When shooting a teen in the back is a ‘professional error’

An IDF brigade commander shot a Palestinian teen who threw a rock at his jeep, while the boy was running away, and then left him bleeding on the road. Initially, the colonel claimed his life was in danger. With each subsequent interrogation, the story changed. The military police determined the incident was a ‘professional error’ –  bad aim – and closed the case despite evidence that tells a very different story.

By John Brown* and Noam Rotem

On July 3, 2015, Col. Yisrael Shomer, then-commander of the IDF’s Binyamin Brigade, was driving towards the Qalandiya checkpoint in the West Bank. Mohammad al-Kasbeh, a 17 year-old Palestinian, threw a large rock at the windshield of Shomer’s vehicle, and started to flee. The Binyamin Brigade commander stepped out of the car, fired two bullets into the back of the fleeing boy, and left him wounded and bleeding on the ground without offering any help. Kasbeh died from his wounds. The military police file was closed with no indictment filed, and Col. Shomer was promoted to commander of the IDF’s Southern Command.

Now, for the first time, our investigation reveals that a subordinate soldier who was with Shomer at the time of the shooting testified to Military Police investigators that neither man was in immediate danger, and that his commander failed to follow the protocol for arresting suspects. Furthermore, while Shomer claimed that the boy was holding an object, the soldier testified that that the boy held nothing. Video analysis of the incident, made possible by these testimonies, also showed that the entire shooting was documented, and contradicts Shomer’s claim that he fired in the air.

What follows is a review of the Military Police’s file, the changing versions of the officer’s testimony (especially after B’Tselem released video footage documenting the shooting), the contradictory testimonies of the soldiers who were with Shomer that day, and the decision of the Military Advocate General (MAG) not to file an indictment against the IDF colonel.

Last month, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) filed an appeal to the High Court of Justice demanding that the army prosecute Shomer for murder, or at least negligent manslaughter. The appeal is based on the military’s own investigation file, reviewed in this article, and the crux of the argument is that Col. Shomer was not in mortal danger when he fired into the boy’s back.

A lethal threat that wasn’t

On the morning of the incident, around 6:30 a.m., Binyamin Brigade Commander Col. Yirael Shomer was driving in his vehicle with three other soldiers on the road between Jabah and Qalandiya. Shomer’s second in command, who had passed through the same spot a few minutes prior, reported that stones were being thrown along the route. Accordingly, the soldiers in the vehicle testified they were aware that they might also be targeted by stones. “We were alert following the announcement,” one solider testified during his first interrogation, according to the investigation file.

When the commander’s jeep, moving relatively slowly, reached the intersection, Mohammad al-Kasbeh approached the vehicle and threw a rock at the windshield from close-range. The rock smashed the windshield, but did not enter the vehicle. After the rock had been thrown and the boy began to run, Shomer and his radio man, D., got out of the car and chased Kasbeh.

Shomer fired three shots, two of which hit the boy: one in the upper back and one in the neck. The officer and the soldier approached and saw Kasbeh injured and bleeding on the ground, yet left the scene without calling for medical assistance and without trying to help the dying boy, who succumbed to his wounds shortly after.

In its initial report to the media, the army claimed that Kasbeh threw a stone, and Col. Shomer returned fire. Government ministers rushed to Shomer’s defense. “A stone kills,” wrote Minister Miri Regev. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, paraphrasing Jewish religious texts, said “He who comes to kill you, hurry to kill him.” Shomer said his life was in danger, and that he therefore acted legally when he fatally shot the teenager. However, security camera footage from a nearby gas station — which captured part of the incident and was published by B’Tselem — shows without a shadow of a doubt that Shomer’s version of the truth is false, and that the shooting took place during a chase, after the boy had thrown the rock and attempted to escape.

Col. Israel Shomer (IDF Spokesperson)
Col. Yisrael Shomer (IDF Spokesperson)

Three stone throwers, or one teenager?

The military police’s initial interrogation of the three soldiers and their officer took place at noon on the day of the incident, about six hours after the shooting of Kasbeh and after everybody had participated in an operational debriefing during which each person heard the others’ version of events. At this point, it’s critical to note, they were unaware of the existence of security footage. According to their version, there was a planned ambush: “In front of us were two cars which stopped driving, deliberately as I understood it, in order to set an ambush and to force us to stop the jeep and serve as a target for the rock throwers,” Shomer said in his first interrogation, and his soldiers corroborated this description of events.

According to documents from the first interrogation, the narrative of all four was that their car was trapped after two cars stopped in front of them, blocking their route. When B’Tselem published the video, this version of the story collapsed. All four were summoned to further interrogations, and confronted with the inconsistencies.

At first they repudiated these claims, and according to investigation documents, claiming that the video was forged. Soldier A. testified, “You see ‘B’Tselem’ in the upper right corner, so I think it’s a fake.” But after they were convinced by military police that the video was authentic, that even the head of the police’s digital imagery division confirmed its authenticity, the soldiers’ testimonies began to change. This time, there was no ambush: they stopped after the stone was thrown. There weren’t any cars blocking them: they could have driven away but chose to stay. Not unreasonable behavior, but it negated the original claim that they had they not left the vehicle, they would have been in mortal danger.

Back to the first interrogation. The three soldiers and the officer initially testified that at least three young men, each holding a rock, attacked the stopped vehicle. “I see… a Palestinian holding a rock… close behind him, on the left, there are two more Palestinians, also holding rocks in their hands,” testified Col. Shomer to the military police. “At the time of the throwing the Palestinian is in zero-range, that is to say less than a meter from the jeep, and when the jeep stops completely he moves away after he throws the rock. When I exit the jeep, I’m standing about 5 or 10 meters from the jeep, and he’s about 15 meters away.”

A few months later, when military investigators threatened to charge S., one of the soldiers who was in the jeep, with obstructing the investigation, he admitted that there was only one teenager present, not three. Yet in the first statement by the IDF Spokesperson, broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2, there was talk of an “angry crowd” throwing stones.

Then, the commander decided to ‘unload’ — that is, to leave the vehicle, after which, he claims: “I shoot a bullet in the air, shout ‘Hello’ or ‘Waqf’ in Arabic, something like that, and shoot a bullet in the air at a 90 degree angle, so I won’t harm anyone in the vicinity, god forbid. After that, I still feel my life is in danger, from the three of them, two of them still with stones in their hands, so I shoot in the direction of the Palestinian who threw the rock and is holding something in his hand — two shots, aimed at the knees and below.” It’s not clear whether Shomer meant to say 60 degrees, or if he is unfamiliar with the army’s arrest procedure which specifies that firing in the air should be done at a 60 degree angle.

Contradictory testimonies

Along with Shomer, soldier D., who served as the brigade commander’s radio man, also exited the jeep. According to D.’s testimony, he himself knelt, yelled “Waqf!,” and pointed his weapon at Kasbeh’s legs. Before he managed to finish the arrest procedure, according to documents from the second interrogation, he says that he heard three shots and the youth fell. When he was asked during the interrogation if the commander had shouted at Kasbeh, as is required when attempting to arrest a suspect, D. gave a [crushing] response: “I didn’t hear, to your question, I would have heard if he was shouting.” In other words, Shomer’s subordinate claims that his commander failed to follow the full protocol for apprehending a suspect.

When asked specifically if Col. Shomer even initiated the arrest procedure, D. refused to answer, claiming that he only knows the answer to this question from the operational debriefing, and that this is information the military police shouldn’t be exposed to.

In fact, in the first interrogation, D. refuted part of Shomer’s version of the story. “After he threw the stone and we exited the vehicle, that Palestinian, individually, was not life-threatening in my opinion,” testified the soldier. This evidence is critical.

In his second testimony, D. added that after the shooting had ended, he rose from a kneeling firing position. This occurs in the 23rd second of the video. Until that moment, Col. Shomer is still in the frame, and so is his weapon. That is to say, the whole shooting is documented. The video clearly shows that the colonel did not aim his weapon at the sky. He exits the vehicle with his gun aimed at the fleeing Palestinian boy – not firing in the air, as he claimed. This also reveals his failure to carry out the arrest procedure as required.

Mohammad Kasbeh was not shot in the legs, where Shomer claims to have aimed. One bullet pierced his back and exited his chest, and the other entered the back of his neck and was lodged in his jaw. Shomer does not admit to shooting the boy in the back. “He stood facing me, half-turned, at an angle towards me,” he insisted during interrogations. The commander also claimed he fired because he saw something in the boy’s hand. But D., who did not look away from Mohammad, is sure that there was nothing. “He ran in a straight line away from me with his hands in fists,” D. testified during his second interrogation. “I didn’t see any object or weapon in his hands.”

From the moment that the stone was thrown to the fatal shooting, Kasbeh can be seen running in the video, except for the last moments in which he leaves the frame. Shomer himself testified that Kasbeh held a “rock” in both hands when he slammed it into the jeep and then began to flee, but this was before the escape.

Moreover, according to the testimony of Shomer, which was contradicted by A.’s testimony, there were two other youths who held “rocks,” as he put it, and he felt that his life was in danger. Yet he didn’t shoot the two youths holding rocks, although he testified that “after the first shot the Palestinians remained in place, and posed a lethal threat.”

Later, it also seems that Shomer didn’t fear them at all when he approached the seriously-wounded Kasbeh. In his second interrogation, Shomer claimed that under the open-fire regulations at the time of the incident, it was permissible to shoot a Palestinian who carried out an attack and fled, and that these guidelines only changed after the incident at Qalandiya. Yet higher-ups didn’t change the orders, only clarified them to explain that one only fires to kill in the case of mortal danger. Furthmore, the orders have always prohibited lethal fire toward anyone who does note pose a lethal threat.

The funeral procession of Palestinian teenager Muhammad al-Kasbah, who was shot and killed by Col. Israel Shomer. (Flash90)
The funeral procession of Palestinian teenager Muhammad al-Kasbeh, who was shot and killed by Col. Yisrael Shomer. (Flash90)

Abandoning a wounded person

The problematic conduct of the Binyamin Brigade commander, Yisrael Shomer, didn’t end with the shooting. “I see him fall, get a bit closer to assess the situation. I understand that he’s injured and I understand that in that situation its best to do everything I can to leave the situation, in order to prevent further harm on both sides,” testified the senior officer during his first interrogation. In another instance during the interrogations he said, “I didn’t see where I hit. I was aiming towards his knees, later I approached until I was almost two meters from him and I couldn’t see where I had hit at all.”

D. remembers differently. “He approached so that he was standing right over the Palestinian’s body, leaned forward, then down, looked a few seconds at the Palestinian — to answer your question, I didn’t see him touch the local — and then he stood up and said, ‘He’s dead, we’re leaving’” — so says the soldier of his commander.

D.’s testimony is supported by Lt.-Col. S., head of the Jerusalem District Coordination and Liaison Administration, the first to talk to Col. Shomer when he arrived at the Qalandiya checkpoint after the shooting: “The colonel entered the checkpoint agitated and pale… he said ‘I hit someone in the head,’ he said he saw pieces of the head on the street, on the ground, on the concrete, I don’t remember which word he used.” When asked if he was certain, he stresses: “He definitely said there was a head wound. He stated that he had seen pieces of head or brain on the ground.”

Even if we accept Shomer’s version of events, it still appears that the officer shot a boy in the back and left him bleeding on the road without medical treatment or without calling for help. Shomer didn’t even bother to call an ambulance to treat the dying Kasbeh. Instead, according to D., what Shomer was concerned with at the time was photography: “The moment we entered the vehicle the colonel was yelling ‘Documentation! Documentation!’ we didn’t have time to document…”

During his first interrogation, the colonel signed a document consenting to take a polygraph test if asked to do so. Later, with his twisting and conflicting stories, he hired a civilian attorney who advised him not to take the test. The file notes a number of exchanges between the interrogators, the brigade commander and the civilian attorney, at the end of which Shomer decides not to undergo such an examination.

The brigade commander’s misdirection

In April 2016, the Military Advocate General decided to close the case without charging Shomer. According to the military police, the implementation of the arrest procedure was justified, and the fatality of the shooting was due to a professional error — that is to say, Shomer aimed for the knees and hit the back and neck by accident. This, he claims, is because Shomer was running while firing his weapon, rather than looking through the crosshairs. He entirely ignored the fact that Shomer then abandoned the injured Kasbeh. The MAG’s ruling that Shomer correctly carried out the arrest procedure is entirely contradicted by the video and D.’s testimony, which point to the opposite conclusion.

Yet another finding revealed in the investigation file is that Shomer tried to persuade investigators to determine that the case was a “professional error.” He tried to stop the boy, but “missed” and shot him twice in the neck and back. “I didn’t mean to kill the Palestinian,” he said in his final testimony, which took place in October. “I’m not a vengeful person… I didn’t mean to kill him, I made a professional error, I wasn’t negligent. Soldiers in operational situations make mistakes, make errors. So long as it’s not a deliberate mistake, so long as it’s a professional error, we need to back them up.”

Response from the IDF Spokesperson

Yisrael Shomer referred us to the IDF Spokesperson for comment:

The IDF Spokesperson’s office stated: “The investigation shows that Col. Shomer carried out the shooting while in motion, and not in a static situation. Accordingly, the aim was imprecise and killed the Palestinian.

“The military police found that the fact that the shooting was carried out as part of a suspect detention procedure was justified in this context, and was intended to bring about the immediate detention of the rock-thrower. It was also found that firing while moving fell within in the range of a professional error on the grounds of the context in which the shooting was carried out, but that it was made in clearly operational circumstances. In the eyes of the military police, the incident does not cross the criminal threshold and does not justify taking legal action against the officer.”

The IDF spokesperson chose not to answer our questions about the changes Shomer made to his testimony before and after the video was revealed, about the military’s failure to address the contradictions in his various testimonies, about abandoning Kasbeh as he bled to death, or about the promotion that Shomer later received.

*John Brown is the pseudonym of an Israeli academic and blogger. Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist and high-tech executive. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Editor’s note: In accordance with our legal obligation, this article was sent to the IDF Censor for review prior to publication. We are not allowed to tell you if (and if, then where) it was indeed censored.