Tristan Anderson in Glen Cove, California, 2011, two years after being critically injured by the Israeli border police in the West Bank. (Photo: Protect Glen Cove/IndyMedia)
The three-judge panel sat before two teams of attorneys with the whole of room waiting for state’s lawyers answer. Everyone including the four row deep audience and a representative from the American Embassey were wondering, will they, or won’t they? Will the Israeli government re-open an investigation into the 2009 near-fatal shooting of American peace activist Tristan Anderson? Will the state finally interview the border police unit that witnesses and video evidence indicated as the responsible? Will officials ever visit Ni’lin, the site of Anderson’s critical wounding, which left him partially paralyzed with significant brain damage?
Such devastation at bare minimum warrants an inquiry into the military’s criminal negligence. That is precisely what was being debated in the highest court of the land yesterday. To investigate or not? Extended range gas cans are required to be fired from a distance of at least 200 meters, but Anderson was hit from around 80 meters, allegedly. Yet only three days after the near-fatal firing, the state closed its probe without indicting anyone.
Back in the Jerusalem High Court, after about an hour of dodging question as to why the Israeli military had failed to investigate all of border police units, the state’s attorneys are fumbling. They say they did investigate all of the military present that day in the West Bank village of Ni’lin. They say that any further investigation will not yield any results. But the human rights prosecutors in this criminal hearing, Emily Schaeffer and Michael Sfard from Yesh Din, were quick to respond. Schaeffer and Sfard have maps and they know the law. “We came back and said number one, you don’t investigate to indict, you investigate in order to reveal the truth,” said Schaeffer. The state has an obligation to investigate crimes and not just toss them under bureaucracy.
“We were walking the judges through the investigation and the incident,” she said. “Literally marking on aerial maps where Tristan was standing when he was shot and where the border police were who were investigated, and where we believe others who weren’t investigated yet were who had access to and the ability, to shoot him,” Schaeffer continued.
The location of the soldiers is critical. They were so close to Anderson a horrible injury was inevitable. More so, if the state probe confirms the distance, it is grounds for criminal charges. Anderson could win his case. Israel could lose. The soldier could go to jail. Changes could be made on the ground. People could stop getting hurt as often and as seriously at West Bank demonstrations.
So in a court room full of complicated architecture, an eye-shaped oculus skylight peered down on the proceedings from the center of the ceiling like in a basilica, a very uncomplicated question is about to be answered. If the alleged shooter was not interviewed, why then, did the state close its investigation? And will they re-open it?
“What do you care,” repeated Deputy Chief Justice Miriam Naor about six times to the government lawyers as they protested taking another look at the facts. Justice Naor wasn’t having any excuses. She said before the trial’s recess if the state didn’t decide to re-open the criminal investigation, her court could order it. That was a big threat and the attorneys knew it.
So they folded. They did the only thing they could do. They stood before the court and announced they will re-open the investigation into the wounding of Tristan Anderson. The four rows of supporters exchanged smiles. But the show wasn’t over. The state attorneys again stated they don’t think investigating will lead to anyone being charged with a crime. Sfard jumped and interrupted. He and Schaeffer had just won, but they want a serious inquiry and won’t take the lackadaisical attitude. “To say this before the investigation has even happened,” said Sfard later, “what should the family understand? What should the police understand? That they are not to conduct an investigation?”
Judge Naor and the two others on the panel concurred with Sfard and railed at the state attorneys. If moral fortitude could produce wind and shake people like trees Na’or would have unleashed a tornado in that courtroom. She was clear; it is unacceptable for the Israeli military to continue skirting their obligations to Anderson’s shooting, to Anderson’s family. She gave the state four months to finish their investigation. The ruling could mean that Anderson’s case is the first of its kind to hurdle pass this preliminary stage.
In the immediate aftermath of Anderson’s injury he spent 15 months in a Tel Aviv hospital, seven of which he was in critical condition, undergoing three surgeries. Then to everyone’s surprise miraculously he emerged went home to California. Though he still carries on with his pre-injury interests in art and politics, Anderson’s life is completely transformed. He requires constant supervision and a strict care schedule. This is his unfortunate fate for taking pictures of unrest while on a long holiday to the troubled Holy Land.
At that time back home in the San Francisco Bay Area, his friends, family and comrades from leftist causes—like the indigenous people’s rights movement—cried “Justice for Tristan! Justice for Tristan!” They wanted to know who shot him, and where was the accountability? His parents are Quaker and needed truth. But truth often seems out of grasp when Israel examines critical wounding or deaths from chemical dispersants.
“We need real accountability for police violence, and for abuse on the part of the military,” said Gabrielle Silverman, Anderson’s girlfriend who was present at the time of the injury. Her voice can be heard in some of the video evidence. Her cries are like pleads of mercy, its hard to listen to the recording. “Soldiers on the ground need to know that their actions carry consequences. That their own hopes and dreams are at stake,” she continued, expressing gratitude from her and Anderson on their hard-working attorneys and the judge’s decision.
Ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, Israel’s separation wall continues today to usurp Palestinian land inside of the West Bank—not on the border as it’s name, “separation wall” would suggest. Fed up with winning in international law, but losing on ground Palestinians took to weekly Friday marches, often in congress with filing cases in Israeli courts to move the path of the barrier. It is in this era that Anderson was in the West Bank. It was in this era that border police used demonstrations as training grounds for new kinds of crowd suppression, and then marketed them abroad as field-tested. There were and continues to be loads of injuries from unsafe use of these weapons: tear gas and rubber bullets.
This rising popular resistance was accompanied by a number of other high profile tragedies, none of which have ended in a guilty verdict against the soldiers. And so there is more than just justice for Anderson resting on this trial. Other notable cases like the death of Bassem Abu Rahme who was also shot at close range with the same type of weapon in the West Bank hamlet of Bil’lin, haven’t fared well in court. In fact although Abu Rahme was killed a few weeks after Anderson was injured, his investigation hasn’t been completed either. But in the intervening four years, the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence (BtS) ran their own research and found that even other soldiers know the identity the shooter, and have laughs over Abu Rahme’s death when they watch videos of it they recorded on their phones. One soldier told to BtS of the shooter, “He was kind of pleased with the whole thing, he had an X on his launcher.”