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From the field

Internal information in the Yusef a-Shawamreh killing reveals: Commanders ordered live fire ambush of teens, though they posed no danger. The result: a 14-year-old killed, no one held accountable

Yusef a-Shawamreh next to the Separation Barrier. Photo: 'Abed Al-Hashlamoun, EPA
Yusef a-Shawamreh next to the Separation Barrier. Photo: 'Abed Al-Hashlamoun, EPA

In March 2014 soldiers shot and killed Yusef a-Shawamreh, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, as he and two friends went through a gap in the Separation Barrier southwest of Hebron to pick edible plants from their families' farmland. The section of the Separation Barrier in this area, near the village of Deir al-‘Asal al-Foqa, does not lie along the boundary with Israel (the Green Line) but rather some 200 meters east, within the West Bank. These families still rely financially on harvesting plants from their farmland that is now trapped on the other side of the fence. B’Tselem's investigation, as well as material from the Military Police Investigation Unit (MPIU) file indicate that the boy was shot in broad daylight, although he posed no danger.

In July 2014, roughly four months after the incident took place, then-Military Advocate for Operational Matters Lt. Col. Ronen Hirsch notified B’Tselem that the Military Advocate General (MAG) had decided to close the investigation without serving any indictments as there was “no suspicion that the open-fire regulations had been breached or that any military personnel were involved in criminal action”. In the letter, Lt. Col. Hirsch wrote that four soldiers who had mounted an ambush spotted three Palestinians sabotaging and crossing the Separation Barrier. The soldiers then carried out suspect apprehension procedure, ending with one soldier shooting at the lower part of a-Shawamreh’s leg. However, according to Lt. Col. Hirsch, the shot mistakenly hit a-Shawamreh in the waist, killing him.

B’Tselem wrote to the MPIU and requested a copy of the investigation file. The organization was sent a partial copy only, including video footage taken by a military surveillance camera. While the information in the file revealed errors in B’Tselem’s initial inquiry, it corroborated its conclusions and highlighted the particularly appalling aspects of the incident. According to the file, on 19 March 2014, three Palestinians – an 18-year-old and two minors – went up to several gaps in the Separation Barrier that had long been used by Palestinian teenagers to cross through and pick edible Gundelia plants from their families’ land on the other side. The military had sealed the gaps in the fence the previous evening, and the ambush soldiers reinforced the seal with metal wire and plastic handcuffs upon its arrival at the area. When the three teenagers found the gaps closed, they began removing the wires from one of them. When they were done, they crossed the fence and the adjacent buffer zone. Only then did two of the soldiers reveal themselves. They called out to the boys to stop, fired two warning shots in the air, and then fatally shot 14-year-old a-Shawamreh.

Summary of the military surveillance footage. Click here to watch all the footage sent to B’Tselem by the military.

B’Tselem’s examination of the MPIU file found that the military investigation was sloppy and partial. No apparent attempt was made to reconcile the contradicting versions given by the suspects and by witnesses, and the responsibility of the commanders who decided to mount an armed ambush at the spot was utterly ignored.

WhatsApp communication between the soldiers during the incident
WhatsApp communication between the soldiers during the incident

For example, the investigators did not address the contradictions in the soldiers’ accounts of their briefing on open-fire regulations. WhatsApp correspondence between the soldiers throughout the incident showed that at least some of the soldiers believed the three Palestinians to be minors. However, they were not clear on the open-fire regulations applying to such circumstances: while some of the soldiers told the investigators that their orders forbade any firing whatsoever at minors, others claimed that the prohibition only related to children under the age of twelve. The investigators made no attempt to get to the bottom of this important difference. They also ignored the fact that in the context of a planned ambush, permission to shoot live fire at minors older then twelve is completely unlawful.

The investigators also did not examine the purpose of mounting an ambush next to the Separation Barrier. The soldiers and their commanders claimed that the ambush was intended to prevent harm to the fence. However, the soldiers did nothing to stop the sabotage. Quite the opposite: the force waited until after the damage was done and only then revealed their presence and shot at the three.

Sergeant Major Ofir, who commanded the ambush, told the investigators that the shooting at a-Shawamreh was not unexpected: the soldiers had prepared for just that. He claimed that when preparing for the ambush, the force made sure that all the gaps were sealed so that they could be certain anyone crossing the fence had sabotaged it. That person would then be deemed “a fence saboteur” – and by definition suspected of committing an offense serious enough to warrant carrying out suspect-apprehension procedure, including firing at his legs. Sergeant Major Ofir described how the marksman made sure when the ambush began that he had “a clean line of fire” to the sealed gaps in the fence.

The investigators did not ask the commander why he had decided, by sealing the gaps, to frame anyone crossing the fence as “suspected of a dangerous offense”. They also did not question why the soldiers needed “a clean line of fire”, as they were perfectly capable of stopping anyone who approached the fence, and with less injurious means.

The deputy commander of the 77th battalion of the Armored Corps, Major Avishay, testified before the MPIU that the area in which the incident took place is known for frequent sabotage of the Separation Barrier to enable smuggling of goods from the West Bank into Israel. He added that in springtime, when a-Shawamreh was shot, the military knows that Palestinians frequently cross the fence to pick the Gundelia plants.

The decision to mount an ambush armed with live ammunition only, the planning of a line of fire at anyone crossing the fence, and the vague open-fire orders that the soldiers received – all these attest to command responsibility for the unlawful shooting of a-Shawamreh. Yet the military investigators chose to address the commanders’ responsibility only superficially, if at all. The MAG Corps made do with their findings and did not use its power to demand a supplemental investigation. The Corps’ conclusion that no regulations had been violated related only to the soldiers in the field, and made no mention of command accountability.

Policing activity must be planned according to the nature of the activity. The policy of mounting ambushes armed with only live ammunition in the West Bank has led to the killing of at least seven Palestinians since the beginning of 2013. Two other Palestinians were killed in similar circumstances. This policy enables lethal or severe injury to anyone, including people who pose no danger. By deciding to file no charges in the a-Shawamreh incident, the MAG Corps is effectively sanctioning this unlawful policy. 

The military must stop mounting ambushes with soldiers armed only with lethal weapons. The forces in the field must be clearly briefed that live fire is prohibited, except in the extreme circumstance of a mortal threat to soldiers or to other persons.