Amnesty reports sharp spike in Israeli soldiers' killings of Palestinians

A new report by Amnesty International, the human rights organization, points to a climate of Israeli military impunity. 

Ariel Schalit/AP
Israeli soldiers of the Golani brigade adjust their weapons during training near the border with Syria in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Feb. 26.

A new Amnesty International report accuses Israeli soldiers of being “trigger happy,” with data showing that Israeli fire killed more Palestinians in 2013 than the previous two years combined – many in situations where witnesses said the Palestinians posed no serious danger to Israeli forces.  

“Israeli soldiers have repeatedly committed serious human rights and humanitarian law violations, including unlawful killings, in response to Palestinian opposition and protests in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem,” the report concludes, criticizing the “impunity” of the Israeli military. “Authorities appear unwilling to send a strong signal to their forces that serious violations of the rights of Palestinians are not acceptable and will no longer be tolerated.”

In one of the most controversial cases, Israeli soldiers fatally shot 16-year-old Samir Awad after he and his friends staged a mini-protest a year ago near the West Bank village of Budrus, long a locus for protests against Israel’s separation barrier.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) criticized the report as ignoring the difficult circumstances Israeli soldiers face as they interact with a Palestinian population angry at the occupation. Sometimes Palestinian frustration erupts into violence, from rock-throwing to shooting. Despite a resumption of peace negotiations last spring, the West Bank saw heightened tensions in the second half of the year – a sign of what could come if the negotiations collapse, some say.

“Once there are killings on the Israeli side … then there is more potential of tensions between the army and Palestinians,” says Amos Harel, a longtime defense reporter for the daily Haaretz newspaper. “It comes with the territory.”

Five Israelis were killed in attacks originating in the West Bank last year, compared with zero the year before, and 44 were injured versus 40 in 2012, according to a report from the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. A third of those casualties involved civilians, while the rest targeted security personnel. The number of what the Shin Bet calls "terrorist attacks" more than doubled last year. Among the incidents was the abduction and murder of a soldier as well as the stabbing of an Israeli settler at a West Bank bus stop.

Among Palestinians in the West Bank, 27 were killed by Israelis last year, 22 of them civilians. Well over a thousand Palestinians were injured by Israelis. 

Live fire, dead prosecution

The Amnesty report comes amid Israel Apartheid Week in Britain and the United States, in which some college organizations and others aim to portray Israel as an apartheid state and build support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The report's 87 pages are filled with details about the incidents in which Palestinians were injured or killed, citing violations of international law.

While the report notes Israel’s decision in April 2011 to require the military police to investigate every killing of a Palestinian in which hostilities were not involved, it says that of 20 investigations into incidents involving 24 Palestinians killed since, only one has resulted in the prosecution and conviction of an Israeli soldier for “wrongfully causing the death of a Palestinian.”

Soldiers serving in the West Bank, who are as young as 18 or 19 years old, are often relatively inexperienced in the use of nonlethal weapons like tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. They are operating under firing regulations that allow significant leeway for commanders to exercise their own judgment – including whether and how to use live fire, says Avihai Stollar, head of research for Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli veterans who oppose Israeli military practices in the West Bank.

“They’re trained to be combat soldiers,” says Mr. Stollar, who served in the West Bank during the height of the second intifada. “They’re hardly trained to deal with civilians, and definitely not with civilian unrest.”

'Systemic' problem

Stollar, whose organization has reviewed testimony from hundreds of soldiers who have served in the West Bank and are concerned about what they witnessed, says that it’s important to consider the broader context of the military occupation rather than blaming individual soldiers.

"I will not accept the claim that this is the action of this or that soldier – the ‘rotten apple’ terminology,” he says. “The military occupation is manifested in civilians getting killed and soldiers abusing their power, among other things. It's systemic and it should not be placed only on the shoulders of those pulling the trigger; also officers, commanders, those making policy, military police, military prosecutor – it's the entire system."

The IDF has consistently refuted such characterizations, noting the “highest” professional standards and “appropriate” investigation when there is any suspicion of wrongdoing or breach of discipline.

According to Amnesty, the IDF’s Central Command – responsible for the West Bank – declined to meet with its team, as did the Military Advocate General. But in a statement today, the IDF said the report “wholly ignore[s] the substantial increase in Palestinian violence initiated over the past year, and show[s] a complete lack of understanding as to operational challenges the IDF is posed with.”

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