Israeli Soldiers Often Contaminate Evidence After Shooting Palestinian Assailants, Prosecutors Say

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Israeli security forces inspect the body of a Palestinian identified as Amjad Sukkari, inside a car, at the checkpoint between the city of Ramallah and Jewish settlement of Beit El in the West Bank. Sukkari opened fire at a West Bank checkpoint and wounded three people, the Israeli military said.
The scene of shooting attack at the checkpoint between the city of Ramallah and Beit El, January 31, 2016.Credit: Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP

It is often impossible to investigate cases where soldiers shoot Palestinians, because the soldiers disturb the evidence at alleged terror attack scene, senior prosecutors and police officers warned the Israeli Defense Forces.

Nor is this just a problem for the law enforcement agencies, they warned. It could also become a serious problem for the army itself, because it could make it harder to defend soldiers in civil or criminal proceedings overseas.

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Police and prosecutors first warned the army about this problem in March, about a week before one such shooting became a cause celebre: soldier Elor Azaria’s shooting of a Palestinian assailant in Hebron when the Palestinian was already lying on the ground severely wounded.

aeli security forces gather at the scene of a stabbing attack, where a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier before he was shot dead, in the West Bank city of Hebron on September 17, 2016.Credit: AFP / Hazem Bader

There have been many cases in which soldiers or border policemen shot Palestinians since a wave of Palestinian stabbing and car-ramming attacks began in October 2015. Often, the Palestinians in question were armed with knives and had intended to stab the Israelis. But given the plethora of such incidents, both Palestinians and international organizations have begun trying to launch legal proceedings against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

To prepare for this possibility, the prosecution began examining various West Bank incidents that ended with a Palestinian being shot. This review led it to conclude that in many cases, discovering what really happened was impossible, because the evidence at the scene had been disturbed.

The prosecutor in charge of this issue is Shlomo Abramzon of the prosecution’s special tasks department. He also handles issues such as ideological crime, freedom of expression cases and cases involving the laws of war.

A few days before Azaria’s shooting, Abramson sent a memo to the Israel Defense Forces, the police and other agencies warning that the situation was problematic and urging the police to examine the status of its own investigations into cases where Palestinians were killed in the West Bank.

The scene of a stabbing attack in Netanya on Thursday, June 30, 2016.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Police indeed began reviewing these cases, and concluded that Abramson was right: Soldiers weren’t obeying the rules for preserving evidence in places where terrorists or suspected terrorists were shot.

In many cases, large numbers of soldiers, civilians, medical and security personnel flock to the scene and handle the evidence, so crime lab tests become impossible. They also trample over bloodstains and leave footprints all over. There have also been cases where evidence disappeared, or where commanders on the scene sent witnesses away before police or Military Police investigators arrived. All this makes it impossible for investigators to determine what really happened.

In one case last year, for instance, a brigade commander arrived at the scene after border policemen had shot a Palestinian and took various steps that obstructed the investigation. Law enforcement personnel say they have no evidence that he did so with malice aforethought, but his actions left the scene of the shooting in a state that made investigation impossible.

Law enforcement sources cited several cases in which evidence was badly disrupted. One occurred in November 2015, when the former head of the Samaria Regional council, Gershon Mesika, ostensibly thwarted an attack by running over a Palestinian woman who was trying to stab soldiers. Another involved a soldier who shot a Palestinian woman carrying a knife at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Scene from a video released on March 24, 2016 by B'Tselem showing IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria aiming his weapon before shooting in the head and killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron.Credit: AFP

Abramzon sent his memo last March to two army officers: Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, head of the army’s Central Command, and Brig. Gen. Lior Carmeli, commander of the IDF forces in the West Bank. About a week later, the Azaria shooting occurred, bringing many of the problems the law enforcement agencies decried to the fore.

In response to Haaretz’s request for comment, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said: “The IDF is extremely careful to preserve and document the findings in every case in which a suspicion exists of the commission of a crime. The investigation of criminal incidents is conducted by the IDF as required by law and the decisions concerning them are made in a professional and orderly manner. The instructions that emphasize the importance of this are distributed regularly to all the relevant bodies. In a case in which a gap is found within the framework of the investigation, it is investigated and conclusions are drawn form it appropriately. We have no intention on commenting on internal discussions.”

A spokesperson for the state prosecution said, “This involves an internal discussion among law enforcement agencies, and therefore, we don’t consider it appropriate to discuss it publicly.”

A police spokesperson responded, “Issues related to security matters are dealt with through close cooperation among all the relevant agencies, including the prosecution, the police and the IDF. We do not intend divulge the professional discussions, which have both defense and law-enforcement aspects, that are conducted among these agencies.”

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