Escaping justice: Who killed Bassem Abu Rahme?

The IDF insists on not indicting the security officer who killed Bassem Abu Rahme during a demonstration in the West Bank village of Bil’in, despite being provided with enough details to find him.

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

In April 2009, during the weekly demonstration in the West Bank village of Bil’in, a uniformed Israeli officer fired a gas canister into the chest of demonstrator Bassem Abu Rahme, killing him. The killing was carried out in the presence of senior officers. Firing a canister at a direct trajectory is contrary to the orders of the IDF itself, not to mention the moral meaning behind shooting an unarmed man; but Abu Rahme was a Palestinian, and it would seem the IDF would do anything possible to avoid meting justice to his killer – despite being able to easily find his identity.

Last week, hours before Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), the government announced that the Military Advocate General had decided to close the case, citing “lack of evidence” for an indictment.

This argument is rubbish, and it bears returning to. But first, it is necessary need to give a brief history of the case. Several days after the killing, B’Tselem wrote to the military prosecution, demanding an Military Police Criminal Investigations Division (MPCID) investigation of the shooting. At about the same time, Attorney Michael Sfard made the same demand.

But even though an unarmed civilian was shot to death by a security officer – a fact which is not contested – the military prosecution refused to open a criminal investigation, insisting instead on a military debriefing process. On March 28, 2010, some 11 months after Abu Rahma was killed, the military prosecution announced that it would not open an MPCID investigation. They used a creative excuse: they claimed that the canister may have hit the fence and ricocheted towards Abu Rahme, and hence there was no guilt. And perhaps, they mused, the fact that Abu Rahme was standing on a rock “caused a convergence” between him and the arc of the canister.

These are precisely the sort of questions an MPCID investigation would have answered. And yet, the prosecution refused to open one. There is another critical point here: the prosecution claimed that, despite the debriefing, it does not know who the shooter was. If an IDF debriefing can’t answer this basic question, every Israeli should wonder what the process is good for.

So we happily solved this riddle for the prosecution. On June 3, 2010, Attorneys Michael Sfard and Emily Schaeffer demanded the military prosecution open an MPCID investigation, adding an opinion based on a technology called Forensic Architecture. The death of Abu Rahme was documented by three different video cameras – from the merging and rebuilding of the images, one can plainly see where the soldier who shot him stood, and that the shooting was a direct trajectory. Thus, we don’t know the identity of the shooter, but we found out where he stood during the shooting. Any self-respecting investigative outfit ought to be able to answer this question rather easily, particularly after a military debriefing.

It should be further noted that according to a testimony gathered by the NGO Breaking the Silence (Hebrew), one of the soldiers involved documented the killing by video, and “some soldiers had this video on their mobile phone. They sent it to one another and laughed about it a bit. The guy who shot him, I don’t remember his name, personally I don’t know him too well but I sort of knew who he was, he was rather happy with the story. He put an ‘X’ on his grenade launcher.” Somehow, all this evaded the debriefing, and the MPCID investigation as well. Was it incompetence or a case of following the spirit of the commander?

The findings of the forensic architecture left the prosecution with little choice, and about a month later, on July 11, 2010 – some 15 months after the shooting (but who’s counting?), it ordered an MPCID investigation. This went on and on, perhaps expecting Yesh Din to take the hint and go bark up another tree. He was just a Palestinian, after all, and one who caused the hasbara system some embarrassment by starring in “5 Broken Cameras.”

Left with no choice, together with B’Tselem, Yesh Din appealed to the High Court of Justice on March 3rd 2013, demanding two remedies: that the prosecution should reach a decision in the case, and that it should indict, at a minimum, for unlawful use of a weapon.

And, as mentioned, last week Yesh Din got the answer: the military prosecution still insists it does not know the identity of a shooter documented in three cameras, even after his location was specified. Therefore it asked the court to reject the appeal, close the file without any indictments, and offered Yesh Din and B’Tselem to appeal its decision – a process which can easily drag on for a year or two.

To sum: In April 2009, a person wearing Israeli uniform shot an unarmed demonstrator. Four years later, the IDF’s glorious investigative organs – a debriefing and an MPCID investigation – claim “lack of evidence” for an indictment. Didn’t you get the hint, you bleeding hearts? What, do you seriously think we would indict a soldier for killing a Palestinian, and worse – screw up his superior’s career? As Yesh Din’s data sheet showed, the rate of indictment of soldiers and officers for killing Palestinians is very low, and the conviction rate is also rather sparse.

“If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field,” orders the Bible, “and it be not known who hath slain him: Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain: And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke; And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer’s neck there in the valley: […]  And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley. And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge.” During the misty days of the descent of the Second Temple, the writers of the Talmud repealed this decision, as the killers multiplied and acted openly.

Here is one found slain in the field. The IDF cannot wash its hands, cannot say “our hands have not shed this blood,” cannot say “neither have our eyes seen it,” since it insists on averting its eyes. And what about “lay not innocent blood unto thy people,” the basic demand, universal to all human societies, that a death should be atoned for, what of it?

Don’t worry. He was just a Palestinian.

Read more:
IDF closes investigation into Bil’in killing without indictment

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights.