31-year old Bassem Abu Rahmeh was killed in Bil’in on Friday. He was killed because an Israeli soldier fired a long-range tear gas canister at his abdomen, from a distance of a few yards.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) calls this the result of “unauthorized fire.” Fine. But the question is what will be done about it. The result of this instance of “unauthorized fire” was the death of a young Palestinian man. The result of the last
similar incident was a severe brain injury to an American citizen who remains unconscious.
The latter case, that of Tristan Anderson, remains under investigation and, to date, no IDF action in response has been announced.
I can’t help but be reminded of last summer’s incident, where a soldier, acting under the orders of his commander fired (albeit apparently reluctantly) at and wounded a bound and blindfolded Palestinian man. The IDF charged the soldier and his commander with “conduct unbecoming,” barely a slap on the wrist.
In terms of accountability, the first question regarding both of these incidents is whether arrests will be made in the first place. In general, the IDF is a bit more inclined to bringing charges against their soldiers than is the case with the police, whether they are dealing with their own people or with settlers. But even in the case of the army, the history is not very good.
When arrests are made, convictions are iffy and, even when they do occur, both charges and sentences tend to be light in comparison with the offenses, the story above being a case in point.
In this case, the charge is pretty clearly manslaughter, or something equivalent unless it can be demonstrated that death was the hoped-for result, in which case it should be murder. If there are circumstances that need to be considered, that should come up in a trial, but the charge must be commensurate with the act, which was clearly reckless, beyond IDF regulations, and ended up killing someone.
Apparently, the Palestinian Authority is cooperating with the investigation. This increases the importance of bringing appropriate charges. If such charges are brought, it will be an important sign that PA involvement can achieve some measure of justice for Palestinians. But if, as I must say seems much more likely, their involvement is used as a way of legitimizing a lesser outcome (lighter charges, no charges or even no arrest), it could well be the final nail in the almost completed coffin of PA credibility.
But there’s something more fundamental at work here. These tear gas canisters which crippled Anderson and killed Abu Rahmeh are meant to be fired from hundreds of meters away and on a high arc. In both cases, they were fired from short range at a low angle. The fact that Abu Rahmeh’s death comes so close on the heels of Anderson’s injury highlights the impunity with which IDF soldiers are acting in the West Bank.
The procedure for firing these tear gas canisters are clear within the IDF. So are crowd control measures. The IDF claims that there was a lot of rock-throwing and that protesters were trying to tear down part of the security barrier in Bil’in. That account is under dispute by protesters, but even if the IDF version is accurate, it has nothing to do with a soldier firing a high-velocity tear gas canister at a protester. There simply isn’t an excuse for this action. Soldiers have other armaments and many other procedures to use.
Amid all of this, the reason for the protests in the first place should not be forgotten. The security barrier, so much of the route of which has absolutely no connection to security, goes through Bil’in. As in many places in the West Bank, the barrier separates Paletsinians not from Israelis but from other Palestinians.
Some 60% of Bil’in’s land, including much farmland crucial to the livelihood of many of its inhabitants, has been cut off by the barrier in order to accommodate the expansion of the Modi’in Ilit settlement. Weekly protests, often including clashes and injuries, have occurred in Bil’in since 2005.
The bottom line for all of this is that the root of these problems is the settlement project and the route of the security barrier based on the concerns of settlement expansion. Given that the settlements and the barrier are there, it is true that Israel is responsible to maintain order, as the occupying power, and thus is permitted legitimate crowd control measures.
But the firing of these tear gas canisters at protesters goes way beyond such measures, on every level. Twice in a month, tragedy has been the result, and accountability, for both the Palestinian and the American who were injured is simply absent. This is a clear example of the lawlessness that is the rule in the West Bank. It is not by any means confined to Palestinian militants or violent settlers, but is taken to hear very much by the official Israeli bodies as well.
These conditions undermine and make a mockery of every value Israel and most Israelis claim to hold dear. It has to stop now. A good first step would be arresting the individuals responsible for these acts and bringing charges commensurate with the crimes of causing severe brain damage to one man and killing another. Those arrests should include any commander who either ordered such actions, if any did, and a serious look at the atmosphere created by the Israeli military that leads to such actions, which are, in the end, only the most extreme forms of excessive violence by soldiers working crowd control.
I wish I could be more optimistic, but the chances of that outcome seem almost as small as seeing the occupation end this month.