'Confirming the Kill': Israel Sacrifices Its Moral Image

The Justice Ministry's decision not to launch an investigation in the 2015 case of police who killed an assailant already on the ground shows that ethical and legal norms don't apply to Palestinians

Scene of the incident involving Basel Ragheb Sid.

The case of the members of the Border Police who admitted that they shot and killed a Palestinian who was lying on the ground leaves one wondering to a considerable degree. The incident itself, which occurred in Jerusalem in October 2015, was clearly divided into two phases. In the first phase, the policemen saw a suspicious man near the Damascus Gate and called him over. He came to them, and the police saw that he was holding a knife.

One of the border policemen fired a sponge bullet at him ,and he started running towards the Damascus Gate — despite their calls to stop. Because he was still holding the knife and therefore still posed a danger to the police and others in the area, the border policemen then aimed live weapons fire at the center of his body. He was hit and fell to the ground. Up to that point, the policemen acted professionally, fearlessly and with determination, and their conduct is clearly supported by the law.

The difficulty arises regarding the second phase, when the suspect, Basel Ragheb Sidr, was lying on the ground, surrounded by at least six members of the Border Police. They decided to continue firing, this time at the suspect’s head, because he was still moving and was still holding the knife.

One of the policemen described the action as verifying the kill after neutralizing the suspect. The Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct decided that no investigation of the incident was warranted, saying the Border Police acted according to the law. The Prosecutor's Office backed the decision.

The conduct of law enforcement in the case was strange. It is difficult to see how a young man who is repeatedly hit by live fire and who has fallen to the ground constitutes a real danger to the significant number of armed personnel standing over him, unless one believes that terrorist suspects have hidden powers even after they have been seriously wounded.

The execution of a suspect wouldn't appear to be an act that professionals could be proud of or justify. In light of the huge disparity in the balance of forces, it is also hard to believe that the policemen acted out of panic that caused them to see things that weren't there. The accounts that the police gave of the incident show that they viewed the killing of a suspect who had already been neutralized as a level-headed, rational act.

There was also no justification for shooting the suspect in the head. Such an act under the circumstances of the case is not intended to head off danger (and there are other steps that could have been taken to accomplish that). Instead it was designed to verify the kill. Verifying the killing of a suspect who no longer constitutes a danger is illegal and cannot be justified or legally defended.

In fact, if it leads to or contributes to a fatal outcome, verifying a kill falls in the realm of manslaughter or murder — depending on the psychological state of the shooters. The law’s requirement that premeditation be present to prove murder is limited to the physical act and not the psychological process of considering an act and its outcome. As a result, in cases in which there is a clear intent to kill, it is very easy to attribute premeditation.

Of course, mine is a theoretical analysis based on the facts of the case that have been made public. But still, the incident should have merited a real investigation with regard to the second phase.

When a spate of stabbing attacks by lone-wolf assailants broke out in the fall of 2015, many politicians and security officials publicly let loose their feelings of frustration and anger. They elicited a range of responses, including the statement that a person who tries to commit an attack should not be allowed to come out alive — that is, lethal law enforcement action should be taken even if the knife can be neutralized without killing the suspect. The distinction between a neutralized terrorist and a dangerous one was obliterated by public calls for the killing of suspects who has been neutralized — in the supposed interest of justice and as a deterrence.

Anyone who was paying attention could have known that in the public atmosphere of the period, there was a good chance these calls would be heeded. But there was also reason to hope that professionals in law enforcement and in the judicial system would act differently. Among other reasons, this was because some would believe that the killing of terrorists would lead to additional copycat attacks out of identification with assailants who were killed or out of a desire to replicate their “heroism.”

The argument could also have been made that Israel is a country of laws, and that's in addition to moral considerations relating to the pride that Israeli security forces take in their moral standards.

But as it turns out, law enforcement totally backed the verification of the kill, suggesting that such a possible act didn't even merit an investigation. This time it was not even a matter of various interpretations of their views, but rather the system's official view.

This stance will certainly influence security forces in the field, who will be able to rely on these decisions. The sanctity of life apparently has its limitations in Israel. It does not apply to terrorists who are Palestinian, after they have ceased posing a danger. Why? Because they are not human beings, or at most, they are human-animals or sub-humans to whom moral and legal norms don't apply.

At first, I thought I would conclude this article with a call on the authorities to come to their senses and do what needs to be done. They should launch an investigation. On second thought, with a broken heart, I doubt there is any point to that. Will those who are so blind suddenly open their eyes and see?

And yet, they might still come to their senses, so that as a country of law, we don't forgo our moral image in this way.