Police extend gag order on deadly Qalandiya shooting — again

Despite the fact that eye witnesses have provided versions of events that contradict the police narrative, the latter has refused to release CCTV footage of the shooting that killed two Palestinian siblings.

John Brown*

Israel soldiers and private security guards at the Qalandiya checkpoint shortly after the two siblings were shot, April 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israel soldiers and police officers at the Qalandiya checkpoint shortly after the two siblings were shot, April 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nearly 70 days after Israeli security contractors shot two Palestinian siblings to death at the Qalandiya military checkpoint outside Jerusalem, a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge has extended a sweeping gag order on the case, raising more and more questions about the case. The gag order covers all details about the investigation and any information that might be used to identify the suspects — the security contractors.

According to the police version of events, the two siblings were attempting to carry out a stabbing attack at the checkpoint that day. Eyewitness accounts collected by human rights groups and journalists tell a different story — namely, that the pair did not pose an immediate threat when they were gunned down.

The two different stories could easily be reconciled with the publication of CCTV footage of the event. Israel Police, however, has thus far refused to publish it citing the ongoing investigation.

Here’s what we do know: on April 27, 2016, the two siblings, 23-year-old mother of two Maram Abu Isma’il and 16-year-old Ibrahim Taha were shot to death at the Qalandiya Checkpoint separating Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah. Eight days later, at the request of police, Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Joya Skappa-Shapiro imposed a sweeping gag order on the details of the investigation, “to preserve the propriety of the investigation and to prevent harm to public safety.”

That gag order, already extended a number of times since, was extended yet again this Monday, until August 2, more than three months since the shooting.

Israel soldiers and private security guards at the Qalandiya checkpoint shortly after the two siblings were shot, April 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israel soldiers and private security guards at the Qalandiya checkpoint shortly after the two siblings were shot, April 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the police’s version of events, given to journalists and the public that day of the shooting — long before the initial gag order — Maram Abu Isma’il and her brother Ibrahim arrived at the checkpoint on foot that day but went through the lane reserved for cars, as opposed to the adjacent terminal for pedestrians.

“Police and Border Police officers stationed at the Qalandiya checkpoint identified a man and a woman (minorities) walking in the direction of the checkpoint meant for the passage of cars only, with her hand inside a bag she had in her possession, and the [male] terrorist’s hand was behind his back holding something that raised the suspicion of the officers,” a police spokesperson said at the time.

“The officers at the scene yelled a number of times for them to halt and not proceed. The [male and female] terrorists continued walking and approaching the officers, who continued to tell them to stop and drop the bag in her possession,” the police statement continued. “The [female] terrorist stopped at a distance close to the officers, took a few steps back along with the [male] terrorist, suddenly turned around toward the officers, the [female] terrorist drew a knife that was in her bag and threw it directly at a police officer that was standing in front of her. The officer wasn’t hit. The officers and [private] guards acted quickly and shot toward the terrorists and neutralized them.”

It was already clear that day that the police’s version of events was incomplete. It has since been revealed — by police internal affairs investigators and police themselves — that officers did not shoot at the siblings, which could indicate that they did not feel their lives were in immediate danger. Private security guards employed at the checkpoint fired the deadly shots.

Even without seeing the video, however, there are already several problems with the police version of events. Firstly, the 16-year-old brother was apparently shot despite clearly not posing any threat. Even according to the police version of events, the teenager was not holding any object and was not in close proximity to the officers. It is not clear how he could possibly have posed an immediate threat that justified the police regulations for escalation of force and ultimate use of deadly force. Even if a knife was found on his body after the fact, as police claim, that suggests he never wielded it threateningly.

Despite the fact that the gag order forbids publication of details about the investigation, testimonies published about the incident raise serious suspicions that at the very least, the killing of the 16-year-old brother was not justified.

The point of the gag order, from the initial order that was only supposed to last for a week to the latest extension, is also not clear — it is particularly unclear how publishing details of the investigation would harm the security of the region.

Gag orders have become standard procedure in recent years in these types of cases. More than two months after the deadly shooting, the gag order still covers all details of the investigation — and not just the identity of the suspects, who could arguably suffer from publication. One must ask whether the gag order’s true intention is to ensure the entire affair drops off the public agenda, if not a cover up. Only lifting the gag order will provide answers.

*John Brown is the pseudonym of an Israeli academic and a blogger. A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is a blogger. Read it here.