Israel/OPT: Israeli authorities must protect Palestinian civilians in wake of settler attacks in Hebron

The Israeli military must immediately take steps to protect Palestinian civilians from attacks by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank and ensure effective investigation of all attacks, including the killing of a Palestinian teenager in Hebron by an Israeli civilian on 17 October, Amnesty International said today.

Since 1 October, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of attempted, alleged and actual stabbing attacks by individual Palestinians on Israeli civilians, soldiers, and police. Eight Israeli civilians have been killed in stabbing or shooting attacks by Palestinians. In the same period, Israeli forces have shot and killed more than 35 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Israel, including at least 14 in Hebron, either after stabbings were carried out or when the Israeli authorities alleged stabbing attacks were intended. 

Amnesty International found evidence that at least some of the killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces in Hebron were extrajudicial executions, and four more Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in Hebron since Tuesday morning. But Palestinian residents of Hebron have told Amnesty International that they feel just as threatened by the Israeli civilians, many of them armed, living in illegal settlements in and around the city.

In the space of less than a month, attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in Hebron have escalated from what was already an unacceptably high level.

Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International

“In the space of less than a month, attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in Hebron have escalated from what was already an unacceptably high level,” said Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“Israeli forces must fulfil their duties to protect Palestinian civilians living under occupation from attacks by settlers, work to prevent settler violence, and hold those responsible to account, particularly in Hebron. Their apparent failure to intervene during some of the recent settler attacks effectively makes them complicit.”

Killing of Fadel al-Qawasmeh

Eyewitness accounts stating that a Palestinian killed by an Israeli civilian in the Old City of Hebron earlier this month was not threatening the life of anyone at the scene highlight the dangers faced by Palestinian civilians living and working in the area.

On the morning of 17 October, 18-year-old Hebron resident Fadel al-Qawasmeh was walking to work when he was shot and killed by an Israeli civilian. The Israeli military claim that he had a knife and intended to stab the Israeli civilian but have released no evidence to support these claims, despite the fact that al-Shuhada Street, where the incident took place, is heavily monitored by video cameras operated by Israeli forces.

Shortly before he was shot, Fadel al-Qawasmeh had passed through Checkpoint 56 on al-Shuhada Street, which separates the section of Hebron ostensibly under Palestinian control from the Old City where illegal Israeli settlements are located. Amnesty International researchers present at the checkpoint the day before and after the shooting observed Israeli soldiers ordering people to remove items from their pockets and pass through the metal detector multiple times. Young men were particularly thoroughly searched, making it highly unlikely that Fadel al-Qawasmeh would have been able to smuggle a knife through.

A resident of a house on al-Shuhada Street, a few metres away from the scene of the shooting, told Amnesty International that as he was coming down the stairs of his home, he saw a young man being stopped by Israeli soldiers and turned back towards the checkpoint. He then reported seeing an Israeli civilian dressed in white, who had been standing next to the soldiers, follow the man up the road before shooting him at least three times in the head and back. He told Amnesty International that Fadel al-Qawasmeh had nothing in his hands, and all the shots were fired from behind.

Interviewed separately, a resident of another house on al-Shuhada Street who was watching from a balcony said that she saw an Israeli civilian of the same description holding a firearm in the moments before the shooting, and that she had heard him cursing the Palestinian youth. She did not see or hear any indications that the Palestinian youth was threatening anyone.

She saw Israeli forces approaching the scene within seconds, but they did not attempt to give medical treatment to Fadel al-Qawasmeh, or to arrest the settler holding the firearm.

“I saw Israeli soldiers standing next to the youth, who was lying on the ground bleeding. They were taking photos and did not attempt to treat his wounds. They stood around him for about 30 minutes and then they covered him and we knew he was dead,” she told Amnesty International.

Amnesty International is calling on the Israeli authorities to conduct an effective, independent investigation into the circumstances of the killing of Fadel al-Qawasmeh, and for the perpetrator of the attack to be brought to justice. The investigation should also examine whether soldiers failed to provide medical treatment for Fadel al-Qawasmeh.

An Israeli police spokesperson told Amnesty International that an investigation had been opened, but that as it was classified as a “security incident”, it was being handled by the Israel Security Agency.

A pattern of harassment

Settlers have long attacked and harassed Palestinians in Hebron and the rest of the occupied West Bank with impunity, and sometimes with the apparent assistance or acquiescence of Israeli forces. Later on the morning of 17 October, masked Israeli security personnel in civilian clothing stormed the house on al-Shuhada Street, threatened the residents who had been watching, and deleted photos and videos they had taken on their phones. Israeli forces and settlers have attacked and harassed residents of the same home several times since.

“We’ve given up complaining to the [Israeli] police here,” a resident of al-Shuhada Street told Amnesty International.

“In order to make a complaint, we have to close the store, go to the police station several times, and so lose several days of work. Nothing happens. The police treat us very badly when we go to make the complaint. I’ve given up hope.”

Deepening restrictions

Instead of taking steps to protect Palestinians from settler attacks, the Israeli military yesterday announced more restrictions on Palestinian movement in Hebron’s Old City, closing Palestinian stores in the area and prohibiting male Palestinians between the ages of 15 and 25 from passing through the numerous military checkpoints in the area.

Since the killing of Fadel al-Qawasmeh, there have been other serious incidents of violence perpetrated by settlers. On the night of 17/18 October, a 13-year-old Palestinian was wounded in the chest by a Molotov cocktail thrown by settlers from the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba, on the outskirts of Hebron; his cousin trying to help him was hit by a large rock. Members of the Da’ana extended family, who live next to the settlement and witnessed the attack, told Amnesty International that Israeli forces were present and failed to intervene. An ambulance was called but was unable to reach the house due to the ongoing attack.

“While we again condemn all deliberate attacks on civilians, including Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian perpetrators of such attacks do not enjoy impunity. On the other hand, Israeli settlers can harm and even kill Palestinian civilians seemingly without consequences, and Israeli forces continue to use lethal force against Palestinians they suspect, even when their lives are not at risk,” said Philip Luther.

“For far too long, Israel’s investigation mechanisms have served to shield Israeli military and police forces, as well as Israeli civilians, responsible for killing Palestinian civilians unlawfully. International pressure is needed to end this impunity, and send the message that Palestinians’ right to life matters and that all attacks on civilians will not be tolerated.”