License to Kill: No consequences for shooting an unarmed man in the back

An unarmed civilian is killed and no one is held accountable. Part two in a series examining Israeli military investigations into Palestinians killed by soldiers. A Palestinian taxi driver is shot in the back by an Israeli soldier. Investigators say they cannot locate the shooters, even though their identity is known. Six years later, when a civil suit is filed, the State suddenly produces them as witnesses. The judge rules their versions of events are unreliable and orders damages paid to the family. The criminal case, however, is closed. [Read part one here.]

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

License to kill pt 2

Ever since an IDF soldier shot Zakaria Daragma, his widow and five young children have been living on NIS 1,500 ($385) a month, the same amount they get for renting out his taxi cab. Dargma, from the village of Tubas in the northern West Bank, was 37 years old when he was shot in the back by an IDF soldier in May 2006.

The details from the army’s regional operations log, as well as the Military Police’s investigation case, which are published here for the first time, reveal contradictions between the soldiers’ versions and raise grave concerns regarding the responsibility of their commanders, not to mention the army’s operational procedures in the region. What makes the whitewashing of this case exceptional, even for IDF investigations, is that the army “failed” to find the shooters, even though their identity was known to other soldiers involved and their reports appeared in the daily operations log. Only six years later, when the State Attorney had to present its defense arguments in a civil suit filed by the family, were the shooters suddenly identified and located. Despite this breakthrough, however, they have yet to be interrogated and the IDF Military Advocate General closed its criminal case into matter, despite their versions being deemed unreliable by an Israeli judge (who for those same reasons, ordered the State to pay damages to the family).

Shot in the back

Zakaria Daragma (Courtesy of the Daragma family)
Zakaria Daragma (Courtesy of the Daragma family)

On May 4, 2006, Zakaria Daragma parked his taxi in front of the Ein Baydan checkpoint near Nablus, and began to walk up the road to the other side of the checkpoint. Two months earlier the regional commander decided to make travel to Nablus more difficult for Palestinians by erecting four barriers, earth mounds and ditches, effectively shutting the stretch of road for vehicle traffic. In response, taxi drivers began to cross the segment on foot, look for passengers on the other side, cross back with them and drive them to the villages of the area.

When Daragma reached the end of the stretch of road, he stopped to talk with the other taxi drivers who were also waiting for passengers, asking whether there were passengers interested in getting to Tubas. At approximately 4 p.m. he began to walk back to his car; a man named Raid Fathi Salahat walked with him.

After he reached the second earth mound, having walked a distance of 100 meters, a nearby military observation post dispatched a jeep with four soldiers to their location. A few seconds after they arrived, and without any prior warning, the commander of the patrol fired in the air and a second soldier, who stepped out of the vehicle, shot Daragma in the back. The soldiers would later claim that they felt their lives were under threat.

Salahat ducked when the shooting occurred and says he saw blood flowing out of Daragma’s mouth. He feared that the soldiers would shoot again and quickly walked away from the scene.

The two soldiers ran towards Daragma while two others prevented the Palestinian drivers on the Nablus side of the checkpoint from approaching him and administering first aid. One of the Palestinian drivers called an ambulance and Daragma was taken to a hospital in Nablus, where he succumbed to his injuries.

Those are the facts accepted by all parties.

The operations log

Despite Daragma’s critical condition, the soldiers did not see fit to call an ambulance. Nor did they report the shooting on the radio, which occurred, as previously stated, at around 4 p.m. Only at 7:47 p.m. is a mendacious report about the shooting of one of three “armed men” listed on the regional brigade’s operations log.

Even though soldiers at an observation post dispatched the patrol to the scene, none of the former identified any weapons, and the same holds for the other witnesses interrogated as part of the investigation — aside from the shooter and his commander. Needless to say, no weapons were found on Daragma or in his vicinity. A later report from the Operations Division states that the shooting was aimed at two people, and explicitly states that the deceased was unarmed. 

[See some of the original investigation materials in Hebrew, here.]

A Military Police investigation was opened following the killing, but hardly any investigatory actions were taken. In 2007, the Union of Palestinian Taxi Drivers, on behalf of Zakaria Daragma’s widow and five children, turned to Attorney Firas Jabali, who filed a civil suit against the State. As part of the preliminary procedure, Atty. Jabali asked for the records of the military investigation.

In July 2008, Jabali received an astonishing memorandum, asserting that the IDF Military Police had failed to find the shooters. As previously stated, their identity was known to the IDF and the report about the shooting and those who carried it out appears on the operations log. According to the investigation records, however, efforts to find the shooters amounted to no more than the questioning of the brigade’s operations officer — more than two years after the incident. During his questioning, the officer was asked how in his opinion the shooters could be located, and his answer was: “speak to the officers who served in the unit at the time.” From the case files, which we have read, one cannot conclude whether the investigators indeed tried to find the aforementioned officers, or if they sufficed with questioning the operations officer.

Five Palestinians who witnessed the incident were also questioned. All five testified that both men were unarmed and that the soldiers shot Dargama in the back for no reason.

In spite of the numerous contradictions between the testimonies and the operations log, and in spite of the fact that Daragma was shot in the back from a distance of approximately 100 meters while not posing any threat whatsoever, the investigation came to an end without ever locating the shooters, not to mention questioning them.

The shooter appears

Four years went by. The civil suit filed by Daragma’s family was making progress and all of the evidence noted that the shooting could not have been justified and was not accounted for. Then, and only then, did the State manage to find the shooter, Staff-Sgt. A., and his commander, Sgt.-Maj. Y., and summon them to court as witnesses for the defense. The State maintained its refusal to summon the other two soldiers who were in the jeep, although their identity must have been known.

In court, the shooter and his commander testified that they had never been questioned by the Military Police. During their examination by Adv. Firas Jabali, they presented testimonies strewn with contradictions. Y. claimed he saw a gun but A. testified that Y. gave up the chase and turned around before the gun was drawn. Both of them claimed that the shooting took place when Zakaria Daragma and his friend turned to them at a distance of 100 meters, and that was why they felt that their lives were in danger. Medical evidence shows that Daragma was shot in the back.

A. also claimed that he sensed a general threat because earlier in the day he had seen a taxi speeding away from the scene, even though there is no mention of this fact on the operations log. He also claims that there was a threat to the nearby [Israeli] settlements because Daragma was an “escapee” — a Palestinian who disregards orders by Israeli security forces to stop. However, not only is “escaping” not a justifiable reason to open fire, but also Daragma and his friend were not defined as “escapees” in the observation post’s report. And crossing that area on foot was common among taxi drivers.

Furthermore, A. stated that Daragma looked suspicious because “he was wearing a blue coat in that heat.” However, on that day, the temperature was 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) and he was not wearing a coat, but a thin nylon top, as one can see in the photo of his body at the hospital (here).

According to the two soldiers, Salahat took the gun Daragma had on him and then ran away toward Ein Baydan. All other witnesses, including Salahat himself, rejected this claim, testifying that Daragma had no gun. In any case, this is a dubious narrative: if someone ran away with a gun, why didn’t the soldiers chase them, considering the threat to nearby settlements? Why didn’t they report that an armed and dangerous man was near the Elon Moreh settlement? Why weren’t any searches conducted in Ein Baydan, the village to which Salahat allegedly escaped? Furthermore, if the soldiers’ claim regarding the attempted attack is correct, why weren’t Daragma’s relatives arrested, according to the military regime’s common procedure, and why was there no attempt to find out whether he belonged to a criminal or terrorist organization?

Y., the patrol commander, states in his testimony that the IDF observation posts overlooking the area in which Daragma was shot used video surveillance, but the investigating officers made no effort to check whether the incident had been filmed, and whether there was any video evidence that could corroborate or refute the soldiers’ version of events.

Furthermore, A., the shooter, claimed in his testimony, perhaps in an attempt to justify the shooting to himself, that, “the danger is not just the gun, [the act of] escaping itself constitutes danger.” Are these really the orders given to the soldiers in the area? A. also claims that the procedure of arresting a suspect requires that one soldier shout and shoot in the air while another prepares to shoot, having the suspect in his sights. It seems that beyond the personal failure that led to the fatal shooting of Daragma, there was also a far-reaching command failure, with the IDF’s formal open-fire procedures being — intentionally or mistakenly — distorted.

‘Unreliable testimony’

Judge Yusef Suheil addressed these points, and in his decision he ruled that the soldiers’ version of events was unreliable. He rejected the State’s version, according to which the shooting was a “belligerent act”’ immune from compensation claims. He also rejected the claim that Daragma had constituted a threat to the soldiers and his killing was therefore justifiable.

The judge asserted unequivocally that, “there was no justification for shooting at the deceased,” and, “the soldiers’ testimonies raise numerous contradictions which cannot be reconciled with their version in court.” In other words, that’s a polite way of saying they were lying in at least part of their testimonies.

In the summary of the decision the judge ordered the State to compensate Daragma’s widow and four children. Now, eight years after Daragma’s death, negotiations regarding the sum are being conducted.

Closing the case

Having received an Israeli judge’s official stamp, the aforementioned questions and contradictions should have sufficed to bring about a reopening of the case and a new exhaustive investigation. Nevertheless, six years after the case, when the shooter and his commander appeared in court all of a sudden, they were not questioned whatsoever by the Military Police.

Last April, the IDF Military Advocate General, Maj.-Gen. Danny Efroni, announced his final decision to close the case without any indictments. An additional point to consider regards Maj.-Gen. Efroni’s authority to even decide on the case in the first place. The soldiers involved were discharged three months after the incident, and the MAG can file indictments only up to a year from the date of discharge. The decision in this matter should be made by the State Attorney. Efroni was recently reprimanded by the High Court of Justice because the IDF MAG was in possession of case files concerning the case of the killing of Samir Awad, a youth from the West Bank village of Budrus, even though those involved had also been discharged over a year earlier.

Whitewashing is the rule, not the exception

Like in the first chapter of this series, the failures in the Military Police’s investigation stink to high heaven. Reading the investigators’ questions, one finds it hard to decide: was this a massive whitewashing effort, or mere dilettante negligence which could perhaps be ascribed to the investigators’ young age and the limited amount of training they receive before being tasked with investigations of killings. There is no doubt regarding the responsibility of their commanders, legal professionals and attorneys. The latter knowingly collaborate with this improper practice, and the negligence which could perhaps be ascribed to young conscripted soldiers is cast in an entirely different — much more alarming light — when it receives the backing of this senior level of command.

Whitewashing pervades the military system, as a rule rather than an exception. In June 2014, for example, it was reported that six years after Lt.-Gen. Roni Numa ordered the cold-blooded killing of a Palestinian in violation of military orders and also lied about it, General Avichai Mandelblit, then IDF Military Advocate General and now the Cabinet Secretary (recently questioned under warning in the “Harpaz Affair”) decided to close the case against him. This is the natural outcome of a distorted situation in which the same organization that carries out the killing is the same body that formulates orders, investigates itself and decides on indictments within its ranks. The military has no interest in getting to the truth of the matter.

The only detail which makes this case exceptional is the Palestinian decision to file a civil suit. In the civil process, the Military Police investigators were replaced by Atty. Jabali, who through his independent examination and questioning, has shown the absurdity in the soldiers’ versions of events. Following this ruling, Zakaria Daragma’s poor family may receive civil compensation, but they will not see justice served in the form of an indictment of the shooter and his commanders, who conspired to cover up the deadly shooting.

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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