Israels Execution Troops Face Death Quiz
By Conal Urquhart
The Israeli army is under growing pressure to explain a series of deaths of Palestinians in a three-week operation in the West Bank city of Nablus. According to witnesses and medical evidence, at least two of the 19 deaths during the operation have the hallmarks of executions.
The operation was launched on 16 December to track down Naif Sharekh, who the army says was behind the movement of suicide bombers from Nablus to Israel. The UN representative in the city described it as one of the largest military operations in Nablus since Operation Defensive Shield started in April 2002.
By the time the army reduced its presence on January 6 it had killed four gunmen and 15 unarmed civilians including six children.
One Israeli and one Palestinian human rights group are investigating the killings and want the army to launch its own inquiry, but it is reluctant. Following the shooting of British student Tom Hurndall, 21, last year, it insisted that its soldiers had shot an armed terrorist. Six months later, following immense pressure from the Hurndall family, the army charged one of its soldiers with unlawful killing.
Ala Dawaya, 21, was on his way to work as a baker when he was shot by Israeli soldiers in the old town of Nablus on December 18. An ambulance was called and driver Adnan Soso arrived to see the wounded man sitting upright and still alive a few meters from an army Jeep. I was called at around 3am to an area known as the onion market, he said. I got there within about three minutes and saw an injured man lying against a wall within meters of an Israeli Jeep.
He reversed to the end of the street, from where he could still see the injured man and the Jeep. Then they started shooting at the man from the Jeep. Every time they shot, the body moved and they waited then shot again, sometimes twice. They shot him about ten times over several minutes, he said.
Eventually, the shooting stopped and the Jeep allowed the ambulance to approach. The man was dead and both his eyeballs were hanging out. I looked at what he had in the black plastic bag next to him. Trousers, shoes and an overall, covered in flour. We put him on a stretcher and got him into the ambulance. As we were about to pull away, the Jeep approached. The soldier said: Is he dead? He then asked what was in the bag and I showed him. He asked for the dead mans identification card and spoke on the radio for a few minutes. He then told us to take the body away.
The ambulance took the body to Rafidia Hospital where it was examined by Dr. Samir Abu Zarour. Although not trained in post-mortems, he is the closest thing to an expert in Nablus, having examined 250 shooting victims in the past three years. He had been shot between eight and 10 times, including twice in the face and once in the testicles, and had a series of fragmentation wounds in his legs, he said.
The army spokesman said that Nablus was under curfew at the time of the shooting in order to separate civilians from terrorists. Soldiers identified a terrorist planting an explosive device in the road. They shot him and when they examined the bag, it contained explosive material, as suspected. They later discovered he was a member of Islamic Jihad. The spokesman denied soldiers had shot him several times.
On January 7, as part of the same operation, a large number of troops entered the al Makhsia neighborhood around 3 am, surrounded the house of the Qassas family and ordered them to leave, according to Mofida Qassas. My father, my uncle and aunt and I had to leave, but they kept my four brothers inside. The last time I saw Abdul he was tying his shoelaces surrounded by Israeli soldiers, she said.
Abdul Qassas, 25, had returned to Nablus from Saudi Arabia two years ago after learning to make curtains at a relatives business. His three brothers were taken away by the Israelis. One remains in jail, but the others were released. The soldiers searched the house, spraying some rooms with bullets and a prolonged gun battle began outside. Witnesses were unable to say what was happening because they were keeping their heads down. Qassas was taken to the next-door garden, where he was questioned. Nobody saw what happened to him.
Amra Sadija, a secretary at the Palestinian Ministry of Education, said: The shooting was continuous for hours. Between 5 am and 6 am, I heard a man screaming. He kept repeating: I swear to God, I dont know who he is. His voice was so high I could not recognize who it was. I could not tell what happened to him because there was still shooting everywhere. Eventually, everything went silent. At about 6 am, I heard movement and at 6:30 am the soldiers moved out.
Neighbors found the body of Qassas meters from his home. Again the body was taken to Rafidia Hospital and Dr. Zarour. I was called at 6:45 am and arrived at the hospital 7 am. Abdul Qassas had been shot twice, once through the upper lip with the bullet leaving the body in the middle of the back, he said.
The bullets trajectory suggested the victim was kneeling when he was shot, said Zarour and the size of the wounds suggest it was fired from a range of between three and five meters.
The army spokesman said soldiers spotted Qassas hiding and feared he was a sniper: They began an arrest procedure, shouting at him in Arabic and Hebrew. They fired warning shots. Then, fearing he was about to shoot, they shot him. He was found to be unarmed, but the soldiers later found out he was a wanted man.
His family does not know why Abdul was shot, but it is possible the troops suspected him of sheltering a man whose body was found in the same garden that morning. Ibrahim Atawi, 32, was a senior figure in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Nablus.
It is not clear whether he was involved in the gun battle or how he died. Zarour said: His body was like a colander. I counted 15 bullet wounds of different calibers and there could have been more. Three bullets were fired directly at his nose. His right knee had been smashed to pieces. I think it was with a rock because the injuries looked as if there had been a grinding effect. Also his trousers were shredded around the knee and there were bits of grass on his skin and in his flesh.
His left arm had been cut twice with a knife and there were what looked like dog bites on his arm and around his testicles. I do not have the expertise to say if the wounds were administered before or after he was shot, he said.
The army spokesman said Atawi approached soldiers with a handgun. They fired before he could shoot them. The gun was later found to be loaded. He denied Atawi had the injuries the doctor alleges.
The high number of deaths in Nablus over Christmas and their brutal nature have largely been ignored by human rights groups and the media because Nablus is isolated, but slowly people are beginning to pay attention.
Noam Hossfatter, a spokesman for Btselem, an Israeli human rights group, said they were examining Qassas death with a view to pressing the army to investigate: At the moment there is no eyewitness, so we cannot yet say there was an execution but if someone was in custody and was then found dead it would suggest something very unusual took place.
Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, said his organizations lawyer was expected to write to the Israeli military attorney-general asking him to investigate.
The Observer, February 1, 2004