[On 23 June 2020, Ahmad Erekat, 26, was shot and killed by Israeli forces at the Container checkpoint in the central West Bank after he emerged unarmed from his car after it crashed into the checkpoint. The Israeli authorities have consistently claimed that its personnel were acting in legitimate self-defense against a deliberate attack. As is their practice in such circumstances, they seized Ahmad’s body and have to this day refused to release it to his family for a proper burial. Ahmad’s family, as well as Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organizations have called the Israeli version of events into question from the very outset, citing evidence that the crash was an accident and that Ahmad was unarmed and moving away from his killers before he was repeatedly shot as well as pointing out that it made little sense for Ahmad to have carried out an attack on the day of his sister’s wedding. On 23 February Forensic Architecture, a British research organization based at the University of London and led by the British-Israeli Professor Eyal Weizman, together with the award-winning Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, released a detailed investigation of the circumstances of Ahmad Erekat’s killing. Contrary to persistent Israeli claims, the report concluded that the available evidence indicates that the incident was an accident, and Ahmad’s death a case of “extra-judicial execution." Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, Interviewed Noura Erakat, Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, New Brunswick and a cousin of Ahmad Erekat, to get a better understanding of the case and the recent investigation.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What is the Israeli claim regarding the circumstances of Ahmad Erekat's killing? What evidence have the Israeli authorities produced to substantiate their claim, and what additional actions have they taken since his killing?
Noura Erakat (NE): The Israeli state, its media, and its military apparatus immediately declared Ahmad a “terrorist” and declared the 23 June 2020 incident an attempted car-ramming with the intent to kill the soldiers at the checkpoint. Upon releasing one video of the incident, Israeli police included a statement that read: "Yesterday at 16:00 an attack took place and the terrorist was shot and killed. In the footage, the terrorist drives his vehicle towards the security crossing, slowly and then drove in the direction towards the female border guard at an angle and the female officer was injured lightly and taken to hospital.”
It is noteworthy that the Israeli authorities have refused to conduct a proper investigation. They did not interview witnesses, did not conduct an autopsy of Ahmad’s body, did not investigate the car for mechanical malfunction, and did not review the available video tapes. Rather, they simply proclaimed that Ahmad was a “terrorist” engaged in an attack, and that has been the end of their story. Since then, the state has held onto Ahmad’s body and refused to release it to the family for a proper burial. It is being held along with the bodies of 72 other slain Palestinians as both a form of collective punishment and as bargaining chips for the return of two Israeli soldiers’ bodies currently held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Even after the release of the video and report by Forensic Architecture and Al-Haq, Israel responded, “Erekat carried out a deliberate ramming attack”. And sadly, in an environment of silencing tactics, malicious dehumanization of Palestinians, desensitization to their deaths, and propaganda, there has not been much, if any, pressure to hold Israel accountable for its actions or to release Ahmad’s body, which has now been in captivity for eight months and counting.
MR: What was the rationale behind the investigation by Forensic Architecture and Al-Haq, whose results have now been publicly released?
NE: Since Ahmad’s murder, the family has worked tirelessly to achieve at least a modicum of accountability and, if nothing else, retrieve his body for a proper burial. The family has been in a state of suspended disbelief since Ahmad’s murder on 23 June 2020. His mother still cannot accept that he is dead because she has not been able to see his corpse. Our efforts have included a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council and five UN special rapporteurs, drafted in collaboration with Al-Haq and endorsed by eighty-three organizations; an Avaaz petition calling for a boycott of Tel Aviv University, home to the Greenberg Institute where Ahmad’s corpse is being held; a social media and media campaign, featuring interviews and articles by his family members; a legal effort within the Israeli judicial system in collaboration with the human rights organization Adalah; a multimedia video produced in collaboration with the Institute for Middle East Understanding and featuring celebrities, activists, and scholars demanding the return of Ahmad’s body and of all slain Palestinians held by Israel; a report by Human Rights Watch; and a congressional effort in which Ahmad’s extended family in the United States appealed to the six senators from California, Maryland, and Virginia (where Ahmad’s relatives live and vote), urging them to intervene to help retrieve Ahmad’s body. All six senators responded in some way and supported our effort.
These multi-faceted efforts seemed to hit a dead end when Israeli Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, announced Israel would escalate its cruel policy of withholding bodies by holding onto all corpses, and not just those affiliated with Hamas, until Hamas releases the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. The Israeli cabinet approved this policy, and the Israeli high court sanctioned it as legal. Aside from being illegal under international law and inhumane, this policy obscures any distinction between Palestinian civilians and militants. It amounts to saying there are no Palestinian civilians, and it criminalizes all Palestinians so as to justify their killing.
In this context, we were also working with Forensic Architecture, which specializes in this kind of investigation, to help reconstruct what actually happened during the incident in which Ahmad was killed.
MR: What was the nature of this investigation? What are its main findings, and what evidence did it use to substantiate its conclusions?
NE: Forensic Architecture, together with Al-Haq, used 3D imaging, shadow analysis, and open-source materials to reproduce the incident in which Ahmad was killed. It found that Ahmad was shot a total of six times, above the waist, by two soldiers within a space of two seconds; that Ahmad was unarmed with his hands up, retreating from the soldiers; that Ahmad was refused medical treatment; and that his body was left out on the pavement, stripped naked, for hours. Perhaps most significantly, they found that Ahmad was not accelerating his car at the time of impact, disproving all claims that this was an alleged car-ramming. In essence, the investigation shows that this was an extrajudicial execution, just as the family has been insisting from day one. The video, eighteen minutes long, is narrated by Dr. Angela Davis and is incredibly powerful and equally difficult to watch.
MR: What do you hope to achieve with the publication of this investigation, and what further efforts are planned?
NE: Our hopes are that this video will strengthen our ongoing campaign to retrieve Ahmad’s body for a proper burial and for accountability for his murder. The truth is this: the video demonstrates much of what we already believed to be plainly obvious. Ahmad was on his way to decorate a car with ribbons and flowers on his sister’s wedding day. He was himself set to be married later in the summer. Even if he wanted to conduct an operation targeting the checkpoint, as is claimed, why would he do it on his sister’s wedding day? At the heart of such logic is the idea that Palestinians hate Israelis more than they love themselves and one another. Nothing could be further from the truth or more outrightly racist.
We hope this video definitively stifles accusations that Ahmad was a “terrorist” and revamps advocacy efforts on his behalf and on behalf of all withheld Palestinians. The video is being covered by international media outlets, and we are sending these findings to the Senate offices and other relevant interlocutors to press them to continue their efforts on our behalf.
[This interview first appeared in The Nation.]