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Middle East

Amnesty blasts 'trigger happy' Israel

Abdullah Abu Rahmah was at a protest in 2009 against an Israeli-built concrete wall in the West Bank when his cousin, Bassem, 30, was hit in the chest with a tear gas canister allegedly fired by Israeli soldiers.

"They shot Bassem in the chest and he fell down and died," Abu Rahmah told DW. "Many times they shoot tear gas directly to our bodies, to our head, chest and shoulders … They shoot from a distance of 20, 30 or 40 meters, and if they shoot directly its more dangerous than live bullets."

Israel opened a military investigation into Bassem Abu Rahmah's case, but closed it in 2013 citing lack of evidence. His death was one of 45 Palestinian civilian casualties included in an Israel's Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank." In it, Amnesty claims Israeli forces killed Palestinians who "did not appear to be posing a direct and immediate threat to life." Some cases suggested willful killings, which would qualify as war crimes. Amnesty says the Israeli military justice system is flawed and has only led to one conviction in all the cases.

"The frequency and persistence of arbitrary and abusive force against peaceful protesters in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers and police officers - and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators - suggests that it is carried out as a matter of policy," Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International, told DW.

Israeli denials

The Israeli army flatly denied the claims. An Israeli military source who spoke on condition of anonymity said the security climate in the West Bank is heating up. Last year alone saw 5,000 incidents of rock throwing and firebombs in the West Bank, he said. The military source mentioned a 2011 case in which Palestinians throwing rocks caused an Israeli driver to lose control of his vehicle. The car overturned and the driver and his infant son died.

"Every day there are dozens of events," he said. "You can't just say people are going home from school, or walking to work, and no one is doing anything … The army is doing its best, putting every effort not to injure anyone who doesn't mean harm."

Among the cases described by Amnesty was that of 16-year-old Samir Awad, from the Budrus village near Ramallah, who was shot near his school when he protested a fence the Israeli army was building nearby. He was shot in the foot and the back of the head, suggesting the army targeted him as he ran away, according to Amnesty.

Student Lubna Hanash, 21, was leaving her college near Hebron in January 2013 when Israeli soldiers shot her and a relative. The bullet penetrated Hanash's skull and she died. Soldiers said they had fired at Palestinian youths who pelted their car with stones and a firebomb. According to Amnesty, Hanash was 100 meters away and not involved in the incident.

protesters running

Israel has come under fire for allegedly shooting indiscriminately at protesters

Said Jasir Ali, 85, died in January 2014 in the village of Kfar Qadum after he inhaled tear gas the Israeli army fired into his home during a demonstration in the village.

The military source declined to answer questions about specific cases.

Stricter rules

Amnesty International has called on Israel to establish stricter rules governing use of force and overhaul its military justice system. Until that time, Amnesty has urged the US and European countries to suspend arms transfers to Israel.

Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, said her organization has researched issues of crowd control and accountability in the West Bank and found similar figures for casualties. However, Michaeli said B'Tselem was hesitant to use the term war crime in the cases of civilian deaths.

"To prove something was a war crime, you have to show the soldiers in this situation intended to commit that offence or that they were extreme in their neglect," she told DW. "It's difficult to say something was a war crime without knowing what soldiers knew."

Michaeli added that the issue of accountability was a serious problem, especially because there is no time limit on military investigations.

The Israeli military source said investigations simply take time.

Protests continue

flags and posters

Nine years on, the residents of Bilin are showing no sign of ending their protests

In the West Bank village of Bilin, the scene of Bassem's death, his cousin Abdullah Abu Rahmah said that over the nine years of protest he had learned to urge caution. "For new people, we try to train them in how to escape from the direction of the wind [to avoid tear gas]," he said. "Sometimes we give them onions, or other material to protect them from tear gas smoke. We ask them to stay close to the wall, because if they are running the tear gas follows them."

Residents of Bilin are currently protesting a concrete wall the Israeli army built across their land as part of a separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. The weekly demonstrations and a legal battle have managed to recover a portion of that land, but residents are trying to claim the rest.

Last week, Abu Rahmah said, about 700 people, including Israeli and foreign activists, marked the ninth anniversary of the protests against the wall. Marchers pounded on snare drums and waved flags as they chanted "one, two, three, four, occupation no more," on their way to Bilin's olive groves. Within a few minutes, their organized march turned chaotic as white plumes of tear gas billowed out of grenades the Israeli army fired in their direction. By the end of the day, the Israeli army had hit four people with rubber-coated steel bullets.

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