Israeli investigations into deaths of Palestinians often reach nowhere

Palestinian demonstrators wave their national flag as they drive toward the border fence with Israel, east of Gaza City on Monday. (AFP)
Updated 23 July 2019

Israeli investigations into deaths of Palestinians often reach nowhere

  • The Israeli military has opened investigations into 24 potentially criminal shootings of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip over the past year, The Associated Press has found

JALAZON REFUGEE CAMP/WEST BANK: Hamedo Fakhouri clearly remembers the moment when the young Palestinian who worked at his neighborhood coffee shop was shot dead.
Israeli troops were lingering after an overnight arrest raid in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem when he noticed the mentally disabled Mohammed Habali limp up the street with his wooden walking stick. Seconds later, he heard gunshots and spun around to see Habali collapse.
“I cannot forget and will not forget how this poor man was killed,” said Fakhouri.
Surveillance videos of the shooting drew outrage from Palestinians and human rights groups. Soon after, the Israeli military launched an investigation.
Witnesses say Habali was killed by Israeli troops. The military has acknowledged its forces opened fire and has not disputed the cause of his death. But seven months later, the investigation into whether soldiers were criminally at fault shows no signs of progress, illustrating what critics say is a disturbing pattern.
The Israeli military has opened investigations into 24 potentially criminal shootings of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip over the past year, The Associated Press has found. Yet none of the cases have yielded convictions or even indictments. In most instances, the army hasn’t interviewed key witnesses or retrieved evidence from the field.
B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights group, grew so frustrated with the system that in 2016 it halted its decades-long practice of assisting military investigations.
“We came to the conclusion as a human rights organization, we’re actually creating more harm than good by cooperating with the system because it is in fact a whitewash mechanism,” said the group’s spokesman, Amit Galutz. The system’s success, he said, “is measured not by its ability to protect victims, but perpetrators.”

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B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights group, grew so frustrated with the system that in 2016 it halted its decades-long practice of assisting military investigations.

In the last eight years, nearly 200 criminal investigations into the shootings of Palestinians have secured just two convictions, according to B’Tselem. One of them, a high-profile case in which a soldier was caught on video fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who was lying on the ground, resulted in a reduced sentence of nine months.
Israel says it must regularly carry out military operations in the West Bank to prevent Palestinian attacks and protect Jewish settlements. While acknowledging investigations could be faster and better staffed, Israeli officials say the system is effective, especially in light of the challenging environment in which it operates.
“We didn’t build a robust legal system, one of the best in the world, just to help soldiers escape accountability,” said Maurice Hirsch, a former chief military prosecutor in the West Bank who is now director of legal strategies for Palestinian Media Watch, a group that monitors anti-Israel rhetoric by Palestinians.
The debate could have serious implications. The Palestinians have appealed to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to press war crimes charges against Israel. Although Israel does not recognize the court’s authority, the court can pursue cases if it finds Israel unwilling or unable to carry out justice.
A week after 22-year-old Habali was shot, Palestinian teenager Mahmoud Nakhleh sat chatting with friends outside the hardscrabble West Bank refugee camp of Jalazon. Suddenly, soldiers descended from a hilltop, provoked by a different group of youths slinging stones further down the highway.
Witnesses say Nakhleh and his friends panicked and bolted at the sight of advancing army jeeps. Troops chased them into the camp and opened fire, killing the 18-year-old Nakhleh.
Omar Hameedat, 21, watched the episode unfold from his balcony. “They started shooting spontaneously,” he said, pointing to video he captured on his cellphone. “No clashes, nothing.”
In the months since the killings of Habali and Nakhleh, Israeli authorities have neither interviewed witnesses nor requested footage from them.


Various witnesses, including Hameedat, said they are prepared to cooperate.
In both cases, the army released similar statements, saying troops had responded to “disturbances” in which “dozens of Palestinians hurled stones“— a situation that automatically loosens the rules of engagement.
Deaths in such contexts are typically explained as regrettable accidents, and “usually not the consequence of any criminal decision,” said Eli Baron, Israel’s former deputy military advocate general.
Proving criminal intent is an especially high standard in Gaza, where some 200 Palestinians, most of them unarmed, have been killed in the past year during demonstrations along the border.
Israel, which withdrew its troops from the territory in 2005, says the ruling Hamas militant group uses the protests as a cover to stage attacks and notes that many protesters have tried to break through a separation fence to enter Israel. In response, the military applies the law of armed conflict, giving soldiers more leeway to open fire. This interpretation has been challenged by rights groups and the UN
In a dim living room in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, Ibrahim Ayyoub recalled the afternoon his 14-year-old son Mohammed was shot through the head by an Israeli sniper.
“Someone who executes a child will never confess to it,” Ayyoub said. “But we have to raise our voice.”
The family filed a complaint to the military through the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which said that in May, over a year after the event, two witnesses were asked to provide basic details to investigators over Skype. They have not heard back since.
Al Mezan Center for Human Rights said the army has not asked for testimony or evidence in more than 50 cases it represents.
The government is obligated under international law to investigate reports of human rights abuses “promptly, thoroughly and in good faith,” said Annyssa Bellal, an expert in international humanitarian law at the Geneva Academy.
A failure to do so could give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction, she said. The court opened a “preliminary investigation” into Israeli practices in 2015, but has not said when it will complete the probe.
Responding to a request for updates on the ongoing investigations, the army said it has launched seven criminal probes in Gaza and 16 in the West Bank over the past year.
Three of the cases were closed following a military police investigation. Another two cases were treated as an internal disciplinary matter and closed at the outset, including the shooting of a 16-year-old who was wounded in the West Bank while handcuffed and blindfolded.
The military also launched an investigation — but not a criminal probe — into the shooting of an AP cameraman who was struck in the leg while wearing a vest marked “PRESS” several hundred meters from the Gaza fence.
In the case of the AP journalist, neither the cameraman, who spent weeks recovering in an Israeli hospital, nor his supervisors were asked to testify. The army also never asked to see video of the shooting.
In its conclusion, the army said “no fire was directed” at the cameraman. It encouraged journalists to “exercise caution” when covering protests.
All of the remaining Gaza investigations, and several in the West Bank, including the deaths of Habali and Nakhleh, remain in the initial stage of military police review. Just two West Bank cases, including a medic killed in clashes at a refugee camp, are in the final stage of review before a recommendation is made on whether to press charges.
In a statement, the army stressed that its investigations are conducted in an “independent and effective manner.” It also said it often faces access and security challenges on the ground, making investigations “complicated and often lengthy.”
“We debrief every bullet,” Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, the head of Israel’s southern command, which is responsible for the Gaza border, told a conference last spring. “But we don’t always have results because of the tough conditions we’re working in.”
Hamas-ruled Gaza is off limits to Israeli investigators. Collecting evidence in Palestinian-administered parts of the West Bank can involve risky late-night operations, or relying on intermediaries who sometimes refuse to cooperate. Investigators can also struggle to get autopsy results due to the Islamic custom of quick burials.
Critics, however, say these obstacles can be overcome with technology like video conferencing, better cooperation with Palestinian security forces and improved training for investigators based on past cases going back to Israel’s 1967 seizure of the West Bank and Gaza.
They say the army has instead created a system that relies almost entirely on one-sided testimony from soldiers in which insufficient evidence becomes a common justification for closed cases.
“The army tends to give the benefit of the doubt to its own soldiers,” said Yuval Shany, a Hebrew University expert on military law.


Turkey vows not to quit besieged army post in Syria

Updated 24 August 2019

Turkey vows not to quit besieged army post in Syria

  • Calls for a ‘political solution’ to the crisis 

BEIRUT: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday said Ankara wants “a political solution to the Syrian crisis,” and that its soldiers “will not leave the besieged observation post south of Idlib” after Syrian regime forces took control of the area.
The recent advances by Bashar Assad’s forces have put Turkish troops stationed in the region in the firing line and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, threatening Ankara’s hopes of preventing a fresh wave of refugees on its southern border.
Speaking at a press conference in Lebanon, Cavusoglu said: “We are not there because we are unable to leave but because we do not want to.”
He denied that the Turkish forces are isolated in Morek, where their largest observation post is based. He said: “This post is not encircled, and no one can isolate it. The Syrian regime forces are leading activities in the vicinity of this post, we are discussing this with Russia and Iran.”
His comments followed a telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to the Anatolia Agency, Erdogan told Putin that the “developments in Idlib would cause a major humanitarian crisis” and “undermine the process of reaching a settlement in Syria and pose a serious threat to Turkish national security.”
Cavusoglu met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Rafic Chlala, the media adviser to Aoun, told Arab News: “The Turkish official gave a presentation on the current military developments in Idlib, and a view of the future was delivered, but he did not ask anything from Lebanon.”
During a joint press conference with Bassil, Cavusoglu said: “Turkey will exchange experiences with Lebanon to return Syrian refugees to their country. Ankara understands Beirut’s suffering from the refugee crisis.”
He added: “Syrian refugees are afraid of returning to their country. This fear must be dispelled, and the international community should give greater importance to meeting the basic needs of Syrians.”
Lebanon hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Beirut estimates the real figure is over 1.5 million.
Cavusoglu proposed “to organize a joint forum with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq on the return of Syrians and invite the international community to participate.”
During his meeting with Cavusoglu, Aoun said: “The international community’s continued disregard for the need for Syrian refugees to return to their country raises many questions.”
According to his media office, Aoun said the return of displaced people to their homes remains a common concern for Lebanon and Turkey. He reiterated that the provision of international assistance to refugees inside Syria is an important incentive for their return.
Aoun added: “Until now, Syrian refugees who have returned to Syria under the supervision of the Lebanese General Security did not suffer any persecution. The process of returning refugees will continue in turn.”
Cavusoglu said that Turkey shares Lebanon’s stance in supporting the return of refugees.
He told Aoun that Turkey will vote for Lebanon to establish the Human Academy for Encounter and Dialogue when the item is submitted to the UN on Sept. 13.
Berri’s media office said that talks with Cavusoglu included “the general situation in the region, the need to uphold the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, the importance of a political solution in Syria that ensures its unity and sovereignty and the return of refugees.”
Cavusoglu said: “Turkey views Lebanon as a neighbor and a sister country. The stability and growth of this country are very important for us and the region. We will continue to support Lebanon, and many Turkish energy companies want to invest there.”
The Turkish president will visit Moscow on Tuesday for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, the presidency said in a statement, days after a Turkish convoy was hit by an airstrike in Syria.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the Putin-Erdogan meeting on Aug. 27 to the Russian agencies.