When Mohammed Kusba, a 17-year old Palestinian, was gunned down by Israeli soldiers near Qalandia checkpoint in July 2015, the Israeli military said Kusba had launched a barrage of stones at an army vehicle. But human rights worker Iyad Haddad tracked down CCTV footage of the incident, showing the youth throwing a single rock at a military Jeep as it sped off. The car returned and a soldier shot him dead.
As a field researcher for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Haddad turned over the recording to army investigators, the body responsible for prosecuting forces in criminal wrongful death trials.
Finding the evidence ended as a fruitless errand.
After viewing the tape the commander told a military inquest his soldier had poor aim, and intended to shoot the Palestinian youth in the leg and not the head, Haddad relayed.
Because of this and similar cases, B’Tselem declared today that “there is no longer any point” to submitting complaints to Israeli’s army judicial system. The decision ends 25 years of the human rights organization bringing cases to Israel’s military court and supporting investigations into the killings of Palestinians.
The decision to end army cooperation follows stalled and faulty investigations in more than 700 cases since 2000, which resulted in a 3 percent conviction rate. The rights group has in effect given up on believing in the system’s ability to correct itself, or provide accountability.
“We provide them with all of our evidence, but we feel sometimes that they use the evidence and testimonies that we provide them to find a contradiction, not to find justice,” Haddad lamented. “Why should we give the Israeli investigators a gun with which to shoot the victims again?”
Soldier misconduct is prosecuted in special military tribunals. Palestinians cannot file complaints directly against the Israeli military, nor can they schedule times to give witness statements independently. They rely on groups like B’Tselem to advocate on their behalf.
Aside from low conviction rates, B’Tselem now believes filing cases in army courts can cause further harm to Palestinian victims. The group said it will cease “lending legitimacy to the occupation regime and aiding to whitewash it,” in a report published today that outlines what it described as major deficits in the prosecuting process.
“We hoped that in this way we were helping bring justice to the Palestinian victims and to establish deterrence that would prevent future similar incidents,” B’Tselem wrote.
The group indicated it initially operated with the understanding that complaints were a path to accountability. It hoped changes in army protocol to protect the lives of Palestinians would follow.
Those hopes died out slowly and over the course of many years.
B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli said the organization debated taking action since 2013, “a long term experience of case after case where you see again and again that the authorities are simply not providing accountability and justice,” she told Mondoweiss.
“The fact that the system isn’t working and isn’t providing accountability isn’t anything new. It’s just that in the past we didn’t really feel that we had an alternative,” she said, noting, “now we feel that there is no other option.”
The rights group said flatly: “B’Tselem’s cooperation with the military investigation and enforcement system has not achieved justice.”
B’Tselem’s director of field research Kareem Jubran related that he personally made an about-face after repeated humiliating experiences of informing tearful families of slain Palestinians that their cases had closed without charges levied against any officers. In a number of those instances, Jubran recalled investigations ended after cumbersome scheduling for witness accounts, often thwarted because of “bad weather,” or a lack of coordination from the Israeli military.
Because Israel’s army inspectors do not have a base in the West Bank, and Palestinians are not allowed to receive a permit to enter Jerusalem for the purpose of giving a disposition, oral statements are made at a Civil Administration post outside of Ramallah. Jubran said many times investigators did not inform the reception office at the post that they were expecting Palestinian witnesses, who were in turn prohibited from entering the military compound.
“In all of our work we tried all of the time to convince victims to make complaints. We hoped that we could achieve accountability and justice,” Jubran said.
“We started to feel shame from the victims and the witnesses when we took testimonies and when people made complaints. We feel ourselves, as field researchers that we are lying to the families, that they are experiencing the death twice,” he continued.
In the future, B’Tselem will continue to record and investigate human rights violators, including their camera documentation project. This feature of their work has perhaps been the most successful in conveying evidence of crimes.
In March a B’Tselem volunteer filmed the killing of an unarmed Palestinian in Hebron who was lethally shot at close range by a soldier who is now standing trial for manslaughter charges. After the incident the Israeli military said in a statement, forces on the ground suspected the deceased— ‘Abd al-Fatah a-Sharif—may have worn an explosives belt.
The B’Tselem video showed an incapacitated a-Sharif laying on the ground as a soldier approached and fired at him point blank.
“The fact that cameras are essential in raising awareness to these issues is nothing new,” Michaeli said, “it was such a clear cut case.”
The video spurred the military to promptly launched an investigation, Israel’s Prime Minister made a statement warning the public not to assign guilt, and the shooter was charged. The United Nations envoy for Middle East Peace called the killing an “apparent extra-judicial execution of a Palestinian assailant.”
But in other cases with video support investigations were closed without any charges filed. Michaeli cited two notorious killings of nonviolent peace activists by soldiers: Basem Abu Rahme in Bil’in and Mustafa Tamimi in Nabi Saleh, and stated that the facts in both cases were clear. She said, “It seems that the authorities literally bent over backwards to not prosecute certain soldiers and commanders for these killings.”