[The following report was published by Amnesty International on 27 February 2014]
Trigger-Happy: Israel`s Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank
“Out of nowhere many soldiers jumped out and ambushed Samir. They shot him first in the leg, yet he managed to run away towards the village. But how far can an injured child run? Twenty, maybe 30, metres? They could have easily arrested him, especially when he was injured, but instead they shot him in the back with live ammunition… To me this is premeditated murder.”
Malek Murrar, 16, interviewed on 20 September 2013 at the site where he had witnessed his friend Samir Awad being shot earlier in the year.
Samir Awad was just 16 years old when Israeli soldiers shot and killed him in January 2013 as he fled from the place where a number of Israeli soldiers ambushed a group of Palestinian children who were protesting against the construction of Israel’s fence/wall, which cuts across the village of Bodrus, near Ramallah in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), where they lived. Eyewitnesses attested that Samir Awad and the other children were posing no serious threat to the soldiers who fired at them, or to others. Yet, more than one year later, the Israeli authorities have failed to ensure any accountability for his death or for their soldiers’ use of live fire against Samir Awad and the other children.
The circumstances of the killing of Samir Awad were reminiscent of other killings of Palestinians during demonstrations against Israel’s continued military occupation in the West Bank that have occurred in recent years. According to Amnesty International’s research, he was among the first of at least 22 Palestinian civilians to be killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank in 2013, four of whom were children. Thousands of other Palestinians were wounded by Israeli forces in the same year.
Recent years have seen a mounting toll of deaths and injuries of Palestinians as a result of shooting or other violence by Israeli soldiers outside the context of armed conflict. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 27 Palestinians were killed in 2013 by Israeli forces (25 by live ammunition and two by rubber-coated metal bullets). This was 1.5 times the number of those killed in 2011 and 2012 combined; 10 were killed in 2011 (eight by live ammunition, one by a tear gas canister and one following tear gas inhalation) and another eight in 2012 (all by live ammunition), a total of 18.
The shooting of Samir Awad followed a familiar pattern in which groups of Palestinians, usually comprising mostly children and young adults, gather to protest against Israeli occupation, as well as the policies and practices that underpin it, including the creation and expansion of illegal settlements, land seizures, closures, arrests and detentions and other violations of the rights of Palestinians. Often, these groups resort to low-level violence, throwing stones and rocks at Israeli soldiers but without posing any serious risk to them due to the distance and the heavily protected nature of their positions. In return, Israeli soldiers use a wide variety of measures against the protesters; these include less-lethal means such as various chemical irritants (commonly called tear gas), pepper spray, stun grenades (sound bombs), maloderants (foul-smelling “skunk water”) and hand-held batons, but on frequent occasions Israeli forces have also resorted to lethal means and have fired rubber-coated metal bullets and live firearms ammunition at protesters, causing deaths and injuries. In some cases, they have also killed or injured demonstrators by firing tear gas directly at them from close range or by using tear gas in enclosed spaces causing asphyxiation. Often, the force used by Israeli forces against protesters seems to be unnecessary, arbitrary and abusive.
The Occupied Palestinian Territories
The area compromising the OPT is made up of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip – areas that Israel occupied in 1967 and has continued to control during the more than four decades since then. In 1994 the Oslo Accords agreed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), with limited jurisdiction over parts of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. The establishment of the PA and the admission of Palestine as a non-member observer state at the UN General Assembly in 2012 did not change the status of the OPT under international law; they remained territories under Israeli military occupation. Israel retains effective control over them, including their population, their natural resources and, with the exception of Gaza’s short southern border with Egypt, their land and sea borders and airspace.
Both the Israeli army and the police, including the Border Police, have authority to police Palestinian public assemblies, including protests, in the West Bank; in East Jerusalem, however, only the police exercise such authority. The police, but not the army, have policing powers in relation to Israeli settlers.
Within the West Bank, the Oslo Accords gave the PA jurisdiction over civil affairs (such as health, education and internal security) in approximately 40 per cent of the land area, comprising some 230 separate enclaves each surrounded by other areas of the West Bank that remain under full Israeli military administration. Only in these areas do the PA security forces have authority to, among things, police demonstrations.
The PA also exercised similar, limited powers in the densely populated Gaza Strip until June 2007, when escalating armed clashes between security forces and armed groups loyal to the two main Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, culminated in Hamas seizing control of PA institutions in the Gaza Strip. Since then, Hamas has acted as the de facto government of Gaza while Fatah remains the dominant party comprising the PA government in the West Bank.
All three authorities – Israel, the PA and the Hamas de facto administration in Gaza – have responsibilities to respect international human rights law and international humanitarian law, while Israel also has specific obligations under international humanitarian law relevant to its status as an occupying power, in particular towards Palestinian civilians in the OPT who are “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
In recent years, the West Bank has seen continuing protests against the prolonged Israeli occupation and the repressive policies, practices and outcomes to which it has given rise, including the ever-expanding unlawful Israeli settlements established within the occupied West Bank, the 800km-long fence/wall built mostly on Palestinian land, forcible house demolitions, Israeli military checkpoints, roads reserved for use by Israeli settlers from which Palestinians are excluded, and other restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the OPT. More than a dozen Palestinian villages and communities in the West Bank that are most directly affected either by the location of the fence/wall and/or by the location of Jewish-only settlements built on Palestinian lands hold weekly demonstrations to protest against Israeli policies and their impact; they include the villages of Nabi Saleh, Bil’in, Ni’lin and Kufr Qadum, and urban centres such as Hebron and East Jerusalem. Protests are also held against the imprisonment and detention of thousands of Palestinian activists and their treatment in Israeli prisons and in response to other developments such as Israeli military strikes in Gaza and the killing or injury of Palestinians in protests or during arrest raids.
The right to peaceful protest is of particular importance for Palestinians in the OPT, as they have no opportunity to influence the policy of the occupying power through voting or other such means. To an extent, exercising the right to protest in full view of well-armed Israeli troops, despite the evident dangers that this presents, has also become a mark of defiance by Palestinians, especially youth, against the continuing occupation and its daily humiliations. In villages such as Nabi Saleh, where demonstrations are held on a weekly basis, the repressive response of Israeli forces may amount to collective punishment. Israeli forces frequently declare Nabi Saleh a closed military zone, block access roads into it, and use excessive force against protesters and bystanders and damage residents’ property. Israeliforces have used tear gas against homes, sometimes injuring people inside – mainly by the asphyxiating effects of tear gas – and have deliberately damaged property such as residents’ water storage tanks located on rooftops. Israeli forces have also frequently attacked medics seeking to assist people wounded, human rights defenders and journalists who are present to monitor their behaviour or report on protests, including by firing tear gas canisters and rubber-coated metal bullets at them. The approach appears intended to intimidate people into not attending the protests.
Some protests are organized by local activists and community groups and are held regularly, often at a set time each week, while others develop spontaneously in response to actions such as Israeli army incursions into Palestinian communities in the West Bank, raids on Palestinian homes leading to arrests or the deaths of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. When these happen, protesters have tended to gather near the main points of regular friction between Palestinians and the army, such as the military towers and checkpoints that Israel maintains near the Qalandia, Aida, Fawwar, Aroub and other refugee camps for Palestinians displaced by Israel in 1948.
Both types of protests frequently begin peacefully but descend into violence when a minority of the protesters, often younger ones, start throwing stones in the direction of Israeli soldiers either at their own initiative or in response to aggressive actions by the Israeli forces. Even when catapults are used, in practice such stone-throwing poses little or no serious risk to Israeli soldiers, who are generally too far away for the stone-throwers to have any chance of hitting them and are well protected, and has no more than an irritant value. Often, the stone- throwers are seeking to hit inanimate targets – such as the fence/wall, which is up to around eight metres high, or the military observation towers that overlook it and local Palestinian villages, or Israeli military vehicles – that stand as the most tangible symbols of continuing Israeli military occupation. Yet, as the cases documented in this report show, Israeli forces frequently respond to such stone-throwing protests using grossly excessive force, including the use of live fire against protesters, causing unnecessary – and unlawful – deaths and injuries. On occasions, the army has claimed that protesters used petrol bombs but if such cases did occur they were departures from the norm, and even then may have posed little risk to Israeli soldiers due to the distance from which they were thrown. Reports alleging the use of firearms by protesters are rare; on two occasions in 2013 the army alleged that Israeli soldiers had come under fire from Palestinians in the context of protests but without disclosing whether any soldiers were injured as a result.
The army has also used excessive force against Palestinians protesting against or responding to violence by Israeli settlers, such as in Qusra, Burin, Silwad and other villages. At times, Israeli soldiers have stood by and allowed settlers to attacks Palestinians and/or their property or have added to the violence by using excessive force against Palestinians who responded to such settler attacks. As a result of this and the complete lack of effective investigations into settler violence against Palestinians, many settlers appear to believe they can attack Palestinians and their property without fearing that the Israeli authorities will stop them or that they will face justice for the crimes they commit. In practice, settlers who commit such attacks do so with near total impunity.
Israeli forces have a long record of using excessive force against Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank. Since the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987, Amnesty International and other local and international human rights organizations have documented a pattern of excessive force by the Israeli army and Border Police against Palestinian civilians, including men, women and children, which has resulted in hundreds of deaths and the wounding of thousands more. Israeli forces perpetrating these human rights violations have enjoyed widespread impunity.
Restrictions on the Right to Freedom of Assembly and Expression
The Israeli military authorities govern the occupied West Bank, including the areas under PA administration but excluding East Jerusalem, using a regime of military orders that have the force of law. They have issued more than 1,600 such military orders since the occupation began in 1967. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after it seized the OPT in 1967, in contravention of international law, which prohibits the annexation of territory by an occupying force, and East Jerusalem continues to be recognized as an occupied territory under international law. Since annexing it, however, Israel applies its own civil law to East Jerusalem and accords Palestinians who reside there the status of residents of the State of Israel.
Military Order 101 “Regarding the Prohibition of Acts of Incitement and Hostile Propaganda”, issued by the Israeli army commander in the West Bank region on 27 August 1967, has remained in force since that time and is a key instrument regulating the right of Palestinians in the West Bank to demonstrate. It prohibits all gatherings of 10 or more persons “for a political purpose or for a matter that could be interpreted as political” or even “to discuss such a topic” unless they have received authorization in advance under a permit issued by the Israeli military commander in the area. Anyone breaching the order faces imprisonment for up to 10 years and/or a hefty fine.
Military Order 1651 "Regarding Security Provisions, Consolidated Version" also contains many articles which allow the security forces to stifle freedom of expression including Article 318, which allows for the imposition of a closed military zone, thereby declaring a certain area off limits for certain periods of time. This order is many times used to deny the right to peacefully demonstrate, or as a pretext to use violence to disperse demonstrators.
The implementation of these orders violates Israel’s obligation, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to respect and uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Israel has no written constitution and the rights to freedom of expression and assembly are not codified in its Basic Laws. Through case law, the Israeli Supreme Court has emphasized the constitutional nature of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, allowing assemblies of up to 50 people to be held without obtaining a police permit, but it has also afforded the police power to restrict these rights if their exercise threatens or endangers national security or public order. This is only applicable to Israel and occupied East Jerusalem.
Since April 2011, Israel has adopted a policy on military investigations that requires the Military Advocate General (MAG) Corps to instruct the Military Police to investigate every case in which a Palestinian in the West Bank who is not taking part in hostilities is killed by Israeli forces. This is a step in the right direction, but it falls far short of what is required by international human rights standards. These require that government authorities conduct prompt, independent, impartial, thorough, effective, and transparent investigations into all such deaths; the current Israeli system is neither independent nor impartial.
Since the policy came into force, Israeli forces have killed at least 35 Palestinian civilians in the West Bank outside situations of armed conflict. The Military Police Criminal Investigation Division (MPCID) has opened investigations into 24 Palestinians killed in 20 different incidents. Only one of these investigations has led to an Israeli soldier being prosecuted and convicted of wrongfully causing the death of a Palestinian. Three investigations were closed without indictments being filed, five were closed but their findings not announced yet, and 11 investigations remain open. Up to now, the new policy on investigations appears not to have had any real impact in denting, let alone breaking, the long-standing pattern of impunity for Israeli soldiers and Border Police who kill or maim civilians in the West Bank through the use of excessive force.
This report shows how Israeli forces have repeatedly violated their obligations under international human rights law by using excessive force to stifle dissent and freedom of expression, resulting in a pattern of unlawful killings and injuries to civilians, including children, and have been permitted to do so with virtual impunity due, in no small part, to the authorities’ failure to conduct thorough, impartial and independent investigations. Such arbitrary and abusive use of force contravenes policing standards that protect the right to life and other human rights and they also violate international humanitarian law applicable in territories under foreign military occupation, including the West Bank. In some cases that Amnesty International has examined and documents below, it appears that Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers were victims of wilful killings; if so, such killings would amount to war crimes.
This pattern of killings and injuries of civilians needs urgently to be addressed and remedied. Towards this end, Amnesty International is calling on the government of Israel to open independent, impartial, transparent and prompt investigations into all reports of Palestinian civilians killed or seriously injured by the actions of Israeli forces in the OPT. Where sufficient admissible evidence exists, they should prosecute Israeli personnel responsible for unlawful killings or injuries according to fair trial standards. As a first step towards bringing Israeli accountability mechanisms closer to international standards, they should implement all the recommendations of the Israeli-appointed Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of 31 May 2010 (known as the Turkel Commission) concerning investigations conducted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), as published in the Commission’s second report of February 2013.
About This Report
This report focuses on the use of excessive force by Israeli forces in the West Bank since the beginning of 2011. In doing so, it details cases of killings and injuries by Israeli forces of Palestinian civilians in the context of protests in the West Bank against Israel’s continuing military occupation of the Palestinian territories, illegal Israeli settlements and the fence/wall, as well as Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners and detainees and violence against Palestinians by Israeli settlers. Israel’s policy of settling its civilians on occupied land violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and is considered a war crime according to the statute of the International Criminal Court. The International Court of Justice has concluded that construction of the fence/wall inside the occupied West Bank, including in and around East Jerusalem, violates international human rights and humanitarian law.
The report also includes one case from 2009 in which a Palestinian peaceful protester was killed following the use of excessive force by Israeli forces and for which no one has been held accountable. It does not include cases of killings or injuries in other contexts such as search-and-arrest operations. The report also does not cover Israel’s use of excessive force against Palestinians protesters in the Gaza Strip, such as in the “buffer zone” bordering Israel.
Amnesty International has reported elsewhere on events in the West Bank and beyond involving the use of excessive force, including lethal, force by Israeli forces earlier in 2011 – such as the shooting of protesters who gathered on 15 May 2011 to mark the Nakba (catastrophe) anniversary of Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 and the killing and wounding of demonstrators who sought to cross from Syria into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on 5 June 2011. Amnesty International does not address these matters in this particular report.
During the last two years, Amnesty International has documented elsewhere the use of excessive force by the PA in areas under its control in the West Bank,9 by the de facto Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip and by Israeli forces inside Israel.
Amnesty International conducted much of the research on which this report is based during visits to the West Bank in July 2012, March 2013, June 2013, September 2013 and December 2013. In investigating the alleged abuses by Israeli forces Amnesty International researchers observed demonstrations, interviewed wounded protesters and bystanders, victims’ relatives, eyewitnesses, medical workers, local human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and others and inspected locations in which protesters had been killed or injured. They also obtained corroborative documentation including medical reports and video film footage, and received valuable assistance from Israeli and Palestinian organizations, including Al-Haq, B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Addameer, Breaking the Silence, the Human Rights Clinic at Al-Quds University and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel), and from local human rights activists and defenders in Nabi Saleh, Hebron and other areas of the West Bank, as well as from Human Rights Watch and UN agencies.
Amnesty International requested meetings with the Central Command of the IDF and with the office of the MAG in order to seek information on specific cases and to discuss its concerns but neither agreed to meet Amnesty International. Amnesty International has also sent two letters to the Military Advocate General copying other authorities to request information about investigations into the cases included in this report, but no response was received at the time of writing in February 2014. It did, however, receive a reply from the Israeli army which was sent to Amnesty International Israel in response to a letter concerning the use of excessive force in the village of Nabi Saleh. The full names of some individuals interviewed or featured in this report have been withheld at their request out of concern for their or their families’ safety.
[Click here to download the full report]