.’s story was similar. He said that when he heard M. yell “terrorist” and saw Sidr begin running knife in hand, he fired twice at Sidr’s upper body. Sidr was wounded and fell down, but was still holding the knife, A. said.

“I saw the terrorist trying to get up,” he added. “The policeman next to me, R., shot the terrorist – I think another two bullets – and confirmed the kill.”

Asked by the investigator when the shooting stopped, A. said that after Sidr “was neutralized, I yelled at the policemen standing at the gate, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, the terrorist is neutralized,’ so they wouldn’t start shooting in our direction.”

M., the one who first spotted Sidr’s knife, said he was about 4 meters away when he saw Sidr pull the weapon out. He described it as a “black fold-up knife.”

M. yelled to alert the others and opened fire. He and the others then pursued Sidr, firing in a “precise, selective” manner as they went, until they saw Sidr fall down, M. added.

But as they drew nearer to the wounded man, M. saw Sidr moving his head. So he “fired another bullet or two to neutralize him definitively.”

At least 27 bullets

This testimony came to light by chance due to a complaint filed by the Yesh Din organization a month later, on November 15, 2015, on behalf of a Palestinian passerby wounded in the leg by police fire during the incident.

Mahash refused to open an investigation into that complaint, and the prosecution rejected Yesh Din’s appeal. It said the policemen had been justified in shooting at Sidr, there was no evidence that they fired negligently, and the fact that a passerby was hit by a ricochet or stray bullet was merely a regrettable accident.

Border policemen in Damascus Gate, 2017
Gil Cohen Magen

But during the appeal process, Yesh Din’s attorney, Sophia Brodsky of Michael Sfard’s law office, saw A.’s testimony that he “confirmed the kill” and pointed it out to Mahash.

Still, Mahash refused to open an investigation.

After years of back and forth with Yesh Din on the issue, Mahash delivered its final decision last month: It still sees no grounds for opening an investigation.

Yesh Din’s executive director, Lior Amihai, compared this incident to the case of soldier Elor Azaria, who was imprisoned for killing an assailant who was already wounded on the ground. But there are two significant differences.

First, Sidr was killed during the heat of the incident, not, as with Azaria, several minutes after the incident, when other soldiers were merely standing around. Second, one policeman did say he saw Sidr try to get up, though another only saw him “move his head.”

Sidr’s father, Bassem, consented to having a demand made for an investigation into the incident, but said it could not be in his name and that he did not want to be in touch.

He said he was frustrated by the refusal to investigate his son’s death and added that an autopsy of his son performed in Hebron found that he was hit by at least 27 bullets. But Haaretz has not seen any documentation confirming this claim.

Bassem Sidr said an investigation would not bring his son back to life, but might prevent similar incidents in the future.

“Even if he really intended to commit an attack, after they shot him the first time, he was no longer dangerous, so there was no reason to shoot him in this way and execute him,” the elder Sidr said. “We know that besides my son there have been other cases of confirming the kill, but nobody has stood trial.”

He also said his family “is still being persecuted, and every so often they come and search our house in Hebron. I and the rest of my family are barred from traveling.”

Mahash said that based on its review of the evidence, the policemen felt that they and the people around them were in danger, and therefore they were justified in shooting.

“Mahash isn’t authorized to investigate if it hasn’t uncovered any suspicion that policemen committed a criminal offense,” it added.

The police said: “As has been proved time after time in recent years, policemen from the Israel Police and the Border Police have acted and will continue to act against terror and terrorists professionally, resolutely and fearlessly, and neutralize any threat or immediate danger.”