Video and forensic evidence didn’t stop the Israeli authorities from failing to properly prosecute the killing of two Palestinian youths at a Nakba Day protest in 2014.
By John Brown*
The Israeli state prosecutor will shortly sign a plea bargain with Border Police officer Ben Deri, who is on trial for killing Palestinian teenager Nadim Nawara in the West Bank town of Beitunia in May 2014. According to the deal, Deri will be charged with causing death by negligence, rather than manslaughter. As such his punishment will likely be symbolic, perhaps even just community service. Under the terms of the plea bargain, the indictment will say that the live bullet which killed Nawara “worked its way” into Deri’s rifle magazine, which was not supposed to have contained any bullet casings.
Nawara, 17, was shot and killed on May 15, 2014, during a Nakba Day protest outside Ofer Prison, next to Beitunia. Muhammed Salameh (Abu al-Thahir), 16, was also shot dead. Neither were posing any threat when they were shot — Salameh was shot in the back — nor was anyone throwing stones in their vicinity. The Israeli army claimed that the teenagers were shot with rubber-coated steel bullets during a violent riot, while then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that IDF soldiers had been in danger. Israeli news site Ynet went so far as to add that it was being checked whether armed Palestinians had opened fire “in the Qalandiya area,” which is adjacent to Beitunia. However, thanks to footage of the incident captured on CCTV, along with the autopsy on Nawara’s body, it quickly became clear that the IDF’s claims were incorrect and that the two youths had been killed by live fire.
The surprise in this case is not how dramatically the indictment has been scaled down, but rather that the file progressed to charges at all, despite the IDF’s attempts at whitewashing. These included, among other things, the Binyamin brigade commander’s investigation which claimed that no live ammunition had been fired during the protest. But two further pieces of footage documented the shootings, refuting the claims that there had been no live fire and that the first piece of CCTV footage to be released was fabricated.
Unfortunately for Ben Deri, the army and military analysts, CNN released footage that clearly showed soldiers opening fire, which reinforced the authenticity of the first piece of CCTV film. The lone voices who continued to claim that the footage had been doctored were an “expert” on the al-Dura affair, who took issue with the way one of the teens fell to the ground after being shot, and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who suggested to CNN that perhaps the boys hadn’t even been killed.
From double homicide to casual negligence
In spite of everything, the investigation didn’t manage to locate the shooter (of the two officers who opened fire that day), until it was discovered that the bullet which killed Nawara was lodged in a book inside the school bag he was carrying that day, and which his father had kept. Using the bullet, it was then possible to identify which gun it had been fired from and thus who had opened fire. The combination of footage from several different angles and the locating of the bullet meant that an indictment had to be submitted. But the whitewashing didn’t end there, and the efforts have now borne fruit.
There was no negligence in the shooting that killed Nawara. As mentioned, a second teenager — Salameh — was killed during the same confrontation, in exactly the same spot and only minutes later, which was also caught on camera. This piece of information is missing from the reports on the plea bargain. A few minutes before the two killings, a 15-year-old Palestinian was shot in the chest and seriously injured. The file on Salameh was closed for lack of evidence, while the third shooting was not investigated at all. Live ammunition was also certainly used in this shooting; there is no way that a rubber-coated bullet fired from that distance would be able to penetrate the body, let alone cause lethal injury. Nevertheless, because there was no autopsy on Salameh’s body and the bullet that killed him was not located, he was not mentioned in the indictment against Deri.
The ignoring of these other shootings, which it is reasonable to assume point to murder and attempted murder, paved the way for the plea bargain. What should have been an indictment for double homicide is now a case of casual negligence.
The claim that the bullet “worked its way” into a magazine for rubber-coated bullets is absurd in every sense. The magazine was not prepared by Deri but at his brigade’s armory. Witnesses at the armory said that they had checked the magazines, so if anyone is to blame for a live bullet making its way into the magazine before the incident, it’s them. But they, of course, were not brought to trial, which speaks volumes.
Furthermore, even if Deri really had thought he was firing rubber-coated bullets, the films show that the shooting itself was illegal. As mentioned above, Salameh was shot in the back and both teens were killed when they were not doing anything and not posing a threat. But most important of all, the security forces shot live rounds at least three times. Even if there is a slight chance that a single live round “worked its way” into the magazine, for the same thing to happen three times in a row is almost impossible. It’s also unlikely that two separate police officers’ guns would have had live bullets find their way in in the same manner.
A track record of failure
But the investigation was assigned to the Military Police Investigator and the Samaria and Judea District Police, known for their high rate of failure (over 90 percent in the years prior to 2012) in cases involving crimes against Palestinians. Were it not for Palestinians taking it upon themselves to further this investigation — by way of collecting the bullet that killed Nawara and carrying out the autopsy on his body — the murder would not have led to any kind of indictment at all.
Even so, the investigation did not include a check of the bullet casings (which would presumably have had Deri’s fingerprints on them), nor the bullets which killed Salameh and wounded the other youth. That made it possible to claim that a solitary bullet was “in the wrong place,” despite the fact that Deri probably shot three teenagers. No evidence was collected from the scene during the investigation, meaning that Deri’s attorney, Zion Amir, was able to crush the prosecution during the hearings.
This is not the only case that the system has watered down until it is rendered meaningless. Another case is likely to be closed in the near future, involving two Israeli soldiers who in January 2013 shot 16-year-old Samir Awad in the back of the neck in Budrus, killing him. It is thought that the prosecutor will sign a plea bargain which will not involve jail time. The charge was listed as “reckless use of a firearm,” despite the shooting being intentional and multiple bullets being fired.
The media silence over both incidents — in Beitunia and in Budrus — and dozens of others, along with the lack of public criticism over an outrageous plea bargain, have turned the intentional killing of two youths, which was documented, into a casual affair. This deal is further evidence that the investigatory and legal authorities in Israel are incapable of tackling IDF soldiers’ crimes against Palestinians. Criminal acts such as these are not properly addressed by the state, nor even given a semblance of due process.
*John Brown is the pseudonym of an Israeli academic and a blogger. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here. Translated by Natasha Roth.