Demands for inquiry into Israeli shootings

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A criminal investigation was demanded yesterday into whether the killing of four Palestinian militants in a Bethlehem street earlier this month was an "extra-judicial execution" in violation of a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court.

The Israeli human rights organisation Btselem yesterday said its own investigation of the deaths suggested that the Israeli forces who shot the four men – three of whom were in a car containing an MP5 sub-machine gun and two M16s and one of whom had left it to walk across the street – operated "as though on an assassination mission".

Btselem complained that no attempt had been made to arrest the wanted men and that those in the car were shot "from behind with massive automatic gunfire although [they] did not try to escape or use their weapons". Witnesses say the man who had left the car was unarmed and was shot dead after he had been already wounded in the leg. One shopkeeper who saw the shootings, Ibrahim Rashed, 49, said yesterday: "There was no warning. It was an execution."

The then president of Israel's Supreme Court, Justice Aharon Barak, ruled in December 2006 that "if a terrorist taking a direct part in hostilities can be arrested, interrogated, and tried, those are the means that should be employed".

The West Bank incident, shortly after 6pm on 12 March, came after a five-day lull in rocket fire from Gaza but was swiftly followed by the launching of at least 30 Qassam rockets and mortars into Israel from Gaza as Islamic Jihad retaliated for the Bethlehem shootings, in which three of its members had been killed. The Israel Defence Forces said at the time that the men had been shot during a joint IDF-Border Police "arrest operation" and that Mohammed Shehadeh, said by the military to have been the head of Islamic Jihad in the city, had been involved in a series of attacks on Israelis up to 2002. The official statement did not say the men had attempted to fire back.

Witnesses have testified to Btselem, and repeated yesterday, that a red VW minibus with Palestinian number plates pulled up a few metres behind a red Daihatsu which contained the Palestinians – including Shehadeh – and was parked at the corner of al Jabel Street and Gamal Abdul Nasser Street.

Muhammad Abu Ahour, 33, a crane driver, and a nephew of one of the dead men, described how he had parked his car close to the junction, leaving his wife and baby son in the car while he and his brother went into a mobile phone shop to get his phone repaired.

After hearing gunfire he came out of the shop, Mr Abu Ahour testified. He saw "six soldiers in uniform with helmets and masks approach the Daihatsu and open massive gunfire at it ... They fired into the car for a long time." Mr Abu Ahour said that he had shouted – in Hebrew – at an armed man not dressed in uniform but in civilian clothes, and not shooting at the time, that he wanted to get his wife and child out of his car, which was only a few metres from the Daihatsu, on the other side from the minibus.

He added: "He told me in Arabic, 'get back or I'll shoot you.' I said I didn't care if he shot me. I said I would rather die in the car with my wife and baby than watch the car being shot at." Mr Abu Ahour's car was not hit and he eventually led his wife and child to the safety of the shop.

Mr Abu Ahour said that the same officer shot the three passengers at close range, and then did the same to Imad al-Kamal, the man who had tried to cross the road and was now lying on the ground. Btselem said yesterday that photographs showed that three of the men's skulls had been shattered and raised the suspicion that the office had "confirmed the killing" in violation of stipulations that medical care should be provided once any threat had been neutralised.

Israeli security officials have explained in the past that it is considered preferable to arrest militants for interrogation but that this is usually not possible in Gaza – as opposed to in the West Bank.

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