In his dimly lit auto-parts place – part store, part garage – the bereaved father, Mustafa Erekat, sits and waits for Israel to return his son’s body at long last. On an ancient television set connected to a computer he views over and over video clips showing Israeli soldiers being trained to shoot to kill terrorists. They certainly shot to kill his son Ahmad, after his car struck a Border Police officer at the Container checkpoint (aka “the Kiosk”), which separates the northern part of the West Bank from the southern. Over two seconds, the Israeli forces fired six rounds at Ahmad Erekat, nephew of the late Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ senior diplomatic negotiator. They went on shooting even as he lay wounded on the ground. Then, for more then an hour, they denied him medical treatment. The incident occurred eight months ago, on June 23, 2020. And Israel has still not returned the body of the 27-year-old to his family for burial.
A report published this week raises a series of disturbing questions about what was presented by Israeli authorities as another unavoidable liquidation of a terrorist who tried to perpetrate a car-ramming attack, by Border Police acting in self-defense. The report was prepared by Forensic Architecture – a multidisciplinary group based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which investigates cases of killings and executions worldwide – in cooperation with Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization based in Ramallah.
Forensic Architecture prepared a three-dimensional, digital reconstruction of the events at the Container checkpoint on that day last June, beginning at 3:53 P.M., when Ahmad was shot, and ending two hours later, at 5:50 P.M., with the removal of his body. The investigators were aided by photographs and video footage from the scene, eyewitness testimony, and the opinion of an American forensic expert specializing in collisions, injury biomechanics and shooting reconstruction. The 18-minute video is narrated by the American human rights activist and philosopher Angela Davis.
The video footage offered by Israel the day after the event showed Erekat’s car approaching the checkpoint slowly and then suddenly veering to the right, its right front wheel pushing up onto the raised area where the security force’s booth stands, hitting a female Border Police officer standing at the entrance to the booth. She falls to the ground and immediately gets up.
The impression created is that of a ramming attack, but the Forensic Architecture report, entitled “The Extrajudicial Execution of Ahmad Erekat,” casts doubt on this.
The investigators reconstructed the movement of Erekat’s vehicle. It was traveling at a speed of 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) per hour and the driver did not accelerate at any stage, they said. According to the collision expert, Dr. Jeremy Bauer, from Seattle: “The acceleration of the vehicle was only 4.4 percent of its reported capacity after turning toward the booth. Thus, the driver did not rapidly accelerate into the checkpoint. Had the driver truly wanted to maximize the chance that he would surprise the guards and strike them with his vehicle, he could have accelerated to the maximum capacity of the vehicle.” Bauer even raises the possibility that Erekat tried to brake the car after veering right for an unknown reason.
Immediately after hitting the female officer, Erekat got out of the car. For their part, Israeli authorities claimed that he then tried to approach the Border Police officers standing at the checkpoint, thus endangering their lives. The Forensic Architecture team examined his movements, frame by frame. From the moment he got out of the car, according to its report, Erekat is actually seen moving away from the security forces and immediately afterward also raising both hands in what looks like a sign of surrender. He was not armed. The first shot struck him when he was four meters (13 feet) from the nearest officer, and then he is seen moving backward, and falling. The report found that at this stage the forces at the site were in no danger. (The report refers to the troops at the checkpoint as soldiers, but they were Border Police personnel.)
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One second after Erekat got out of his car, according to the footage, the first shot was fired at him, striking him in the abdomen or chest. The second shot came 0.4 seconds later, the third was fired 0.3 seconds after that – all by the same officer. Then came the three additional shots, all told six shots in two seconds. The last three were fired when Ahmad was incapacitated, lying on the ground, wounded or dying. The investigators then reconstructed the course of events that followed.
Erekat was shot at 3:53 P.M. Israel claimed he was given medical treatment shortly afterward. A video shot by an eyewitness shows him moving his arm at 3:55, so he was presumably still alive then. Next, a soldier or a Border Police officer is seen walking by, near his head, without offering any assistance.
Another clip shows Border Police officers huddling near Erekat and waving off other Palestinian vehicles from the checkpoint. No one is seen going over to him to check his condition or treat him. At some point between 3:57 and 4:03 P.M., an Israeli ambulance arrives at the scene, apparently to tend to the Border Policewoman. A bit later, at 4:15, a Palestinian ambulance also arrives, but the Border Police prevent it from approaching, providing help to or evacuating Erekat.
The Palestinian ambulance driver told the compilers of the report that he waited for 10 minutes, before being chased off by the police, in order, they said, to allow military vehicles to approach the checkpoint. The Israeli ambulance is visible at the scene for about 30 minutes, until it leaves with the wounded Border Police officer. Eight minutes later, at about 4:40, Erekat is seen lying in exactly the same position as when he fell to the ground. The investigators’ conclusion: For at least 45 minutes no one went over to Erekat to check his condition or to give him medical care. The fact is, the body remained in the same position. The report raises the possibility that his life might have been saved during this time and asserts that “the practice of denying medical care is an act of ‘killing by time.’”
The Forensic Architecture team also considered the treatment of Erekat’s body. For the first 45 minutes no one bothered to cover it; eventually it was covered with a tarp and 25 minutes later with a black plastic sheet. At 5:25 P.M., uniformed personnel arrive to photograph the body. Five minutes later the covers are removed from the body, which is seen with the shirt off. One of the security personnel, possibly a bomb-disposal expert, flips the body on its back. At 5:30, an hour and a half after the shooting, Erekat is seen lying completely naked on the ground. The report’s compilers note this fact grimly, although they left it out of the video report released to the public. About 20 police and military personnel are gathered around the body. No one is paying any attention to it, some are smoking.
At 5:50, an Israeli ambulance finally evacuated Erekat’s body. To this day it has not been returned to his family for burial.
“Ahmad is not alone,” says the Forensic Architecture report. “He is one of 70 Palestinians whose bodies have been confiscated from their families.”
The authorities this week prepared responses to the report. For its part, the Israel Police described the incident as “a documented terrorist attack that almost took the lives of the fighters at the checkpoint.” The police statement added that “any attempt to present the event differently is deluded, groundless and a fundamental lie. Contrary to what was claimed, the terrorist’s car suddenly started to accelerate deliberately, veering from its lane with the intention of striking the fighters, and indeed a female police officer was wounded. As soon as the fighters grasped that this was a ramming attack, they responded quickly and fired at the terrorist to neutralize him, and thus acted exactly as is expected of them. A bomb-disposal expert was brought to the scene to rule out the possibility of a bomb on the terrorist’s body and to declare the scene and the vehicle safe, and when he was done, the medical forces were able to work.”
A rare joint statement was issued by the Foreign Ministry, the Shin Bet security service, the IDF and the Defense Ministry: “On June 23, a Palestinian vehicle driven by Ahmad Erekat struck a security-check booth at the Kiosk checkpoint, hitting a female Border Police fighter and wounding her. Afterward Erekat emerged [from the vehicle], [moving] quickly toward Border Police fighters while waving his hands in a manner taken as threatening, and was shot by the fighters.
“The incident has been investigated, relevant materials were collected and testimony was taken from several sources by the Israel Police and the IDF. The materials provided a foundation for the [conclusion] that a deliberate car attack was carried out. In addition, findings in Erekat’s mobile phone reinforced the conclusion that a deliberate attack took place. The testimonies taken showed unequivocally that those present at the scene were certain that they were in immediate mortal danger, and that this was a terrorist who was perpetrating a deliberate attack… Contrary to what was claimed, Erekat was examined at the scene by medical personnel minutes after the attack and was found to be without a pulse and not breathing, and therefore resuscitation was not performed and his death was pronounced accordingly. During the incident, there was no humiliating treatment or injury to the dignity of the deceased. The issue of holding the body is being discussed in legal proceedings before the High Court of Justice and therefore we will not elaborate further at this time.”
And in his store Mustafa Erekat waits for his son’s body. He’s 60, a Kuwait-born Palestinian whose family origins lie in Abu Dis, next to Jerusalem; he has seven sons and daughters. Ahmad, the youngest of the seven, was born in Jerash, Jordan. In 1993, the family returned to Abu Dis.
Ahmad established a business for printing inscriptions on T-shirts. He was engaged to Lubna Mahols, proprietor of a hair salon from the nearby town of Azariya; their wedding was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The match was arranged by Ahmad’s uncle, Saeb Erekat, the veteran diplomat who was in charge of negotiations with Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
On the day Ahmad was killed, the wedding of his sister, Iman, was due to take place. Ahmad arrived at his father’s store in the late morning, and the two, says Mustafa, decided that the son would rent a car for the wedding day. He went to Azariya and rented a Hyundai. When he returned, he told his father that he was planning to go to Bethlehem to pick up the new suit he had ordered for his sister’s wedding. His father asked him to first drive his mother, Najah, and his sister, Iman, to the hair salon in Azariya, ahead of the wedding. He never saw his son again.
What happened at the Container checkpoint? Mustafa refuses to believe that his son tried to run over a policewoman, and on his sister’s wedding day, no less. But all that is behind him, and now his only wish is for his son’s body to be returned for burial. He says he was promised that the body would be given back the next day, but after Saeb Erekat accused Israel of killing his nephew for no reason, the authorities declined to return the body. Saeb Erekat died on November 10, 2020, five months after his nephew was killed.