Were All Palestinians Killed in Hebron Recently Really a Threat to Soldiers?

There are two versions to the recent spate of killings at Hebron checkpoints: IDF says Palestinians attacked them with knives and were shot, while Palestinians question whether the people even had knives at all. Haaretz examines the evidence.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Long-distance view of Border Police officers gathering around the dead body (unseen) of Dania Ershied, 17, who was shot to death at the Hebron checkpoint on October 25, 2015 in disputed circumstances.
Border Police officers gather around the body of Dania Ershied, 17, who was shot to death at the Hebron checkpoint in disputed circumstances on October 25, 2015.Credit: AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The gallows humor that has made the rounds in Hebron in recent weeks has given birth to a new style of joke. For example, “The Israel Defense Forces showed the media knives [that were allegedly found in the hands of Palestinians] that were made in Germany, but here we only have knives made in China.” The jokes means:

1. The IDF is planting evidence, and the proof is that Hebron is flooded with Chinese goods, not German;

2. Whoever really wants to kill a soldier in Hebron should use a German knife.

This black humor was born from the following statistics: Out of 70 Palestinians suspected of carrying out stabbing or car-ramming terror attacks between October 3 and November 9, either in the West Bank or Israel, the security forces killed 43. Twenty-four of them were residents of the Hebron district, including 18 who lived in the city itself. Nine were killed near military checkpoints that sever the heart of Palestinian Hebron from the rest of its neighborhoods. A defense source told Haaretz there have been at least 10 other incidents, unreported, in which people were arrested carrying knives at checkpoints in Hebron during the same period.

The Palestinians do not believe the standard Israeli version that the soldiers’ lives were in danger and therefore they had to kill the person. In some cases, they question whether the Palestinians even tried to attack the soldiers.

Israeli media reports about the killings are uniform: A terrorist / male or female / attempted stabbing / terrorist killed. / Soldier / male or female / lightly wounded. Or no casualties among our forces.

Haaretz independently examined six of the cases. Three cases were detailed in Amnesty International reports. On November 5, Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and the Border Police spokesperson to comment on eight deaths (here we will discuss only five of them). After six days, Haaretz received a short and generic response, unrelated to our specific questions.

There are security cameras beside every checkpoint and settlement complex. Palestinians are convinced that the IDF permits only the publication of those videos that support its story, and refuses to release footage that proves the opposite. Haaretz’s request to the IDF to see the security camera footage was not answered.

The parents of Dania Ershied, who was shot to death at a Hebron checkpoint on October 25, 2015.Credit: Amira Hass

The black humor in Hebron also spawned another joke: Those passing through the checkpoints to the Old City should say the Surat al-Fatiah (the opening chapter of the Koran). In other words – prepare for death.

Dania Ershied, 17, passed through the Hebron mosque checkpoint on October 25 at about 1:30 P.M. The checkpoint cuts off the way from the old market to the mosque square/Tomb of the Patriarchs. It was a Sunday. The normal afternoon lesson for Dania’s English course had been canceled, her parents later learned. She had no cell phone, and her house is without an Internet connection: That was how her father tried to protect her and maintain her innocence. In their simple apartment (which they rent from his father), her parents showed me the childlike pictures she drew and the handicrafts she loved to do.

Instead of the English lesson, Ershied walked down the street to the checkpoint. A few Border Police officers were in the hut; others were outside it. The checkpoint itself consists of a revolving iron gate, with a metal detector gate and another revolving iron gate beyond that. A small table stands between the hut and the gate, and a large table stands outside the second revolving gate. There are also movable separation barriers that can be positioned as needed.

The Israeli media reports were more or less the same. For example, a Haredi news website quotes a police spokesman saying: “The Palestinian woman aroused the suspicions of Border Police officers. She was asked to identify herself but suddenly pulled out a knife and drew near the soldiers while shouting at them. The soldiers fired precisely and she was neutralized. There were no injuries to our forces.”

IDF soldiers around the body of Mahdi al-Muhtaseb, 24, who was shot to death while fleeing from a checkpoint in Hebron, October 29, 2015Credit: Reuters

In a video published on the NRG website, in which Ershied’s body is seen lying on the ground behind the overturned large table, a person says, breathing hard: “A terrorist tried to stab soldiers. Thank God she was shot and killed.”

A Palestinian witness who entered through the checkpoint gates after Ershied told Haaretz that the 17-year-old passed through the metal detector gate and the two revolving gates, and was then asked to hand over her bag. The police officer put the bag on the table and shouted at her, “Where’s the knife? Where’s the knife?”

The witness said Ershied looked scared, raised her hands and shouted, “I don’t have a knife, I don’t have a knife!” A police officer fired a warning shot that scared her even more. She jumped back (placing her out of sight of the witness, who at this point was ushered away by the police) and continued to shout that she didn’t have a knife. But one policeman or maybe more shot and killed her.

In the Amnesty International report, which contains a similar testimony, it was noted that in the pictures released afterward, a knife was seen alongside the body. A defense source told Haaretz that Ershied had “suddenly pulled out a knife and moved closer to the soldiers. At this stage, it does not matter how old the person is – after all, yesterday we saw kids, 11 and 13 years old [the light-rail stabbing attack in Jerusalem on November 10]. When you look at a [young woman] such as Dania, she comes with a knife to the checkpoint. They call on her to stop. She moves closer to the soldiers and they shoot her.” The defense source did not address the witness’ statement.

The scene in Hebron where Sa'ad Al-Atrash died on October 26, 2015.Credit: AP

Mahdi al-Muhtaseb, 24, worked in two sweet-pastry bakeries. On the evening of October 29, he had plans to meet the young woman who was intended to be his fiancée. In the preceding days, he bought a large amount of nutritional supplements to complement his workouts at the gym. “Such a person is not thinking of suicide, nor about prison,” his mourning father and brother told Haaretz a week ago, at their home in Hebron’s Al-Kassara neighborhood. On the morning of October 29, he walked, as per usual, to his second job in the Al-Dik neighborhood – to a relatively new bakery called Tito. His home, the route, the bakery – all are in the H2 area under full Israeli control, although his home and the bakery are outside the area where the settlers live. On the way, he had to pass through the Al-Salaymeh checkpoint.

Something happened at the checkpoint: Perhaps a fight broke out between a soldier from the Kfir Brigade and Muhtaseb. His family and neighbors assume the soldier taunted the young Palestinian, as often happens at the checkpoints, and that Muhtaseb retaliated. The soldier was wounded in the head. A neighbor said he noticed a soldier bleeding from his face. Muhtaseb started to run away. The owner of a nearby store saw him running and then heard heavy gunfire; shots also hit a car and the road. The store owner rushed to close his doors and go up onto the roof. In those few minutes, as video footage shows, Muhtaseb lay injured on the ground. Two Border Police officers were just five feet away from him, aiming their rifles. Muhtaseb moved a bit and raised his torso, and then one of the officers shot and killed him. The store owner, who had already reached the roof and knows Hebrew, heard one of the soldiers shouting, “No one take him and don’t touch him.”

Haaretz asked the defense source why the soldiers killed Muhtaseb, who was already lying injured on the ground. “You must get into the soldiers’ heads and understand their perspective,” the source said. “A Palestinian comes and stabs a soldier in the head and flees [to a neighborhood where there are no Jews or soldiers – A.H.]. We don’t know if he has an explosive device on him or a weapon. The soldier asks [him] not to move. At some stage he tries to get up – and the soldier shoots again. That is what is expected of the soldier. Because maybe the terrorist was a suicide bomber with an explosive device, or takes out a gun and shoots him. You never know,” he adds.

When told that Muhtaseb could have used the gun from the start, had he had one, the defense source responded, “Do you remember the case of Charlie Shlush? [A Border Police officer who, in October 1990, shot and wounded a Palestinian who had knifed to death two Israelis in Jerusalem. When Shlush went to arrest him, the Palestinian pulled out a knife and fatally stabbed Shlush in the chest.] You must remember, this is not a sterile [crime] scene. There are a lot of scenarios that, because of the terrorist threat, can still cause harm to the troops. They receive instructions, and those are the instructions,” he said.

The last person to see cousins Bassam and Hussam Jabari – 15 and 18, respectively – alive was a Palestinian who lives near the Rajabi house, where a new settlement complex was established last year (Beit Hashalom, the House of Peace). This witness said that on their way home, at about 8 P.M. on October 20, the young men passed through the military checkpoint and the metal detector gate behind the Rajabi house and neared the intersection, near the road that leads from Kiryat Arba to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

The witness told Haaretz that the two cousins got frightened when a large group of settlers marched down the road, demonstrating over the killing of a Kiryat Arba resident in a car-ramming attack. He invited the boys to come into his house, but a soldier appeared suddenly and called for them to come to him. After that, all three went out of view because they were walking on the path behind the Rajbi house. A short time later, he heard a burst of gunfire. Pictures on Israeli websites show Hussam lying bleeding with a knife in his hand and Bassam sitting on the ground, a narrow and long object in his left hand. The Palestinian witness wonders how, if they had knives, the metal detector didn’t beep when they went through the checkpoint.

This question prompts the Palestinian conclusion that the knives, or what appear to be knives, were planted on them. Such claims have been made in other cases, too, including Sa’ad Al-Atrash, who was shot to death by a soldier at the Abu Arish checkpoint on October 26. The Amnesty International report described the killing as a particularly egregious example of excessive use of lethal force.

The report is based on a witness who saw what happened from the balcony of her house. She said Atrash came close to the soldiers and one of them asked to see his identity card. As soon as he put his hand into his pocket to retrieve the identity card, she said, another soldier who was standing behind him shot him on his right side. The witness said the soldier fired six or seven times, and Atrash lay on the ground bleeding for about 40 minutes without receiving medical aid. She also said she saw soldiers bring a knife and place it in the dying man’s hand.

The NRG website reported that day, “A Palestinian terrorist came close to an IDF force in the position located next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, at the entrance to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. He tried to stab one of the soldiers there, but was shot and killed. The IDF Spokesperson’s Office said an attempt was made to stab a soldier next to the Jewish community of Hebron. An IDF force fired in order to remove the threat. There were no Israeli casualties.”

Spokesmen for the IDF and Border Police issued a generic response to Haaretz: “With regard to the planting of knives at the scene of the incident, this is a false claim; no knives were planted by IDF soldiers or Border Police forces. Any attempt to distort the situation is unacceptable.”

The witnesses in the four cases in question point to a regular pattern after the shootings: Soldiers and settlers crowd around the person (whether seriously wounded or dead), photographing him from every angle. The soldiers strip him of his clothes. Medical care is not provided in order to try and save lives. The body is removed after 30 to 40 minutes.

The IDF spokesman and Border Police added: “In all the examples cited, the distance between the soldiers and terrorists was short and the soldiers felt an immediate life-threatening danger. Consequently, they opened fire to remove the threat, in accordance with the rules of engagement.

“The events in question, as well as the claims about the manner in which the shooting was conducted, were investigated and the conclusions were passed onto forces in the field and for the examination of the military prosecutor’s office. IDF medical forces in the West Bank provide medical care to the residents of the region, Jews and Palestinians alike. In operational incidents, a quick check is made by the force to rule out the threat of an explosive device, and then medical care is provided immediately. In places where this did not happen, the procedure has been refined.”

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