Sixty Palestinians were killed in incidents involving the Israeli security forces in the West Bank over the first six months of 2022, compared to 70 such deaths in the whole of 2021. So far, Israeli Military Police investigators have opened investigations into just over a quarter of the incidents. The number of deadly incidents was significantly lower in previous years: 19 in 2020 and 20 in 2019.
The Israel Defense Forces says that in about half of this year’s cases, the Palestinians were armed and were killed during exchanges of fire or knife attacks. Four women were killed over the six-month period and 15 of those killed were under the age of 18.
The area with the highest number of fatalities was Jenin with 26 deaths, followed by Bethlehem and Nablus (both nine). Military sources attributed the high number of Palestinian fatalities to numerous IDF and special forces raids on West Bank cities, primarily Jenin, to make arrests. They added that armed Palestinians open fire on troops during such raids and throw explosive devices at the soldiers – who return fire.
However, other sources said another cause for the marked increase is a modification to the rules of engagement for when to open fire. Last December, Kan News reported that the IDF had eased the rules of engagement against those throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks. As part of the change, it was made clear to soldiers that they are allowed to shoot to kill anyone throwing firebombs and rocks, and not only while in the act.
The IDF said no real changes had been made to the rules of engagement but that the wording had been clarified.
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Since the beginning of 2022, six Palestinians were shot as a result of participating in rock-throwing, the IDF said. Eleven were killed after they threw Molotov cocktails at soldiers, military positions or roads.
Another cause of the rise is the number of reinforcements deployed along the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
At the end of March, after a Palestinian from Jenin killed five Israelis in a terror attack in Bnei Brak, the IDF began increasing security at the dozens of gaps along the separation barrier (which Palestinians have used for years to enter Israel illegally). In recent years, the IDF occasionally set up ambushes along the barrier and soldiers shot at Palestinian workers who were trying to cross illegally. They mostly used a Ruger rifle with a less lethal bullet and by aiming at the legs. Now, with a rise in the number of soldiers deployed along the fence, the number of killed and wounded has increased as well.
Only one person was shot and killed while attempting to illegally enter Israel from the West Bank in 2021, but two people have already been killed this year while trying to cross the border. One was Nabil Ahmad Ghanem, a 54-year-old father of six who worked illegally as a construction worker in the central Israeli city of Rosh Ha’ayin for 35 years.
Ghanem was shot and killed when he tried to cross the fence near Qalqilyah. The owners of plant nurseries near the scene said they heard shots, but did not witness the shooting themselves. The IDF said that Ghanem tried to damage the fence and was shot as a result. His family charged that he was shot in the back.
Tor Wennesland, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said recently: “I condemn the terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians and Arab-Israelis against civilians in Israel in recent months. These attacks, the deadliest in years, can never be justified and must be clearly condemned by all. I also condemn the continued killings of Palestinians, including children, by Israeli security forces, related in particular to incidents where they did not appear to present an imminent threat to life.”
The Americans also told Israel to reduce tensions with the Palestinians ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit this week. A senior Israeli official told Haaretz, “We don’t need an American request to understand that during this period it is worth reducing violent friction and postponing decisions of a political nature that could very well inflame and arouse confrontations on the ground.”
The UN Human Rights Office commented last week on the high number of fatalities and highlighted a number of unusual cases – mostly those in which the military shot at the upper body of Palestinians who no longer represented a threat.
The UN office cited as an example the April 30 shooting of Yahya Ali Adwan, 26, from the village of Azzun. He was shot in the back three times after throwing Molotov cocktails at IDF troops and then fleeing, it said. Video footage from a security camera released by the Palestinians showed him fleeing and then collapsing.
The UN office also commented on cases where it thought the use of force was the first and not last resort to deal with a supposed threat.
One such case occurred on May 11 when 16-year-old Thaer Muslet, from El Bireh, was killed while throwing rocks. The UN office said he was shot without posing a genuine threat to the soldiers.
Another Palestinian killed under similar circumstances was Zaid Abu Mohammed Ghanim, 14, who was shot by a soldier after rocks were thrown in the vicinity where he was. Witnesses told Haaretz that he did not participate in the incident but was instead en route to his grandmother’s house – where his parents were waiting for him.
At first, the IDF said the soldiers fired at a Palestinian who threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at them. Later, a security official said Ghanim was shot because he held a rock. Yet witnesses said he was shot while fleeing the scene and was not involved in the clashes at all.
The force that fired at him had entered al-Khader, near Bethlehem, after a group of youngsters had thrown rocks at a military post on the outskirts of the village. A Military Police investigation was opened into the shooting, Haaretz has learned.
Opening a probe
So far, Military Police investigators have opened 16 probes in the cases where Palestinians were shot and killed in the West Bank this year. The IDF has yet to decide whether to open a probe into another 19 incidents where 28 Palestinians were killed. In three cases (Haaretz does not know which ones they are), the army opted not to open an investigation.
In general, the IDF’s policy is to launch Military Police investigations into cases where a Palestinian has been shot and killed by security forces – except in instances that are described as “operations of a true combat nature.” No precise definition of such an operation exists – at least one that has been made public – but a few examples that have been provided are exchanges of fire or cases in which an urgent action was taken to save lives. This includes when a Molotov cocktail has been thrown toward a road where cars are driving or in a knife attack.
As for incidents in which shots were fired at IDF troops but the person shot and killed was not the one who fired – these are some of the questions the IDF does not provide a clear answer to.
In all of the cases, an operational inquiry is conducted. In incidents deemed to be in combat situations, the military prosecution will wait until the end of the inquiry and then decide whether to open a Military Police investigation, the IDF said.
The decision whether to open an immediate probe must be made within a week and the decision concerning combat incidents can take up to 14 weeks, with the possibility of an extension.
Among the matters examined as part of the process of deciding whether to open a criminal investigation are the level of danger represented by the person killed, and whether a soldier acted according to the rules of engagement for opening fire. These rules are classified, so it is never really possible to conduct public oversight over a decision by military prosecutors.
The IDF said the fact that a military operation has been declared – such as Operation Breakwater, which was launched in March following the wave of terror attacks and during which the IDF conducted raids in the West Bank – has no influence on the policy of opening investigations.
One case in which a Military Police investigation has been opened concerns the shooting of 19-year-old Amar Abu Afifa, from the al-Aroub refugee camp near Hebron. He was shot in the head by a soldier at the beginning of March while he was walking with a friend in a grove of trees near the refugee camp. IDF soldiers operating security cameras identified the two approaching a lookout point near a settlement and dispatched troops. Abu Afifa’s friend said that after a soldier shouted at them, they ran away from him. They them came under fire and Abu Afifa was killed by the gunfire. That evening, the IDF said there were no signs Abu Afifa threw rocks or tried to attack Israelis in any way.
Another case involves the death of Palestinian-American Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, 78, who died of a heart attack after he was violently detained by soldiers near his village.
A prominent case the IDF has yet to decide whether to investigate is the death of Ghada Ibrahim Ali Sabateen, a 45-year-old mother of six who was shot and killed by a soldier in April after she ran toward him while he was in a military position in the village of Husan, near Bethlehem.
The army said Sabateen “came near the forces in a suspicious manner.” She was not carrying a knife and, according to her family, had problems with her vision. The army regards the incident as not requiring the automatic opening of a probe and has yet to make a decision on the matter – even though in practice Sabateen did not endanger any of the soldiers.
Another case where it has yet to be decided whether to open a Military Police investigation occurred during a raid in Jenin on April 19, when Hannan Mahmud Hadur, 18, was shot and killed during an exchange of fire. Hadur lived in a village near Jenin and, according to her family, was in a taxi on her way home from a lesson.
The list of Palestinian victims does not include Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera journalist who was shot and killed during an IDF raid in Jenin in May, and according to investigations by a number of media outlets may have been shot by IDF troops. The United States also recently released a statement in which it concluded that gunfire from IDF positions was “likely responsible for the death,” though the evidence was nonetheless inconclusive. As Haaretz has reported, no Military Police investigation into her death was opened.
Palestinians who carried out terror attacks inside Israel are not included in the list either. These include Diaa Hamarsheh, Raad Hazem and Absallah Sror, and those who were shot by Israeli civilians while carrying out terrorist attacks – such as Mutasem Atallah, who was shot after entering the settlement of Tekoa, and Nidal Jafra, who stabbed a passenger on a bus in Gush Etzion.
In response to this story, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said: “At the beginning of March 2022, a terror wave began in Israel, as a result of which the IDF took preventative action in various centers in the Judea and Samaria region as part of Operation Breakwater. The operations of IDF forces are based on intelligence and regular situation assessments. As part of these operations, many people suspected of security offenses were arrested, and firearms and weapons were seized.
“In some of the cases, intense exchanges of fire developed between terrorists and IDF forces. It should be made clear that the use of live fire on the part of the security forces is done only after all other possibilities have been exhausted and according to the rules of engagement on opening fire, which meet the rules of international law.”