Lethal shooting in Tulkarm: Israeli soldiers fatally shoot Muhammad Habali (22) in the head from 80 meters away
On Tuesday, 4 December 2018, at around midnight, some 100 Israeli soldiers invaded the city of Tulkarm in the West Bank. Some of them entered four homes in different parts of the city and conducted a brief search. A few young Palestinian men came to the areas where the soldiers were and threw stones at them. The troops responded with rubber-coated metal bullets and teargas.
At some point during the night, about 30 soldiers came to the area of a-Nuzha Street, an east-west street in the western part of Tulkarm. Some of the force spread out along the street in groups of threes and fours. The others entered the alleyway opposite the al-Fadiliyah Boys’ High School and raided a home there. Further down the street, about 150 meters away from the soldiers, several residents were standing at the doorway of the a-Sabah Restaurant and on the adjacent street. One of them was Muhammad Habali, a mentally challenged 22-year-old from Tulkarm Refugee Camp. Habali walked back and forth, crossing and re-crossing the road.
Video footage from four security cameras* installed on three separate buildings along the street shows that that area was perfectly quiet and that there were no clashes there with soldiers.
Taken together, B’Tselem’s investigation and this footage indicate that at 2:25 A.M., an officer and two soldiers advanced towards a-Sabah Restaurant and stopped about 80 meters away. A few seconds later, the soldiers fired four or five shots at the young men standing in front of the restaurant, and the young men fled. Habali, who is seen in the footage carrying a long wooden stick – which he had picked up a few minutes before the shooting – was the last to leave. After he took several steps, he was shot in the head from behind, from a distance of about 80 meters. Another shot hit M.H., a resident of Tulkarm, in the leg. About a minute after the shooting, the three soldiers are seen rejoining the other soldiers in the area and leaving, without providing Habali or M.H. with any medical assistance. More shots were then heard. Habali was taken to hospital in Tulkarm, where he arrived unconscious, not breathing and without a pulse. Resuscitation attempts failed and he was pronounced dead a short while later. M.H. was driven to the hospital in another car, and X-rays showed a bullet lodged in his left leg.
K.‘A. (25), a resident of Tulkarm, was standing in the alley opposite a-Sabah Restaurant watching the scene. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem on 9 December 2018, he related:
I was standing there with a few guys, including Muhammad Habali. I know him. He had a wooden stick in his hand. We knew there were soldiers in the area. Then, at around 2:20, we saw three soldiers coming towards us. We all asked Muhammad, whom everyone called Za’atar, to get back because we were worried about him, what with the soldiers being there. He did as we asked and started to walk away. Suddenly, we heard gunfire. The soldiers who were coming towards us had fired.
When the shooting began, I was at the entrance to the alley opposite a-Sabah Restaurant. There were four or five shots, and one of them hit Muhammad Habali. I saw him fall face down and then I ran into the alley along with some other people. Then the shooting stopped.
I ran back out to the street and shouted to the other guys to go get a car so we could get Habali out of there. I got to him first. His head was bleeding badly. I grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him three or four meters into the alley –making sure that his head didn’t touch the ground – because I was afraid the soldiers would shoot him again.
After the round of fire that hit Habali, I heard shots being fired into the air, but I didn’t see the soldiers who’d fired.
M.H, who was hit in the leg, recalled in a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher ‘Abulkarim Sadi on 4 December 2018:
At around 2:30 A.M., I saw three soldiers heading east from the entrance to the al-Fadiliyah School, towards the spot where I was standing with some other guys. They opened fire and I – and other guys who were around the cafes and the a-Sabah Restaurant – tried to run east.
I ran about 10 or 15 meters and suddenly felt something hit my left leg. It started bleeding and I got a tingling sensation. I tried to hide in a side street so I wouldn’t get hit again. I called out to some guys who were nearby and one of them came over and helped me get to a nearby square. A man who was passing by in his car took me to the trauma ward at the Thabet Thabet Hospital. They X-rayed my leg and found a bullet entry wound under my left knee, but no exit wound. Now I’m waiting at hospital for them to remove the bullet.
H.F., a resident of Tulkarm, came to the restaurant for a bite to eat around 2:15 A.M. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Abdulkarim Sadi on 6 December 2018, he recounted what happened next:
I was standing out on the street with some other people, watching the soldiers. At some point, I went into the restaurant to order some food. I made it as far as the doorway when I heard gunshots. I turned around and saw Muhammad Habali, who is known as Za’atar, lying face down on the ground. He had been hit in the head by a bullet. I filmed him on my cellphone and started calling out to the other guys to come help me get him out of the middle of the road and into the alley opposite the restaurant, because I was afraid the shooting would continue or that a passing car might run him over.
When I dared step outside, I looked over at the soldiers who were in front of the al-Fadiliyah School and saw them backing away towards Khaduri Square. I heard several shots in the air. After the guys were sure the soldiers had left, they put Muhammad Habali into a car. I rode to hospital with him, and we reached the trauma ward within minutes. The medics and doctors tried to give him first aid and resuscitate him, but he was gone.
I saw no stone-throwing from the spot where I was standing before the shooting began. People were just standing there, watching the soldiers who were near the al-Fadiliyah School. I don’t know what was going on in other parts of the street. For all I know young guys could have been throwing stones or shouting at the soldiers there.
When the incident was made public, the military responded by claiming that a “violent disturbance of the peace had developed” in the area, that “dozens of Palestinians were throwing stones” and that the soldiers “responded with crowd control means and later with live fire.” The video footage and the eyewitness accounts collected by B’Tselem from people who were near Habali show no absolutely no of sign of any “disturbance,” stone-throwing or use of crowd control measures. Quite the contrary: the soldiers are seen walking unhurriedly, the Palestinians are seen talking amongst themselves, and then the soldiers fatally shoot Habali in the head from a considerable distance. The lethal shooting was not preceded by a warning, was not justified and constitutes a violation of the law.
The media also reported that the military had launched an MPIU investigation concerning the incident. Yet despite its name, the “military law enforcement system” does not investigate incidents in which soldiers have killed Palestinians with the aim of uncovering the truth. It does not work so as to bring to account the chain of command responsible for the killing or to prevent such instances from happening again. The system is intended primarily to serve appearances and silence criticism, so that the military can continue using lethal force without paying a price for its actions.