License to Kill: Shot to death while in custody

The first part in a series of articles examining case files of Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers — the ensuing investigations, by other Israeli soldiers, indicate a lack of interest in discovering the truth or achieving justice. In part one, a Palestinian man is arrested for not carrying an ID card. A few hours later, while handcuffed inside a military base, he is shot to death. The investigation files reveal serious and troubling contradictions. The shooter’s commander admits numerous failures, and yet, nobody will stand trial.

By Noam Rotem and John Brown (translated from Hebrew by Ofer Neiman)

[Editor’s note: In the original Hebrew version of this article, we presented relevant documents from the military investigation files. Because they are in Hebrew, we have not published them here. To read the original with the case materials, click here.]

When you first hear the story of Yasser a-Tmeizi, the first thought that comes to mind is that this has to be fiction, that there must be something else behind the dry facts of this report, one in hundreds we read about Israeli soldiers shooting a Palestinian. Even if you delve into the details of the case — the details the Israeli media publishes, at least — the feeling does not change. Surely it is impossible that a handcuffed man is shot to death inside a military base, by a soldier, and nobody is indicted.

Only when we received the records from the investigation conducted by the Israeli Military Police in this matter, including detailed testimonies of all the soldiers involved, did we realize to what extent things are rotten in the kingdom of Judea.

The records of this case, which was also handled by B’Tselem and Yesh Din and reviewed by the Turkel Commission, reveal what lies beneath laconic media reports of “an attempted [terrorist] attack” that ended in the death of a detainee. The files arouse suspicion of collusion between those giving testimony, reconstructions being conducted with a go-through-the-motions approach, of police ignoring critical details and testimonies, as well as what seems to be a common interest among those in charge of the investigation and those being investigated: that it not result in any indictments. In other words, an investigation that is not conducted with the purpose of getting to the bottom of things, but rather to feign some sort of action vis-a-vis the outside world.

This report is the first in a series that will present an analysis of Israeli Military Police investigations. Several facts constitute the common denominator: a Palestinian is killed, the name of the person who killed him is known, yet he is not indicted on any count. A license to kill.

The documents we obtained have gone through the Israeli military censor. The names of the soldiers were redacted from them, as well as the names of some of the places where the crimes were committed. The purpose of this report is to pursue in any way those who committed the killings. True, had the victim not been Palestinian, they might have been sentenced to many years under lock and key, but the real culprit is the military legal apparatus. The point is not the individual soldier, but the system that allows Israeli security forces to investigate and clear themselves of serious charges time after time, while the pile of corpses they leave behind grows steadily.

This apparatus, which comprises the Israeli Military Police’s Criminal Investigations Department and the IDF Military Advocate General, is the essence of the military regime in the West Bank and its ability to cover up the killing of innocent Palestinians. “Due process” is nothing but false pretense — a theater of the absurd that renders the next killing kosher. There is only one conclusion: investigations into the killings of Palestinians, as well as the authority to indict the resulting suspects, cannot remain in the hands of the organization that commits the killings.

Pretext of arrest: No ID card

Here are the facts pertaining to the death of Yasser a-Tmeizi. They are compiled from the testimonies of soldiers in the investigation records:

On January 13, 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, 35-year-old Yasser a-Tmeizi went out to plow a plot of land owned by his family near the village of Idna, in the South Hebron Hills. He took with him his 6-year-old son Firas, and a donkey to help them in their work. IDF reserve soldiers who passed by on a foot patrol demanded that a-Tmeizi produce his ID card. Since he had not brought the card with him, the soldiers decided to arrest him.

A., the commander of the force, sent the 6 year old boy home alone, and when a-Tmeizi tried to resist, the soldiers jumped on him, beat him, tied his hands, and called a jeep to take him to the detention facility. A woman who passed by tried to appeal to the soldiers, begging them to leave Yasser with his son, but they pointed their guns at her and pushed her away.

During the ride, the plastic cuffs with which a-Tmeizi had been bound came loose and the soldiers tied him up him with a computer cable that they found. When they reached the IDF’s Tarqumiya outpost, the soldiers placed the detainee on a plastic chair near the base’s perimeter guard’s position, and assigned a soldier named R. to guard him. Several witnesses say that R “messed” with a-Tmeizi — kicked him and threw away the water bottle that had been brought for the former. R. himself tells of a verbal exchange with a-Tmeizi and admits to being violent to him.

A few seconds after that confrontation, R. fired three bullets at a-Tmeizi. One of the bullets pierced this stomach and quickly brought about his death. Later, R would argue that the detainee broke free and tried to snatch his weapon, but not one of the other soldiers who were around could confirm his version. The investigator in charge of the case, Aviel, did not see a problem with the contradictions in the shooter’s testimony (detailed below) or with the other findings. R. was not indicted. That is how Yasser a-Tmeizi was killed, and his son Firas, now aged 11, was orphaned.

Yasser a-Tmeizi and his two children (Courtesy of the a-Tmeizi family)
Yasser a-Tmeizi and his two children (Courtesy of the a-Tmeizi family)

Visiting the crime scene — a year and a half later

The investigators in charge of the case collected testimonies from 15 soldiers who were involved in this incident, as well as two Palestinian civilians. They also carried out a reconstruction at the scene of the incident. This may seem quite meticulous, that is until you delve into the details. The testimonies were collected several weeks up to several months after the shooting. A long time had passed, during which the soldiers were “questioned” by their commanders, with each soldier hearing the others’ accounts of what happened.

Not only was the reconstruction conducted a whole a year and a half after the incident, the shooter himself did not take part. Fundamental contradictions between various testimonies of the soldiers involved were flagrantly ignored. The downward angle at which the bullet had entered a-Tmeizi’s body, as stated in the autopsy, was not addressed at all, even though this is a crucial point and one of the few physical pieces of evidence collected by the Military Police. Numerous other blunders make you wonder what exactly the purpose of the investigation actually was.

These are not minor problems but fundamental failures: for example, some of the soldiers claimed that following the shooting, a-Tmeizi lay on the ground face down in a folded position, four to five meters (13 to 16 feet) from the shooter (testimonies by sergeant first class D. and staff sergeant A.), while others testified that he lay on his back. Some of them “did not remember” whether his hands were bound or if he had broken free before the shooting.

The shooter, R., contradicts himself, claiming during his testimony that he “used reasonable force” by kicking the detainee, which caused the latter to fall to the ground. A few sentences later, he claims that the detainee could not have fallen to the ground. Sgt. Aviel, who conducted the investigation, didn’t press any further on this point.

Another contradiction in R.’s testimony regards the distance between himself and the detainee. R. testifies that at first he was standing at a distance of four or five meters from the detainee when the latter “charged” at him, but later he argues that they stood very close to each other and that a-Tmeizi tried to grab the barrel of his weapon.

As previously stated, a-Tmeizi’s entry wound is in the navel area and the exit wound is in the buttocks (a 24 centimeter top-down difference). Considering the fact that a-Tmeizi’s was 1.72-meters tall (5 feet 7.7 inches), this angle must raise questions as to his position during the shooting. It seems one can infer that a-Tmeizi was much lower than that of the shooter, in contrast to the former’s account during the investigation.

Fresh bruises on a-Tmeizi’s face, shoulder and chest do not receive any mention in the investigation report as well. There are even contradictions about the number of bullets R. fired in the direction of a-Tmeizi’s legs and stomach: in his testimony, he claims that he shot two rounds at the legs and one at the stomach. His commander claims (and this is implicitly corroborated by several other testimonies) that one bullet was fired at the legs and two at the stomach. On this issue too, the investigators did not bother to confront the shooter with the contradictions.

Another soldier, A., claims that he saw “some messing around that seemed unnecessary to him and [that the shooter] was unnecessarily close to the detainee.” Let’s take for example the fact that the shooter was standing very close to a-Tmeizi. At some point A. saw that the detainee was down on his knees with the chair tipped over and that R. was trying to seat him, while kicking away a water bottle from a-Tmeizi’s reach. Later he heard the cocking of a rifle and saw R. holding his weapon in a shooting stance while the detainee was seated, tied to the chair. It was clear to A. that this was intended to frighten the detainee.

The testimony of another soldier, sergeant first class D., corroborates the abuse allegation. D. testified that he saw the shooter getting the detainee out of his chair and aiming his weapon at him. The investigators did not examine this point.

R.’s own testimony casts doubts as to his motives: he argues that when a-Tmeizi asked for water and held the bottle, he [R.] grabbed it and said: “Sit in your place and you’ll get the water.” When the detainee verbally protested against this conduct, the bottle “slipped” from R.’s hands, and then he had to “use reasonable force” to put a-Tmeizi back on the chair. This means that a-Tmeizi’s hands were free, but R. did not shoot him. Rather, he put him back in the chair. Only later, according to R., did he “sense that something was wrong”, cocked his weapon and walked up to a-Tmeizi. According to R., a-Tmeizi prayed for half a minute as R. was standing five meters away from him, and then they began to curse each other, with R. shouting at him to sit down. At this point, according to R., a-Tmeizi ran amok, charged at him, seized his weapon, and only then did R. fire two shots at his legs, and then another one at the center of his abdomen.

Other soldiers (sergeant first class D. and staff sergeant A.) reported one shot followed by someone shouting and then by two additional shots. The company commander, captain A., also claimed that it was the second shot which killed a-Tmeizi, the one which according to the shooter had not been fired at the victim’s stomach whatsoever.

Even the deputy brigade commander, Lt.-Col. Moshe, admits that failures and professional errors occurred during the arrest, but with respect to the killing of the detainee, he “relies on the soldier’s statement.”

If he were ‘Yoni’ and not ‘Yasser’

The IDF is the sovereign power in the occupied territories, and it is responsible for the lives and well-being of the Palestinians. This fact is not even noted in the investigation of the case of Yasser a-Tmeizi. Such a critical mass of internal contradictions and moral failures, as well as other blunders, must have, at the very least, raised questions about R.’s culpability in the death of a-Tmeizi.

Yasser a-Tmeizi died after leaving his house with his six-year-old son, with no malevolent intentions. The soldiers who arrested him made a mistake. There is no question about that; they themselves, along with their commanders, admit this. The guard on the base, R., abused, or rather, severely abused, the detainee. Perhaps out of boredom, perhaps out of malevolence, and perhaps it was a combination of the two. In any case, the fact remains: R. shot Yasser a-Tmeizi after abusing him — hitting him and cursing him.

Just try to imagine the same situation if it was a guy named Yoni sitting on that chair rather a Yasser. Would the deputy brigade commander be so quick to accept the shooter’s fallacy ridden testimony? Would the investigator ignore the lies being told to him?

On March 29, 2011, the Military Advocate General informed Yesh din that it had decided to close the case without indicting R. The Turkel Commission, which was established in order to examine the failures in IDF investigations, referred to this decision as a complete acceptance of the shooter’s account.

A request for comment was sent to the IDF Spokesperson. The response will be published here if and when it is received.

Almost no chance of due process

The likelihood of indictment in the case of a soldier who shoots a Palestinian is nearly zero, regardless of the circumstances of the shooting. In recent years, only a few soldiers have been indicted in such cases, out of thousands of dead Palestinians, even when the soldiers’ culpability was screaming to high heaven. The single indictment submitted in December 2014 in the case of the double murders of 17-year-old Nadeem Nawara and Mohammad Salameh, and the attempted murder of 15-year-old Muhammad al-‘Azza (who was severely wounded in the incident) at a Nakba Day protest in Beitunia, on May 15, 2014.

In the case of the Beitunia shooting, the indictment came about thanks to an aggregate of rare pieces of evidence (and even in that case, it was only the killing of one of the boys which led to the indictment). The Beitunia case is the exception that to the rule, especially since this investigation was conducted in cooperation with the Judea and Samaria District Police (the accused shooter was a Border Police officer, not a soldier).

A soldier who knows he will not be punished will not be afraid of taking a life. He will not think twice if he knows that the army will always have his back. Human life, every human life, must be a supreme, sacred value in the eyes of the State and the people to whom it entrusts with lethal weapons. Anyone who refuses to understand the burden of responsibility sitting on her/his shoulders cannot go on being a part of the free human society.

Yasser a-Tmeizi’s family has not seen justice, not even prima facie justice, such as a serious investigation which would prevent the reoccurrence of such cases. Time after time, the killer walks away, allowed to go on with his life as if nothing happened.

The military is incapable of investigating itself. It simply cannot do this. In order to get to the bottom of things, the IDF must be stripped of such investigative authority — it should be transferred to an external, independent organ, one that is not be primarily concerned with the IDF’s image, but rather with the truth, and the need to punish those who have taken a life for no reason.

In this series, which we have chosen to name “License to Kill,” we will try to demonstrate that the Israeli army is unfit to conduct these investigations, which are rife with criminal negligence and deliberate lack of professionalism, and placed in the hands of a group of soldiers who have no real interest in bringing the culprits to justice and, possibly preempting future deaths and bereavements. We are sure that some soldiers will be uncomfortable with what R. did. We would like to encourage these soldiers, along with any other soldier who witnessed such killing incidents and subsequent whitewashing, to stand up and tell the real story. Behind the dry facts conveyed by a report about “another attempted [terrorist] attack in Hebron,” and behind any killing of this type, there is a family. There are parents, children, sisters, brothers and spouses who are left with this bereavement. They, too, deserve justice. In the current mechanism, neither they nor those next in line will be granted such justice.

Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and author of the blog, subtitled “Godwin doesn’t live here any more.”  John Brown is the pseudonym of an Israeli academic and blogger. This article was first published on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call, where this series was first published. Read it in Hebrew here.

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