JERUSALEM — A spate of fatal shootings of unarmed Palestinians by Israeli soldiers this month has raised concerns about the use of live fire by troops facing protesters and guarding Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank.
The killings come during what military officials describe as an uptick in incidents of stone-throwing and hurling of molotov cocktails in the West Bank. The trend began in response to Israel’s offensive against the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip in November and has persisted in recent weeks, though at a lower level, according to the army.
The shootings and the simmering unrest, during a period of continued stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, have raised fears of spiraling violence unless tensions can be eased.
In a report issued Monday on the military’s crowd-control techniques in the West Bank, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that security forces were “extensively and systematically” violating their own rules of engagement when using both non-lethal weapons and live ammunition against protesters, with fatal results.
The report said 48 Palestinians had been killed since 2005 by live ammunition fired by soldiers at stone-throwers, six more were killed by rubber-coated bullets fired at less than the permitted range, and two died when they were hit by tear-gas canisters fired directly at protesters in violation of regulations.
While the army called the report a “biased narrative” and said the incidents were exceptions, it has signaled its own concern over the recent killings, which are being investigated by military police. The commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Hagai Mordechai, last week ordered commanding officers to review the recent incidents and the rules of engagement, in order to “draw operational conclusions,” an army spokesman said.
The United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, noted in a periodic report to the Security Council last week that “increased use of live fire by Israeli security forces has been reported in the West Bank and is of concern.”
Since the start of the year, five unarmed Palestinians have been shot and killed by Israeli forces in separate incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A sixth fatal incident is in dispute, with the army denying involvement.
“The common thread in these cases is the use of lethal force in a policing situation where lethal force is not permitted,” said Sarit Michaeli, the author of the B’Tselem report. “The people who were killed were not posing a mortal threat to the security forces that justifies opening fire with live ammunition.”
In the latest incident last Wednesday, Lubna al-Hanash, 22, was struck by gunfire as she walked with a friend on a college campus near a main road south of Bethlehem. According to accounts by military officials, molotov cocktails were thrown at a car carrying a senior officer and his driver, and the two got out to pursue the assailants. The driver opened fire, fatally hitting Hanash.
On the same day, Salah Amarin, 15, died from a gunshot wound in the head that he had sustained five days earlier during street clashes near a fortified army position on the outskirts of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The army said the teenager had been hurling stones with a slingshot. Israeli army regulations forbid use of live ammunition against stone-throwers, but allow firing in case of a mortal threat.
On Jan. 15, Samir Awad, 16, was shot and killed at the village of Budrus when he tried to cross Israel’s separation barrier, a complex of steel fences flanked by barbed wire built to block entry by potential attackers. Witnesses said soldiers shot and wounded Awad in the leg and tried to grab him, but when he broke free and tried to flee, he was shot again from behind in the back and head. An initial army debriefing indicated that soldiers had violated the rules of engagement, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
On Jan. 12, Uday Darwish, 21, was shot south of Hebron while fleeing soldiers near the separation barrier as he tried to sneak into Israel to work, his family said. He died later in an Israeli hospital. The army said soldiers had fired at his legs.
A day earlier, Anwar Mamlouk, 19, was fatally shot in the abdomen when a group of Palestinian protesters approached the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel, according to an account by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. The army said that the Palestinians had entered a “forbidden zone” near the fence and that shots were fired at a person who attempted to damage the barrier. Israeli troops enforce a no-go zone near the fence to prevent militant attacks.
A 21-year-old farmer in the northern Gaza Strip, Mustafa Abu Jarad, was killed by a gunshot three days later, but the Israeli army denied involvement.