The case of Bassem Abu Rahme challenges the army’s claim that it can conduct a serious investigation of itself.
On April 17th 2009, Bassem Abu Rahme was demonstrating against the separation wall in his village, Bil’in. After another demonstrator was hit by crowd-dispersal weapons shot by Israeli security forces, Abu Rahme shouted at the soldiers and Border Policemen that the person was wounded. Seconds later, a person in Israeli uniform (it is unclear whether he or she was an IDF soldier or a Border Policeman) fired a tear gas canister directly into Abu Rahme’s chest; the wound was fatal, and within hours Abu Rahme was dead.
These facts were not, until recently, in contention. Even so, almost seven years after his death, no one has been held responsible for Abu Rahme’s death. Seven years of foot dragging and avoiding investigation (more on that in these two posts). This is what happens when a member of the security forces shoots an unarmed man — who everyone agrees posed no danger to — and the cameras (three of them, actually) document the event – yet are not aimed directly at the shooter.
We do not know who shot Abu Rahme, whether he or she was an IDF soldier or a Border Policeman. We do, however, have forensic evidence pointing to where the shooters stood. According to the ballistics examination, conducted by the IDF itself, “the only possibility of this sort of armament hitting the target is only by direct fire and using a flat angle — in the single digits — no more than three or four angles.” That is, there is no possibility of Abu Rahme being hit by a canister shot according to the orders and hitting him by mistake; even were the canister to ricochet off a fence, it would still be fired directly, contrary to orders.
The Chief of the IDF’s Photo Reconnaissance Department told the Military Police Criminal Investigations Division (MPCID) in 2013 that direct fire of tear gas canisters is forbidden and that it should hold a lineup to determine where each of the shooters stood. The MPCID refrained from doing so.
Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court heard an appeal by Yesh Din and human rights NGO B’Tselem , in which we demanded that the shooter be indicted, or that at least the army indict his commander. The hearing was held ex parte due to a strike by the prosecution. We estimate that the state would have argued that the shooters cannot be identified; and that it would also try to avoid mentioning the fact that the MPCID and the military prosecution did everything in their power to refrain from investigating the case for 15 months, and were forced to open an investigation after our first petition to the High Corut of Justice. The government is likely to claim that the canister that hit Abu Rahme’s chest ricocheted off something – and will play down the fact that even if it did, its own ballistic diagnosis ruled that it was fired contrary to orders.
The government is further likely to argue that it has no clue as to whom it should prosecute, hoping the judges will not think too much of the fact that it strangled the investigation for years. Our demand is simple: even if there is no chance to indict the shooters themselves, and we contend this claim since the MPCID’s failure to investigate rendered the case no longer investigable, the commanders should still bear responsibility.
So far, none of this has happened. The justices decided to rescind the petition, since under the Turkel Commission’s recommendations one may now object to the Attorney General over the military prosecution’s decision – a process that did not exist when we made our appeal. Justice, it seems, will have to keep waiting.
It is important to emphasize this time and again: Abu Rahme was unarmed. He was a danger to no one. He was protesting an injustice in his village – an injustice recognized by the High Court of Justice. And yet, an Israeli security officer, perhaps more than one, fired at a demonstrator in a life-threatening manner and caused his death. We note that one of the suspects said in his interrogation that he never received proper training with the weapon he was using. The commanders of these warriors, who are responsible for their actions, continue dodging this responsibility to this day.
Over the last few weeks, the very well-documented murder in Hebron has been called an exceptional, unrepresentative, and isolated incident by senior IDF and political figures. Every person of conscience should wonder whether this is so; whether the important statement in the case was not made of by Chief of Staff Eizenkot, but rather by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who phoned the father of the shooter and told him (Hebrew) to “trust the IDF investigation.”
What ought an Israeli security officer understand from the prime minister’s remarks? A reasonable interpretation would be: “don’t worry, our investigation will find you acted properly.” This, after all, is the unwritten contract between the government and its soldiers: we send you to do the dirty work of oppressing a civilian population, and in return we will turn a blind eye if you sometimes exceed your orders – unless are caught red-handed, that is. In such a case, we shall regrettably have to begin the investigation show.