2022 Saw Highest Number of Palestinians Killed in West Bank by Israeli Forces Since Second Intifada

16:50 Jan 4 2023 Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT) الأراضي الفلسطينية West Bank and Jerusalem

2022 Saw Highest Number of Palestinians Killed in West Bank by Israeli Forces Since Second Intifada
Graph of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces 2004-2022. Published by Haaretz

144 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank over the past 12 months. It is the highest number in 18 years

by Hagar Shezaf for Haaretz
Jan 4, 2023 4:50 pm IST

It was late at night when Rafik and Mohammed Ghanem – two brothers from the West Bank village of Jaba’ – heard a commotion outside their house. Israeli soldiers, they quickly discovered, had entered an adjacent building in order to arrest someone. Rafik went outside to see what was happening. Mohammed was planning to follow him. But before he managed to do so, he heard a soldier yelling and then a shot was fired. The bullet pierced Rafik’s body. He was 20 years old when he died.

The next morning, the Israel Defense Forces issued its version of the event: “During the operation, the force proceeded to exercise the rules of engagement, which included gunfire directed at a suspect who fled into a building. The suspect was hit.”

A terse, laconic report that raises numerous questions. It’s hard to explain the death of Rafik Ghanem, one of 144 Palestinians killed by Israel’s security forces in the West Bank in 2022 (excluding East Jerusalem). This is the highest number since 2004, according to the human rights organization B’Tselem. Most of these killed were armed, the army claims, in an attempt to explain these figures.

However, research by Haaretz – based on IDF reports in real time – reveals that only in 45 percent of these cases was there a specific claim that the deceased had been armed, or that the lethal shot had taken place during clashes in which there was an exchange of gunfire. And in these cases, even according to the army the dead Palestinian didn’t necessarily take part in the exchange.

Rafik Ghanem is one example of a case in which not even this was claimed. He was a victim of the army’s rules of engagement – which are the military’s rules on how and when it is allowed to open fire. Or rather, he was a victim of the manner in which these rules were exercised in a village south of Jenin on the night of July 6.

Ostensibly, this procedure is supposed to include a soldier yelling at a suspect so that they stop, followed by shooting in the air, and only later at a suspect’s lower body. In cases in which a suspect is armed and intends to use a weapon, it is permitted to shoot to kill.

But there is a gap between theory and practice, at least as far as the events of that night went. In fact, the young Palestinian was not suspected of anything, a military source confirmed to Haaretz. His only transgression was not adhering to a soldier’s call to stop. Rafik was caught unawares, says his brother, who adds that the soldier emerged from a nearby olive grove.

The army says the soldier’s suspicions were aroused when Rafik fled from a building in which the wanted person was staying. According to Rafik’s brother, this version is inaccurate too, since that night the army went into an adjacent building, separated from their house by a fence. There was no suspect in their house.

It is not only the decision to shoot that raise questions, but also the manner in which it was done. Two weeks after the incident, Israel returned Rafik’s body to the Palestinians. It was taken to the Khalil Salman Hospital in Jenin. According to a medical report prepared by the hospital, an entry wound was found in Rafik’s left shoulder and an exit wound in his chest. In other words, he was shot in his upper body.

In response to a query, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said an investigation by the Military Police criminal investigation division had been launched after Ghanem’s death. Its results were given to the army’s military advocate general, who will decide whether to submit an indictment. To be continued, maybe.

As anyone familiar with the subject will know, a Military Police investigation does not mean that a soldier involved in an incident will be indicted. According to figures released recently by the Yesh Din human right organization, only 0.7 percent of complaints pertaining to the killing of Palestinians by the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ended in an indictment between 2017 and 2021.

With regard to 2022, according to IDF figures obtained by Haaretz, 33 investigations were opened in the wake of Palestinians being killed. Twelve of these were completed and are under review by military prosecutors. One case led to a recommendation to file charges against soldiers from the ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion who had detained 80-year-old Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, tying him up before he died of a heart attack shortly afterward. Forty-two other fatalities are under preliminary review, prior to a decision on whether to continue investigating them; 69 other cases have not been examined – meaning an investigation will not be opened.

One out of five

The 144 dead Palestinians include all manner of individuals: some were engaged in terror attacks or trying to carry them out; some were armed men clashing with the IDF; some were throwing stones; and others were passersby of all ages (including a 12-year-old boy). There were many cases of people the IDF terms “uninvolved.”

According to a senior IDF official, the proportion of people shot due to “professional errors” is around 15 to 20 percent of the cases – one out of every 5 or 6 fatalities, which amounts to dozens of people.

Without going into specifics on the figures, the army attributes the rise in the number of fatalities to the increased prevalence of guns and their use against army units during raids. This has increased since Operation Breakwater was launched in the West Bank last March. According to the IDF, there were 130 shooting incidents against soldiers during military operations in Palestinian towns and villages in 2022, compared to only 25 in 2021. The two main flash points are Nablus and Jenin, cities in which the IDF has been operating more frequently.

The army says there has also been an increase in the number of shootings at soldiers and settlers on the roads, or directly in settlements. “The amount of weapons on the street is insane,” a senior officer says. “They come from Jordan, from crime families in Israel, from conversions of air rifles, from self-production – anything they can get hold of.”

However, all this is only a partial explanation for the high number of fatalities this year, a record since the second intifada in the early 2000s.

Over the last year, soldiers shooting Palestinians trying to cross the West Bank separation barrier has become more common, either due to the augmented presence of soldiers on the seam or to an easing of the rules of engagement. Soldiers have been told they are now allowed to shoot at the lower part of the body of any Palestinians trying to damage the barrier.

Moreover, starting in December 2021, soldiers are allowed to shoot at Palestinians who are fleeing if they had previously thrown stones or Molotov cocktails. In addition, the public’s backing for the shooting of Palestinians is also on the rise.

This combination, it appears, can account for the apparent ease with which Palestinians not endangering anyone are killed.

Such was the case with Ammar Abu Afifa, 19, shot to death in early March while walking with his friend in a wood near his home in the al-Arroub refugee camp. When a soldier yelled at them, the two started running away. Abu Afifa was shot in the leg and head. That same day, the IDF said he had not been endangering soldiers, and a Military Police investigation was subsequently launched.

Another incident occurred the following month. Ghada Sabateen, a 45-year-old mother of six, was shot by a soldier after the army claimed she approached a unit “in a suspicious manner.” There is also the story of Hussein Kawariq, a 60-year-old resident of Awarta with mental health issues. He was shot in the stomach last August. A witness who spoke with Haaretz afterward said a soldier had yelled at him, then proceeded to shoot at him three times.

In both instances, the army said the shooting was done in accordance with the rules of engagement, with shots fired at lower body parts. Despite that, the result was deadly. In Kawariq’s case, a Military Police probe was launched, and its results are now under review by prosecutors. Eight months have passed since Sabateen’s death, but her case is still at the preliminary review stage.

‘It’s all a sham’

Every morning, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit gives an update on military activities in the West Bank that are part of Operation Breakwater. In most cases in which Palestinians are killed, the army refers only briefly to the incident. In some instances, the army attributes a specific action to the victim – such as stone- or Molotov cocktail-throwing, or shooting. In other cases, the IDF recounts the general circumstances of the arena in which the shooting took place. In many instances, there are huge gaps between what is described and what actually occurred.

This was the case on Saturday, October 22. In a routine announcement, the IDF outlined what caused a person sitting in the back seat of a car to be killed. In this case, it was explained, the car contained people without work permits. When they approached a military roadblock, the driver tried to flee. “IDF soldiers tried to stop the fleeing car. In the course of its flight, the car hit a soldier and the soldiers opened fire at the car. The soldier did not require medical attention.”

Two witnesses remembered a different version of events. “I saw the car starting to turn around, trying to flee toward Qalqilyah. One soldier approached it and yelled at him to stop,” one witness told Haaretz. He said that the car did stop, but when the soldier moved on to other cars, the driver stepped on the gas pedal. The car started fleeing again. According to this witness, at that point the soldier pointed his gun at the window and fired two shots. At no point was there any attempt to run over a soldier.

The victim was Rabi Arfa Rabi, a 32-year-old construction worker who was working in Ra’anana. He was supposed to get married the following week. A medical report issued by the Darwish Nazzal Hospital in Qalqilyah stated that the bullet hit Rabi in the head. The entry wound was behind his ear and the exit wound at the back of his head.

As a rule, IDF instructions regarding shooting at moving vehicles are – at least officially – strict. There is a strict prohibition on shooting at moving cars, not even at the tires, unless a car-ramming attack is underway or if weapons are identified inside the vehicle. Even if the army’s version is accepted in its entirety regarding this incident, the situation still did not meet the required conditions to open fire.

The victim’s father, Arfa Rabi, said that he was summoned by the Military Police investigations unit to provide testimony. He sat for two hours with an investigator, telling his son’s story. He left feeling that nothing would be done. Meanwhile, the investigation continues.

“I feel it’s all a sham; I don’t think they’ll prosecute that soldier,” the father said in fluent Hebrew. “Israel places soldiers there who like killing people. He was killed in cold blood.”

Since March, when the IDF bolstered security around the separation barrier through which Palestinians who have carried out attacks crossed into Israel – along with many others who came to work – the number of Palestinian victims has been rising.

This is what happened to Rafat Issa, Nabil Ghanem and Mahmoud Aram, who were all killed on their way to work. The first two, the army says, were trying to wreck a border fence. The army didn’t even claim this with regard to Aram, stating only that he tried to cross through a gap in the fence – an act that even according to the rules of engagement does not justify shooting. Issa was shot in his lower body, which can also be fatal. The bullet entered his thigh, said a Red Crescent medic and hit an artery, which quickly caused him to bleed to death. A Military Police investigation was opened, but is still ongoing.

‘Hits were identified’

Anyone familiar with statements by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit knows that when they say “public order disturbances” or “clashes” (or both), there are invariably Palestinian fatalities. The name of Mufeed al-Khalil, 42, from the village of Beit Ummar, appeared in the first of these contexts.

According to the army, two military jeeps entered the Palestinian village near Bethlehem by mistake, on the night between November 28-29. One jeep broke down. “Dozens of rioters were throwing stones and improvised explosive devices, even shooting at the forces – which responded with riot dispersal means and live fire. Hits were identified,” said the army announcement, without ascribing any particular action to the victim.

The army updated its version this week, saying that the soldiers said in a subsequent briefing that they had shot at Palestinians who were throwing Molotov cocktails at them.

Al-Khalil’s family said he had not participated in the clashes, but had come to watch and record the incident. The evidence: A Facebook Live transmission on his user page began at 11 P.M. that night, lasting four minutes. The video doesn’t reveal much. It shows some people running away, shots are heard and at some point Mufeed is heard talking to a person who has been hit by shrapnel. He was then asked to switch off his camera, and thus ends the last documentation of his life.

The injured person was Tareq, 41. A month later, his leg still in a cast, he recalled the events of that evening. He said there had been stone throwing, but he and Mufeed had only watched. When Mufeed was killed, they were standing close to a wall, with soldiers standing on the roof of a building some 150 meters (490 feet) away.

The lethal shots were not documented, but the moment of his collapse was captured on the surveillance camera of an adjacent store. A minute before he collapsed, a few people holding stones are seen, some of them masked. Mufeed’s son, Mohammed, was at another scene of clashes with soldiers. He was told that his father had been injured. “I opened Telegram and saw his photo. It was clear he was dead,” his son said.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said the circumstances of Mufeed’s death are under preliminary review. This means it hasn’t been decided whether to open a Military Police investigation into his death.

Mufeed was the first of four Palestinians to die within 24 hours. Another was Raed al-Naasan, 21, from the village of Mughayyir. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit explained that al-Naasan threw a Molotov cocktail at soldiers and they fired in response. However, two videos published by BBC correspondent Tom Bateman reveal that al-Naasan was not throwing a Molotov cocktail when he was shot. In one video, he is seen standing with a stone in his hand, then begins running away, is shot and falls.

Who is shooting whom?

The 144 Palestinian fatalities are only part of the picture. Reports from the Palestinian Health Ministry actually put the total number of dead at 170. This number comprises all Palestinians who were killed in circumstances attributed to Israel or Israelis – in the West Bank, Jerusalem or Israel, including those who died in Israeli prisons or were killed by Israeli civilians.

As far as the IDF goes, whenever a Palestinian dies, the army is never quick to accept responsibility. Sometimes, a claim is made that while the person was indeed shot to death, Palestinian militants were responsible and not the army.

The most prominent example of this occurred with the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin last May. Only after the publication of investigative reports in the foreign media did the army finally admit that there was a high likelihood the Palestinian-American reporter was shot by an Israeli soldier.

But that was not the only case. According to the IDF, Saleh Sawafta, 58 – who was shot to death in Tubas last August while returning from morning prayers at the mosque – was most likely killed by a Palestinian bullet. The snipers were not at their post at the time, the IDF initially told Haaretz, and the army jeeps had already left the area. The army also claimed that there was footage showing that Palestinian militants were firing in his direction at the time he was hit. However, an independent investigation conducted by B’Tselem, in which three separate videos were synchronized, revealed that at the time of Sawafta’s shooting, the army jeeps were still present.

The army subsequently admitted that its jeeps were indeed present and claimed that a soldier standing near them fired toward the armed militants. The army declined to provide any footage showing the militants.

“In order to enable the violence of the Israeli apartheid regime to continue unhindered, Israel has established a whitewashing system that is designed to ensure that no one is answerable – not the soldiers in the field, the military commanders or the politicians who send them,” says B’Tselem spokeswoman Dror Sadot. The B’Tselem investigation, which included witness testimony and a postmortem, concluded that Sawafta was shot by an Israeli soldier. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit says this incident is still under preliminary review, meaning no investigation was opened.

In the absence of international interest, and given Sawafta’s lack of American citizenship, the question of who killed him will remain open – at least for now.

In the case of Fulla al-Masalmeh, an autistic 15-year-old girl, it will be very hard for the army to explain why it opened fire in the first place. She was shot to death in the Beitunia area in mid-November, while she was in a car with a 26-year-old Palestinian man named Anas Hassouna.

On the morning of the incident, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued a statement that the car in which al-Masalmeh was riding had been accelerating toward a group of soldiers. “In response, the soldiers fired at the vehicle,” the statement said. “The circumstances of the incident are under investigation.”

That same day, the IDF admitted that it did not believe the driver had intentionally tried to run over the soldiers (later noting that he was DUI). The driver was taken to hospital and remained under arrest there for several days, but was later released without charge.

This type of story is not that unusual. There have been other instances when claims by the army that an attempted car-ramming attack led to a lethal shooting ended up being classified as “not a terror attack” and with the unconditional release of any Palestinians who survived the incident.

One such case was in Jalazun last October when two Palestinians, Khaled Ambar and Salama Sharaya, were shot to death. Their bodies are still being held by Israel. In response to a query from Haaretz, the army said it is still treating the incident as a “ramming incident.” This is hard to understand, given what happened subsequently. A third Palestinian who was also in the vehicle, Basel Basbous, survived the shooting. A few days after he was taken to Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center for treatment, he was released without charge.

In response to this article, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said that the army is dealing with terror attacks, planted explosives, Molotov cocktails and stone-throwing at troops and Israeli civilians. “As part of contending with these violent activities, the security forces employ riot-dispersal measures and, in cases where it is required, gunfire. The use of live fire, including in the course of the procedure for arresting a suspect, is made only after all other possibilities have been exhausted, and in accordance with the rules of engagement that accord with the rules of international law, and with an effort to avoid hurting bystanders.”

It added that the rules of engagement are “reviewed periodically and updated as needed,” and that the army investigates and clarifies any incident in which there are casualties. As a rule, it added, the army’s criminal investigations unit opens an investigation, “unless the action was clearly of a combat nature or if it seems there is no suspicion of an offense being committed by an IDF soldier. The enforcement policy in relation to lethal incidents has been approved by a number of Supreme Court rulings.”

144 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank in 2022
144 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank in 2022
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