How does the Israel Defense Forces learn lessons, and how does its system of justice go about bringing to trial soldiers who kill someone for no reason in order to try to prevent the recurrence of criminal acts? Answer: It doesn't. The result is that the cycle continues, unbroken, sometimes with harrowing similarities, as is evident in the West Bank village of Budrus.
In January 2013, IDF soldiers killed a 16-year-old high-school student, Samir Awad. He had gone down to a section of the separation barrier near his school, a definitive act of courage among the village children. He was shot in the leg from an ambush organized by four soldiers concealed amid prickly pear cactuses. When the wounded youth tried to escape, he was shot again, from behind, and killed. One live bullet struck Samir in the head, another in the back. The story of his shocking death resonated to some extent in Israel. One IDF officer even told Haaretz that the incident was “not good.” The military prosecution launched an investigation.
Nearly three years passed and, as usual, nothing came of it. But earlier this month, the High Court of Justice, in response to a petition submitted by the teen’s family and the B’Tselem human rights organization, ruled that the two soldiers suspected of having carried out the killing must be placed on trial before the end of this year. It was decided by the Military Advocate General that they will be charged with the ridiculous offenses of “rashness and carelessness with firearms.” In the view of B’Tselem, “the disparity between the gravity of the soldiers’ actions and the lightness of the [charges] is incomprehensible.”
Even less comprehensible is that last Friday, soldiers killed a young man from the same village, in exactly the same place, under appallingly similar circumstances, with the same intolerably light finger on the trigger. Twenty-two year-old Lafi Awad was shot in the leg, tried to escape and was then shot in the back at close range. Like Samir, he was killed; like Samir, he was unarmed and posed no danger to the soldiers as he tried to run for his life.
The looks on the faces of the group of young men sitting by Lafi’s newly dug grave in the small cemetery of Budrus say it all. Every so often another person joins them, claps his hands in disbelief and sorrow, covers his eyes, whispers a prayer and sits down next to others on the mound of earth around the grave. They sit in silence, gaze fixed grimly on the burial site of their friend, who just last Friday was still with them. A ghastly silence hangs over the graveyard. A few masked individuals walk between the headstones, ahead of the daily clash with soldiers in protest of the separation barrier that was built on their land and that has choked their village.
M., the youth who was with Lafi in his final moments, will soon arrive.
Lafi was killed on the slope of this cemetery. Memories of Samir’s death struck us vividly when we visited the site this week. Bloodstains on a rock, marking Samir’s route as he tried to flee, are still there, though faded now. We didn’t see signs of Lafi’s blood, though he was killed on the same rocky ground.
Two fearsome electric poles are poised on the two sides of the cemetery, cameras mounted on them to observe the goings-on here day and night. The separation fence below is breached in several places. No soldiers are posted there when we visit, but the local youngsters know that even now troops are hiding somewhere in the area, lurking in ambush for anyone who tries to approach the fence.
Last Friday, too, the young people went down the hill toward the fence. It was the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death, and the village marked the occasion with a memorial gathering in the mosque, after which the more daring youths made their way to the fence. They threw stones at the armored jeeps; the soldiers responded with tear gas. An easterly wind was blowing, and initially, the tear gas drifted back toward the soldiers. They redeployed.
Lafi Awad, as always, was in the front row of the young people nearest the fence. It was dusk, after 5 P.M., just before both sides would leave the vicinity, with the fall of darkness. Again, as in the case of Samir, a few soldiers suddenly emerged from their hiding place behind the bushes, on the village side of the fence. On the other side of the fence were two armored IDF vehicles.
M., an 18-year-old high-school senior wearing a hoodie, says now that he knew someone was going to die here that day. But the truth is, he’s always apprehensive about that.
Five young people approached the fence but retreated, driven back by the tear gas. A few minutes later they returned, heading for the fence. One of them had had his hat fall off, and he wanted to retrieve it. They thought the jeeps had left. And then the soldiers burst out from their ambush.
According to M., the soldiers called to Lafi to stop, then chased and caught him. His four friends tried to free him; they were just a few meters from the soldiers. A stone thrown by one of the youths struck a soldier’s helmet, and Lafi managed to break away. The soldier shot him in the leg with a rubber-coated bullet from zero range. M. remembers Lafi holding his leg in pain.
Lafi was able to get about three meters away from the soldiers, but then one of them – not the one who fired the rubber bullet – shot him in the back once with a live round. Lafi collapsed. It wasn’t clear whether he died on the spot, certainly he was in critical condition. M.’s shock at the death of his close friend is still very apparent.
The soldiers immediately retreated. A Palestinian tried to rush Lafi to a hospital in his car. But the soldiers manning the checkpoint in the neighboring village of Na’alin refused to allow the vehicle to pass. Finally the driver took an alternative route. By the time he reached the hospital there was no more to be done: Lafi was dead. The bullet had entered his back and exited via his abdomen. One bullet, two holes in the body, the postmortem photograph shows. The IDF claimed the next day that Lafi had tried to grab the weapon of one of the soldiers, but eyewitnesses dismiss this out of hand.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated in response this week: “The event will be investigated.”
Yusuf, Lafi’s bereaved father, sits in the house of mourning, shattered and stunned. It’s hard for him to speak. “This was a son, a piece of your heart.” He had been herding his goats when someone called to tell him what had happened. Lafi had spent 16 months in an Israeli jail for throwing stones and other offenses.
“Yesterday I heard on Israeli radio that people said Lafi stole the weapon from the soldier,” says Yusuf. “How could that be? He was wounded and he would try to grab a weapon?”
Ayad Murad, a village activist who was our escort in Budrus, says that during the past few weeks, Israeli troops have entered the village almost every night. Sometimes the soldiers throw stun grenades, or fire tear-gas canisters into homes, causing huge fright.
Canisters, casings of bullets and remnants of burnt tires from last Friday and other days are scattered on the ground in the cemetery. The school that both Samir and Lafi attended is close by, overlooking the separation fence and the site where the two young local people were killed.
This is the Budrus triangle of death: school, cemetery, separation barrier.
Here is Samir Awad’s grave, covered by a headstone. And here, just a few steps away, is the fresh grave of Lafi Awad.