Jerusalem, Israel (HRW) – The open and casual way that a soldier appears to execute a wounded, prone Palestinian, which was captured on video, suggests a dangerous climate of impunity for war crimes. The soldier fired an assault rifle at the head of a man identified as Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif, on March 24, 2016 in the West Bank city of Nablus, after al-Sharif and another man allegedly stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier, the Israeli rights group B’tselem and local media reported.
“The video of al-Sharif’s killing by an Israeli soldier shows both an apparent cold-blooded murder and numerous witnesses, which should make for a strong legal case,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “The question is whether Israeli authorities will do what they haven’t done in countless other cases and bring the alleged killer to justice.”
The Israeli military said it was investigating the incident and had detained the soldier, but the military rarely prosecutes military personnel implicated in alleged war crimes. The laws of war apply to situations where there is a clear nexus to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.
B’Tselem said in a statement that one of its Palestinian volunteers had filmed the incident. After Al-Sharif and Ramzi al-Qasrawi, both reportedly 21-years-old, allegedly stabbed an Israeli soldier, soldiers fatally shot al-Qasrawi and wounded al-Sharif, B’Tselem and local media reported.
The video shows al-Sharif and al-Qasrawi lying immobile on the street. They are ignored by a group of soldiers, Israeli settlers, and an Israeli ambulance crew attending to an Israeli man – apparently the soldier who had been stabbed, sitting up on a gurney. In the video, unidentified voices, speaking in Hebrew, can be heard saying: “Listen this dog is alive. Get it in their heads, sapper [combat engineer]. He deserves it.”
One soldier appears to briefly speak with another soldier, raises his assault rifle, walks toward al-Sharif and, after two other soldiers step back out of the way, shoots al-Sharif in the head from a few meters away. Another video circulated on social media shows a soldier push al-Sharif’s body with his foot to roll it over.
The B’Tselem volunteer who filmed the video, Imad Abu Shamsiyyeh, told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview that Israeli forces had threatened him both at the scene and later, when he went to give a statement to the military. A few minutes after he filmed the shooting from the roof of a nearby building, he said, “more journalists gathered on the roof, and the Israeli soldiers noticed us. They pointed their guns at us and screamed at us to get down. Soldiers came into the building and told the [owner] not to allow people there or the family would pay the price.”
Abu Shamsiyyeh said that after B’Tselem shared the video with military investigators, the military asked him to give a statement. During questioning at a military office in Hebron, Abu Shamsiyyeh said he felt the interrogator was trying to intimidate him to make him say that he had not filmed the video:
He told me, ‘How will you benefit from this video? It got a lot of publicity. Your name is known to everyone. Who is going to protect you and your family from right-wing Israelis? Remember you live in [Tel Rumeida], surrounded by Israeli settlers, who will be able to protect you there?’ I felt that I was being threatened. They took the original footage from me.
Abu Shamsiyyeh said he had received two phone calls on March 24 from a Hebrew-speaker, calling from a private number, but did not understand what was said. “I feel in danger and my children are afraid,” Abu Shamsiyyeh told Human Rights Watch. “I’m not letting them out of the house. I’m afraid of walking in the street.”
The soldier who shot al-Sharif told family members, after his arrest by military police, that he feared that al-Sharif was wearing an explosive vest and might detonate it, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned al-Sharif’s killing. He said that, “What happened in Hebron does not represent the values of the Israel Defense Forces.” Military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot reportedly stated last month that the military “must not speak in catchphrases such as ‘whoever comes to slay you, slay him first,’ or state that anyone holding a knife or a pair of scissors must be killed.”
However, other statements from Israeli military and political leaders indicated that the security forces should kill Palestinians who attack Israelis. In October 2015, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said, “Anyone who comes to kill Jews must be eliminated. Any terrorist who raises a gun, knife, or rock, tries to run over or otherwise attack Jews, must be put to death, depending on the circumstances.” Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan said, “Every terrorist must know that he will not survive the attack he is about to perpetrate.”
Human Rights Watch has documented the Israeli military’s poor record of accountability for dozens of apparently unlawful killings of Palestinians in the West Bank and showed how internal investigations are often nothing more than a sham. For instance, the Israeli military has not indicted anyone for the killing of Abd al-Rahman Abdallah, 13, whom Israeli forces shot in the chest at a demonstration in Bethlehem, or for the shooting of Fadi Alloun, 19, whom security forces shot in Jerusalem while he posed no apparent threat, both in October 2015. In multiple cases since the increase in violence in the West Bank that began in October, Israeli forces killed Palestinians who had carried out attacks or attempted to, in circumstances in which they could have been arrested.
As of March 21, Palestinians have killed 24 Israelis, including members of the security forces, and Israelis have killed 181 Palestinians in various incidents on the West Bank since October, based on United Nations data. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians.
Israeli authorities should impartially investigate, fairly prosecute and appropriately punish soldiers convicted in the killing of al-Sharif, Human Rights Watch said. They should also investigate the circumstances of the killing of al-Qasrawi. The Israel Defense Forces and Prime Minister Netanyahu should publicly denounce any unlawful killings of Palestinians, revamp the training of the military for high-tension situations with Palestinian civilians, and implement a system-wide reform of the military’s investigation and prosecution of personnel implicated in serious violations of international law.
“Despite Netanyahu’s prompt condemnation of the killing of al-Sharif, the question remains whether Israeli officials will continue to encourage an environment in which Palestinians can be unlawfully killed,” Whitson said. “Without a wholesale transformation of the Israel Defense Force’s culture of impunity, and without serious measures of accountability, including holding commanders responsible for the instructions they give soldiers, we can expect such crimes to continue.”