Was it a war crime? Post-mortem of two Palestinian teenagers killed during clashes with Israeli troops in the West Bank reveals one of them was hit by live fire

Pathologist's findings deal further blow to security forces who insist soldiers only use non-lethal rubber-coated metal bullets

Jerusalem

A Palestinian teenager shot dead during a day of clashes with Israeli troops last month was killed with live fire in what activists have branded an apparent war crime.

The findings of a post-mortem examination, carried out by a team of US, Danish, Israeli and Palestinian pathologists, into the death of Nadim Nawarah on 15 May appeared to mark a further blow to the credibility of the security forces, which had insisted that troops did not use live ammunition that day but only rubber-coated metal bullets, designed to be non-lethal.

While the domestic impact of the autopsy is expected to be marginal at best because of public indifference, it may increase international pressure on Israel over the deaths of 17-year-old Nawarah and Mohammed Salameh, 16, who was shot more than an hour later in the same area of the West Bank town of Bitunia.

The post-mortem examination was conducted on Wednesday at the Palestinian Institute for Forensic Medicine at Abu Dis in the West Bank, and included the head of Israel’s National Forensic Institute, Dr Chen Kugel.

“The main findings are that Nadim was killed by a live bullet,” said Shawan Jabarin, director of the Palestinian legal rights group al-Haq. “Four fragments of the bullet were found in his body,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the Israeli civil-rights group B’tselem, adding that the fragments had been transferred to the Palestinian Authority Attorney-General’s office. “The body was very well preserved so they could track the entry and exit wounds.” These were found to be consistent with live fire.

“All of the pathologists agreed on the essence of the case: that it was death by live fire,” Ms Michaeli added. “We knew all along it was live fire. We concluded this from testimonies, eyewitnesses, photographs and video and based on our experience of rubber bullets at that range. I hope this result will get this investigation concluded as quickly as possible and get steps taken to ensure accountability.”

Nawarah was shot in the chest as he crossed the street, while Salameh was shot through the back one hour and 13 minutes later. The army faced stone-throwing from Palestinians that day but video footage clearly shows that the two youths were not throwing stones when they were shot. The campaign group Human Rights Watch said the video footage, photographs, witness statements and medical records indicated that the boys posed no immediate threat to Israeli troops. On Monday, it termed the killings “an apparent war crime” and called on Israel’s allies to apply sustained pressure to “end the impunity this latest incident exemplified”.

The Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Yaalon, has suggested that the footage was “doctored”, while army officers claimed it was edited tendentiously, although B’tselem released all 12 hours of unedited footage and this appeared to undermine this claim. An unnamed military investigator quoted by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the shootings may have been the work of a Palestinian gunman.

Mourners carry Mohammed Salameh and Nadim Nawarah at their funeral last month Mourners carry Mohammed Salameh and Nadim Nawarah at their funeral last month (Reuters)
If the Bitunia killings follow the existing pattern, it is unlikely that the soldiers who pulled the triggers will be seriously punished. Statistics from the Israeli human-rights group Yesh Din show little action by the army when it comes to unlawful killings of Palestinians. Six convictions of soldiers have occurred since September 2000, with the toughest sentence being seven-and-a-half months in jail.

According to B’tselem, during that time Israeli forces killed more than 3,100 Palestinians who were not taking part in hostilities at the time of their deaths, in addition to other Palestinians killed during law-enforcement activities in the West Bank. The army, which declined to comment on the pathologists’ findings, denies there is a culture of impunity and says its investigation mechanisms are sound, with soldiers required to abide by an ethical code. A spokesman said its investigation into the Bitunia deaths was “ongoing”.

Tamar Zandberg, a legislator from the liberal Meretz party, told The Independent that she hoped the entire Bitunia incident would jar the Israeli public. “It should shake us up that the Israeli occupation became a regime which thinks it can permit itself to fire sniper fire from a far distance at unarmed demonstrators who are not violent and then try to cover up and lie and say they attacked the soldiers or something of that sort,” she said.

“This should be a strong warning light to the army to check its way of investigating and to Israeli society as a whole, under whose auspices this is happening in the West Bank.”

But Raviv Drucker, a commentator and investigative journalist for the Israeli broadcaster Channel 10, believes the army will not have to change its ways because the public will not demand it. “The public long ago lost interest in the territories as long as bombs aren’t going off in the streets,” he said. “Israelis view it as tribal warfare and identify with their own tribe. Every Israeli adult has seen 50 of these cases and has already formulated his stance.”

David Rotem, a member of the Knesset from the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu coalition partner, said: “Why be surprised that the army lied? This doesn’t mean we have to withdraw from the territories. The question is: ‘Were the soldiers in danger or not?’ And in that area, they are usually in danger.”

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