The Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem received notification from the military prosecution recently, informing it that charges will not be filed against an officer who shot an Israeli activist during a 2008 demonstration in Bil’in. B’Tselem intends to appeal the decision.
The incident took place during the weekly demonstration against the separation fence in Bil’in on March15, 2008. At the time, demonstrations used to reach the old route of the fence – which has since been found illegal by the Israeli High Court of Justice but not yet dismantled – and the army would cross the gate in the fence and chase demonstrators back into the village. A video recording of the shooting shows the soldiers marching back towards the fence, and one of them pushing away a photographer standing nearby. At this point, Israeli activist Eran Cohen, standing less than five meters away from the road, is heard shouting, “What are you doing, soldier?! Don’t touch the journalists.” At this point, one of the soldiers, apparently an officer, slightly raises his gun and shoots Cohen in the leg with a rubber-coated bullet, even though it is clear that Cohen was in no way a threat to the soldiers, and that no fighting is taking place elsewhere in the area. The bullet penetrated Cohen’s knee, which was later removed in surgery after Cohen was rushed to the hospital.
At the request of B’Tselem, a military police investigation was launched by the end of that month, and the video was submitted for military inspection. Now, almost four years later, the army says the case is closed and no charges are to be filed. The military prosecution did not elaborate on the reasons for its decision.
A silent approval for unjustified violence
This is in no way a unique case in the history of the popular and joint struggle. According to B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli, it is safe to say that on the whole, soldiers and border policemen are not charged with the wounding or even the killing of demonstrators. “While we have countless reports of injuries and more than twenty deaths in demonstrations, and while many incidents are documented with footage, you almost never see investigations ending with indictments,” says Michaeli.
In the past, army regulations required that every death caused by soldiers prompt an investigation by the military police. With the start of the Second Intifada in October 2000, the army openly canceled these regulations, which were put back to force last April. This is why most deaths of demonstrators, peaceful and stone-throwing alike, have not led to investigations, except for two very rare ones: the killing of Bassem Abu-Rahme in Bil’in (caused by a tear gas canister shot directly to his chest), and that of 10-year-old Ahmad Musa in Nil’in shot in the head with a rubber bullet by a border policeman after a demonstration). Even here, the former has yet to turn into an indictment (investigation was only launched following a long legal struggle on the family’s part), and in the latter case, the charge is negligent manslaughter. The only demonstration-related conviction activists remember in the many years of the popular struggle was that of the two soldiers who shot the cuffed and blindfolded Ashraf Abu-Rahme in the foot.
While Palestinian and Israeli activists keep documenting attacks on demonstrations, and while NGOs keep filing complaints against the use of force, the army on the whole seems untouched. In December, B’Tselem wrote the army with great concern, reporting what seems to be a constant policy of soldiers and officers on the ground to ignore the army’s own regulations, which forbid shooting tear gas canisters at a direct angle. B’Tselem have backed up this claim with extensive footage of soldiers shooting tear gas canisters in the same illegal fashion that caused the deaths of Bassem Abu-Rahme and Mustafa Tamimi. However, just last Thursday the military authorities replied, saying that “security forces use tear gas canisters only to disperse violent rioters, and only in an arched angle.”
“They are not even willing to admit that soldiers are disobeying their own regulations”, says Michaeli, “what kind of a message do you think that gives the soldiers?”