Israel is being put on trial this week for seriously injuring an American activist.
Tristan Anderson was hit with a high velocity tear gas projectile in March 2009 while attending a weekly protest in Nilin, a village in the occupied West Bank. His family is now seeking damages from Israel. A hearing in the civil case opened on Sunday in a Jerusalem district court.
Anderson was 37 years old when he traveled from his home in Oakland, California to the West Bank to work with the International Solidarity Movement as an activist and photographer. He had been in the region a few weeks before he was shot with a tear gas canister that was designed to break through barricades. Manufactured by the American company Combined Systems Inc., the model that hit Anderson has an internal propelling mechanism that increases its impact.
Anderson was shot from only sixty meters away. The canister hit the right side of his forehead, puncturing his skull, decimating his frontal lobe, and rendering him blind in his right eye. Anderson remains severely physically and cognitively disabled and today requires around-the-clock care.
At the time, Israel opened an investigation into the shooting. Like nearly all military investigations into the shootings of Palestinian activists in the West Bank, it resulted in no indictment.
But in 2013, heeding a petition filed by the Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din, the Israeli high court ordered the state to re-open an investigation, finding that the original investigation had been inadequate.
“Sloppy and negligent”
New video evidence from the day of the shooting had bolstered the petition. The video showed a group of Israeli Border Police firing tear gas grenades into crowds of protesters near where Anderson was shot. The initial police investigation had failed to interview any of these security personnel.
Investigators appeared to have not even visited the village.
In 2011, a Yesh Din lawyer described the investigation as “sloppy, unprofessional and negligent.”
While the burden of proof is lower in civil cases such as this one — petitioners need only to prove liability, not criminal offense — the State of Israel is arguing that the Border Police was engaged in a military activity and therefore the state is not responsible. The Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel is representing Anderson in court.
Three Swedish activists who had been in Nilin the day Anderson was shot traveled to Jerusalem to testify on Sunday. Israeli activist Jonathan Pollack, who spoke to The Electronic Intifada by Skype on Monday, said that this was the first time a court heard eyewitness testimony about what happened over five years ago.
During the state’s cross examination of the witnesses, lawyers tried to discredit the International Solidarity Movement by suggesting it is a violent and illegitimate organization. “It didn’t go very far. They also tried to show that they are unreliable, not very successfully if you ask me,” Pollack said.
“The trial is not about the ISM or the affiliation of the witnesses. It is completely irrelevant, but it’s just the only thing the state has to discredit them.”
“Make Israel responsible”
According to Pollack, the three witnesses testified that there had been stone-throwing at the demonstration, but at the time Anderson was shot, the intensity of the protest had settled.
After he was shot, the Border Police continued firing rounds of tear gas while Anderson was evacuated.
Pollack said an American diplomat watched the hearing on Sunday.
Another hearing will take place this Thursday, at which Gabby Silverman, Anderson’s former girlfriend, will testify. Silverman and Anderson traveled to Palestine together in 2009 and was with Anderson when he was shot.
Also scheduled to testify on Thursday are three Palestinian witnesses, but as of Monday they had still not received permission from Israel to enter Jerusalem.
Anderson’s parents are not in court, as they had to remain in California to take care of their son.
“There are two main reasons behind this civil case,” explains Pollack. “One is to make Israel take responsibility for a use of violence to repress civil and popular resistance in Palestine. And the second reason is Tristan’s parents are getting old; he is paralyzed in half his body and has suffered severe cognitive damage. There is an acute need to secure his future. He needs constant care.”
“It’s a financial issue but more so it is a political issue: Israel is not willing to take responsibility for what it does to perpetuate the occupation of the Palestinian people,” Pollack said.
The state is expected to call Border Police officers who were in Nilin the day of the shooting, as well as officers involved in the initial investigation.