The Military Advocate General’s (MAG) Corps has just notified B’Tselem of its decision to close the investigation into the death of Mustafa Tamimi, who was killed by a tear-gas canister fired at him in December 2011. In his letter, Military Advocate for Operational Matters Lt. Col. Ronen Hirsch wrote that the canister that killed Tamimi was fired "according to the relevant rules and regulations and did not involve any illegality." The MAG Corps accepted the claim of the soldier who fired at Tamimi, that he did not see him while shooting the canister. The MAG Corps additionally relied on an expert opinion stating that the soldier could not see Tamimi while firing. However, the MAG Corps did not explain how the firing of a tear-gas canister from the back of a moving vehicle, towards the road, under conditions that made it impossible to ensure it would not hit a person, could be deemed legal.
The decision not to file an indictment against the soldier who killed Mustafa Tamimi, nor against his commanders, conveys the indifference of the military law enforcement system to the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, and specifically towards Tamimi’s death. The decision to close this file joins the decision to close the file concerning Bassem Abu Rahmeh, who was also killed by a tear-gas canister, and whose story was later portrayed in the film “Five Broken Cameras”. This decision sends Israeli soldiers and officers the unequivocal message that, should they kill unarmed civilians, they will not be held accountable. Given this state of affairs, it is hardly surprising that soldiers and Border Police officers continue to shoot tear-gas canisters directly at Palestinians, endangering their lives. Under such circumstances, it is only a matter of time before yet another unarmed Palestinian civilian is killed in this way. For Palestinians in the West Bank, the decision is a clear message that they cannot expect justice from Israel’s legal system.
The moment of firing at a-Tamimi. The 40mm launcher end can be seen emerging from the opened jeep door. The tear gas canister itself is seen bouncing back after hitting him, against the backdrop of the left mirror. On the left, in the white shirt, is Mustafa a-Tamimi. Photo: Haim Scwarczenberg.
Formally, Israeli military orders forbid shooting tear-gas canisters directly at people. While military officials regularly cite this position in response to B’Tselem’s queries, in practice such shooting continues unabated. To the best of B’Tselem’s knowledge, none of the responsible parties – be it commanders in the field or the OC Central Commander – have taken action to stop this practice, nor do they even admit to the problem. The decision in the Tamimi case is a direct continuation of this policy. Another aspect of this policy is the military system’s decision to deal with the Tamimi case solely on the criminal track. In addition to a criminal investigation the army could have taken disciplinary measures against the soldier and the commanders, clarified the rules of engagement and taken aggressive action to educate troops serving in the West Bank. None of this took place, and Israeli security forces continue to shoot teargas canisters directly at people.
Tamimi was hit by a tear-gas canister that a soldier shot at him from very close range on 9 Dec. 2011, while throwing stones at a military jeep during a demonstration at the West Bank village of a-Nabi Saleh. He was critically injured and died the next day at Beilinson Hospital, in Israel. Hours after Tamimi was shot, B’Tselem filed a complaint with the Military Police Investigations Unit (MPIU) in Jerusalem, and the unit opened an investigation into the incident two days later.
The fact that it took two years to reach a decision in the case clearly demonstrates the failures of the military investigation system. The MAG Corps explained to B’Tselem that the proceedings were protracted as “this is a complicated operational investigation that poses significant challenges and decisions made in it, which affect its future course, are made on matter-of-fact grounds solely concerned with the investigation needs and with discovery of the truth.”
B’Tselem rejects this explanation, which does not justify such a lengthy delay in reaching a decision. The incident in which Tamimi was killed was relatively simple, in comparison with other incidents dealt with by MPIU investigators, and was visually well-documented. The MPIU should have allotted the necessary resources to conduct a swift, professional investigation and enable a speedy decision in the case, instead of using the hackneyed excuse of a “complicated investigation” to act inefficiently and delay the decision unreasonably.
The Turkel Commission report on Israel's Mechanism for Investigating Violations of International Humanitarian Law specifically addressed the lengthy delays in investigations and their resulting inefficiency. The Commission recommended that binding timetables be set for every stage of an investigation into suspected breaches of international humanitarian law. Although the report was officially praised across the board, these recommendations have not been implemented.
On Sunday, B’Tselem will demand to see all the investigation material in order to continue working to assure justice for the Tamimi family.