One arrest will not alter Israel’s culture of impunity for violence

The arrest of a border policeman for the killing of two Palestinian teenagers is being touted as a measure of accountability. But don't be fooled, writes Ben White, the facts clearly show Israelis routinely get away with murder

Pep Montserrat for The National
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On the morning of March 19 this year, there were no television crews around to capture the moment when an Israeli soldier pulled the trigger and fatally wounded 14-year-old Yusef Al Shawamreh. There were no photographers on hand nor CCTV cameras rolling as Israeli forces, lying in ambush along the path of the apartheid wall, opened fire on children out to pick plants.

Killed while trying to reach his own family’s farmland, Yusef was shot without warning from a few dozen metres away. There was no “threat”, not even a demonstration: just three friends out to find gundelia, cut down by the soldiers of an occupying army.

In July, Israeli authorities announced that the Military Advocate General had decided to end the investigation into Yusef’s death without serving any indictments. Case closed. The soldier who fired the gun, the overseeing commander: no one would be punished.

Contrast that case with the deaths of two other Palestinian boys. Last week, a member of Israel’s border police was arrested and charged in relation to the killing of Nadim Siam Nuwara and Muhammad Abu Al-Thahir, during Nakba Day protests on May 15 this year.

Initial reports indicated that the policeman had only been charged with the murder of Nadim, in whose backpack a bullet was found and which served as a crucial piece of evidence. It is unclear whether the accused will also be charged with the death of Muhammad.

What was the difference here? The Nakba Day killings were captured in graphic detail by a nearby surveillance camera, footage subsequently obtained by an NGO, Defence for Children International-Palestine.

Unlike in the case of Yusef Al Shawamreh – and all the other Palestinians routinely killed by Israeli forces “off camera” – here was stark, compelling evidence of the wilful shooting of unarmed protesters who posed no threat to the soldiers’ lives at the time they were shot dead in cold blood.

Were it not for the video footage (including from a CNN television crew), forensic evidence and the determination of those involved to seek redress, perhaps the Nakba Day killing of two Palestinian children would have become just another “controversy”.

Indeed, even after footage of the shooting had emerged, it was dismissed by Israeli officials and the country’s apologists as a deception, even as deliberately staged. The IDF claimed that only rubber-coated metal bullets had been used, while former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, like an earnest conspiracy theorist, told CNN there were “many, many inconsistencies” in the video.

Inevitably, the prosecution of the soldier will be held up as an example of accountability. “This is Israel!” supporters will say, where a soldier who disobeys orders is brought to book.

Such is the tokenism of Israel’s apologists – the same people, of course, who believe that legalised and institutionalised discrimination is a figment of the imagination simply because there are a handful of (marginalised and harassed) Palestinians in the Israeli parliament.

But the statistics tell the real story. According to Israeli NGO Yesh Din, between September 2000 and August 2013, Israel’s military courts convicted just seven soldiers for offences involving the death of civilians. During this period, more than 5,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Reflecting on the evidence, a Yesh Din official commented that “in practice, the updated statistics show that the likelihood that a soldier who unjustifiably killed a Palestinian civilian will be investigated, let alone penalised, is slight to non-existent”.

The system is not getting any better. Just 1.4 per cent of all complaints to the Military Police Investigations Unit in 2012-2013 led to an indictment.

In May, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that military police investigations into the deaths of 18 Palestinians in the West Bank over the previous two years had produced only one conviction to date (for “negligent manslaughter”).

The soldier in question received just seven months in jail, for the March 2013 killing of Uday Darwish, a Palestinian worker shot to death at the apartheid wall.

In Gaza, too, impunity reigns supreme – unsurprising when investigations are conducted by the same officials responsible for giving legal counsel to IDF commanders before and during operations.

After “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009, 500 incidents of suspected breaches of the law led to just 52 investigations, which in turn produced three indictments. The harshest sentence was given for the theft of a credit card.

It was a similar story after 2012’s “Operation Pillar of Defense”, when 80 examined incidents have currently produced not a single criminal investigation.

Statistics like these are of significance when it comes to Israeli officials and international war crimes investigations, with the latter linked to the likelihood of internal inquiries that meet international standards.

This institutionalised impunity led both B’Tselem and Yesh Din to reject invitations by the Israeli military to assist in investigations into alleged crimes committed by the armed forces during this year’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza. Explaining its position, B’Tselem said it did not wish to play a role in the “existing whitewashing mechanism”.

It is not just members of the armed forces who benefit from this systematic impunity. Over the last three and a half years, 10 mosques in Israel and the West Bank have been targeted in arson attacks – yet no one has been charged in any of these incidents.

Israeli settlers are rarely held accountable for attacks on Palestinians whose land they live on. Statistics released this month by Yesh Din revealed that in 2005-2014, just 7.4 per cent of investigation files opened by Israeli police “led to indictments of Israeli civilians suspected of attacking Palestinians and their property”.

These attacks included “shooting incidents, violent assault, stoning, arson, cutting down trees, attacks on animals, theft of agricultural produce, construction on privately-owned Palestinian land, threats, harassment and other offences”.

The Nakba Day killings are a microcosm of the brutal repression meted out by Israel’s armed forces, and the way in which impunity for war crimes is the norm rather than the exception.

Regardless of what becomes of the charged soldier the bigger picture remains: an occupying army kills with impunity and blames the victims for their own deaths.

Ben White is a journalist and author. A new edition of his book Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide is out