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From the field

State Attorney's Office rejects B'Tselem's appeal re: closing investigation of killing of Hassan a-Taber

Hassan a-Taber, his wife and son. Photo courtesy of the family.
Hassan a-Taber, his wife and son. Photo courtesy of the family.

Hassan a-Taber, 47, of Beitillu, was killed on 29 July 2012 when police officers and a security guard at a-Za’ayem Checkpoint near Jerusalem fired at the van driving him and other laborers without work permits into Israel. The shooting was investigated by the Department for the Investigation of Police (DIP), which notified B’Tselem on 13 March 2013 that the case had been closed on the grounds that it was not unlawful. B’Tselem appealed the decision to close the case. On 20 February 2014, the Appellate Department of the State Attorney’s Office notified B’Tselem that the appeal had been denied on the same grounds.

The incident

B’Tselem’s investigation of the incident, carried out by B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad, indicates that on the night of 29 July 2012 a group of 14 Palestinian laborers tried to enter Israel for work despite not having permits. The laborers, including Hassan a-Taber, were crowded into a five-passenger van driven by Hamada Jaber, a resident of East Jerusalem. The van drove towards Jerusalem on Route 1 from the direction of Ma’ale Adumim.

The DIP’s investigation file which was conveyed to B’Tselem indicates that police officers at a-Za’ayem Checkpoint had apparently been alerted that a van with Palestinian laborers was on its way to the checkpoint. The driver stopped just before the checkpoint and, when the police officers approached the van and tried to open the door, he sped off. Other police officers at the checkpoint called out to the driver to stop, but he continued driving and passed them at a high speed. The driver did not enter the checkpoint area; he turned right just before it and drove towards a-Za’ayem village, which is under civilian control of the Palestinian Authority. Two police officers and a security guard stationed at the checkpoint opened fire at the van. According to the officers’ testimony, they felt the endangered by the van. The shooting injured four passengers – including a-Taber, who was critically wounded by a bullet that penetrated the back of his head – and a police officer, who was wounded by shrapnel.

The passengers urged the driver to stop and one passenger pulled the hand-brake. The van stopped at a-Za’ayem village and all but a-Taber got out. The driver then got back into the van fled with a-Taber still inside. Shortly after, the laborers located a-Taber lying by the side of the road within the village, apparently where the driver had taken him out of the van. Several minutes later, an ambulance the police at the checkpoint had summoned arrived and took a-Taber to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem. He died en route.

On 2 September 2012, the van driver was arrested by the police and charged with negligent conduct that resulted in a-Taber’s death. In early March 2013, the driver was convicted, in a plea bargain, of causing harm with malice aforethought, of committing a rash and negligent act, and of attempting to transport an “illegal alien”. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Extremely flawed investigation

The DIP launched an investigation into the killing of Hassan a-Taber immediately after the incident. More than seven months later, on 13 March 2013, the DIP informed B’Tselem that the case had been closed on the grounds that it was not unlawful. B’Tselem was given a copy of the investigation file, including video footage from the checkpoint. On 13 May 2013, Att. Gaby Lasky appealed to the State Attorney on behalf of B’Tselem seeking to reverse the decision to close the case.

In the appeal, B’Tselem argued that the investigation was extremely flawed. The police officers who fired at the van were not investigated under warning of self-incrimination, meaning that criminal proceedings could not be initiated against them without taking their testimony again, this time with the relevant warning. This indicates that the DIP investigators decided in advance, before taking any testimony, that none of the officers involved were suspected of a criminal offense and, in fact, that the killing of a-Taber did not involve any criminal offense. B’Tselem argued that, had the shooters’ testimony been given under warning, the investigation material would have been sufficient to indict them, at the very least for negligent homicide, for causing harm and wounding under aggravating circumstances, for maliciously endangering people on a traffic route, and for rash and negligent acts in connection with a firearm.

B’Tselem also argued that the investigators had ignored contradictions in the police officers’ testimony. For instance, two of the officers stated that the van had nearly run over a third officer, who had to jump aside to avoid injury. The latter, however, stated in his testimony that he did not move at all; the van swerved and passed him by. Another officer testified that he only began firing after he asked the commander of the checkpoint where to aim and was told to fire “at the wheels of the van, a terrorist”. However, the testimony of the checkpoint commander and the video footage indicate that, in point of fact, the officer started shooting the moment the van passed by him.

During the investigation, not enough evidence was collected to determine which of the shooters hit a-Taber or the other passengers who had been wounded. Even though one of the wounded passengers testified that he handed over the bullet removed from a-Taber’s body to an attorney acting on his behalf, the DIP made no attempt to obtain the bullet. Moreover, three bullet fragments were removed from a-Taber’s body in autopsy. The fragments were sent to the laboratory of a ballistics export, who confirmed that the condition of two of the fragments made comparison with the shooters’ weapons impossible. B’Tselem does not know why the third fragment was not compared against the weapons.

DIP investigators gathered testimony from three of the Palestinian passengers in the van. In addition to describing the circumstances of the incident, they were asked about entering Israel: how often they do so, how they coordinate it, how much they paid the driver, were they aware that their attempt to enter was illegal and, if so, why they tried to so anyway. It was not within the investigators’ mandate to ask these questions, as the DIP’s authority is restricted to investigating suspected police offenses.

Firing in contravention of open-fire regulations

In the appeal, B’Tselem emphasized the fact that the police officers had fired in contravention of open-fire regulations, as is clearly indicated by the video footage and by the investigation material.

According to the regulations, a driver’s choice to stop before a checkpoint and not cross it does not constitute sufficient grounds for shooting at the vehicle, “unless effective fire is opened from within the vehicle towards our forces, and the source of the fire and weapons is identified within the vehicle, or unless a vehicle is positively identified with the details of a concrete intelligence alert (brand, color, and license number)”. The circumstances of the incident do not meet any of these criteria. On the contrary: the police officers’ testimony to the DIP indicates that the information received at the checkpoint prior to the vehicle’s arrival related to a vehicle driving laborers trying to enter Israel without a permit. No mention was made in the alert that the passengers could pose any immediate mortal threat.

Furthermore, the regulations permit shooting only at the wheels of a vehicle. In this case, the regulations were clearly breached. The video footage shows that the shooting was not directed only at the wheels of the vehicle, but also at its body. The police officers fired at the vehicle from a great distance, while running, in the dark, and as the vehicle was driving uphill – all conditions that do not enable precise shooting. Hassan a-Taber was seated with another person in his lap, so that he was unable to bend over to avoid getting hit when he was hit in the back of his head by a bullet. Therefore, the shooting obviously did not only hit the wheels of the vehicle. The case file also includes documentation of glass shards from the car’s windowpane, which was shattered by the shooting.

Despite all these inconsistencies, the Appellate Department at the State Attorney’s Office decided that the shooting was directed at the vehicle’s wheels and was carried out in accordance with open-fire regulations.

Footage from surveillance cameras at the checkpoint. Footage from Camera 1: First 11 seconds; Footage from Camera 2: Form 12 seconds into the footage.

Palestinian killed, no one held accountable

Hassan a-Taber was shot and killed by police officers under circumstances that did not merit opening fire and the shooting itself breached open-fire regulations. Nevertheless, the DIP carried out the investigation from the beginning as though no offense had been committed, investigated the involved police officers without warning them of possible self-incrimination, and decided to close the investigation on grounds on the grounds that no unlawful action had taken place. The Appellate Department at the State Attorney’s Office sanctioned the officers’ illegal conduct and the DIP’s negligent and inadequate investigation. These decisions render meaningless open-fire regulations and the procedures that are supposed to ensure accountability for severe violations of human rights.