Fair play?

By EA Alexia, Southern West Bank. 

An Israeli career soldier I met in Haifa praised the ethics of the Israeli army: he said it always tried to avoid civilian casualties. He said he would not go to Jerusalem this year because of what he called the “terror acts” of throwing stones at cars. That same weekend, which a group of Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) spent with members of a reform synagogue in Israel, a discussion ensued about the use of the word “alleged” to describe stabbings that have occurred during the upsurge in violence since last October, in which 21 Israelis and 195 Palestinians have been killed.

There is widespread disagreement about whether all of the alleged Palestinian attackers killed in the violence have been armed with knives or posed a mortal threat. Human rights organisations and humanitarian agencies have documented cases which they say show a disproportionately violent response by the Israeli military relative to the threat posed, including several cases they consider to have been extrajudicial executions.

The questions raised go to the core of the differing narratives surrounding the conflict. EAs have been struck by how Palestinian children grow up with the constant presence of the military occupation and the feeling that they are a security threat. EAs have similarly been struck by the fact that many Israeli soldiers are themselves just teenagers.

Photo 1: military checkpoint at Al Arroub

The military checkpoint at Al Arroub refugee camp in the occupied West Bank [Photo: EAPPI/A.Haywood]

In May I met the family of Omar Madi al-Jawabreh, shot dead on 20 February at Al Arroub refugee camp where he lived. According to the UN, of all refugee camps in the occupied West Bank Al Arroub experiences the most Israeli army incursions. Omar’s family said he was returning from school when he was killed. He was fifteen. The Israeli army stated they were dispersing a protest involving boys throwing stones. But, many Palestinians ask, even if that is so, does it justify shooting to kill?

Photo 2: Mother of Omar al Jawabreh, with her son and grandson.

Omar al-Jawabreh’s mother Neima with one of her sons and grandsons [Photo: EAPPI/A.Haywood]

The right to life is the most fundamental human right and EAPPI condemns all forms of violence, from all sides. Israeli and international law permit the lethal use of firearms only as last resort, when a mortal threat cannot otherwise be eliminated. Yet since the second intifada Israeli army regulations have widened the scope for use of live fire in response to what it calls an armed conflict with Palestinians. As part of this widened scope, actions such as stone throwing are now classified as “life-threatening” and can therefore be responded to with lethal force.

According to international law organisations, however, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not currently one of armed conflict therefore a ‘law enforcement’ rather than ‘a hostilities paradigm’ should prevail. Even so, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and B’Tselem report Israeli army violations of even basic law enforcement standards, including the use of live fire without warning, the non-provision of emergency medical care to alleged attackers, and the use of lethal force in the absence of a mortal threat.

The al-Jawabreh family at the entrance to their house [Photo: EAPPI/A.Haywood]

The al-Jawabreh family at the entrance to their house [Photo: EAPPI/A.Haywood]

Without an investigation into Omar’s death, the army’s actions and intentions will remain unknown. In theory Palestinians can file a complaint with the military police, but in practice the system is not set up to facilitate this. Even then, most military investigations find no wrongdoing on the part of soldiers. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has just announced it is suspending its cooperation – after 25 years – with military law enforcement, calling it  “a system whose real function is measured by its ability to continue to successfully cover up”. Of 739 cases B’Tselem referred between 2000 and 2015, only 25 have led to indictment.

Photo 4: Omar’s younger brother, with an injury from a rubber-coated steel bullet

Omar’s younger brother Mahmoud with an injury from a rubber-coated steel bullet [Photo: EAPPI/A.Haywood]

The Jawabreh’s have lost a child. His brothers sat around us as we talked. One, now 13, bears a two-year-old scar on his forehead from a rubber-coated steel bullet, a ‘non-lethal’ mechanism used by the Israeli army to counter protests, which has caused many serious injuries and deaths. The family says that since Omar’s death, they have faced increased intimidation by soldiers, including frequent house visits and harassment of his brothers in the street. No easy answers, one overwhelming reality: an almost 50-year-old occupation that has defined the childhood of at least two generations of Palestinians. Don’t children deserve better?