On 18 March 2006, I visited a grieving family in Al Yamun, a town in the northern West Bank. Their 7-year old daughter had been murdered the night previously by Israeli Border Police, who had entered the town to arrest “wanted” Palestinian militants in a raid led by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Her name was Akaber Adbelrahman Zaid and she was on her way to a doctor’s clinic to have stitches removed from her chin. Instead she received a barrage of bullets to the head, when an undercover Border Police unit opened fire on the car in which she was travelling with her uncle.
An IDF spokesperson said the police had thought that the wanted militants were trying to escape in the car and thus fired shots at the wheels as a deterrent. Akaber’s uncle said it was obvious that the only people in the car were himself and a small child, adding that the policemen had fired at close range. A Ha’aretz reporter inspected the car afterwards and found that all four tyres were still intact. For a specially trained unit of sharpshooters to fire at the wheels of a vehicle from a short distance and miss their target completely seems a little dubious, to say the least.
Akaber joins the ranks of over 700 other Palestinian children to be killed by Israeli security forces since September 2000. Who will take responsibility for her death? Who shall be held accountable? The IDF has acknowledged that in shooting at the car, the policemen involved broke the rules of engagement.
I am eager to know what the penalty for breaking the rules of engagement is. I am also eager to know what the penalty for murdering Akaber will be; if there will be any at all. The army’s response so far has been the following euphemistic statement: “the IDF regrets harming the Palestinian girl and is conducting a comprehensive examination of the circumstances of the event.” We will see.
Unfortunately, cases like Akaber’s are a dime a dozen. It is widely documented that the IDF often break the rules of engagement when on incursions into the Occupied Territories and enjoy complete impunity for almost all violations committed when on duty, including the killing of children. This impunity overarches both possible legal means of redress for victims, as Israel not only consistently fails to criminally investigate the misdemeanours of IDF officers; it also protects itself institutionally regarding state liability in civil action cases, through its carefully formulated Civil Torts (State Liability) Law, 5712 –1952.
A recent amendment to this law makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians who have sustained damages at the hands of a state agent (e.g. Israeli security forces) in any area of the West Bank or Gaza Strip to make a claim for compensation. The amendment applies retroactively to injuries sustained after 29 September 2000, and even to claims already submitted to the courts, but not yet processed. These measures violate Israel’s commitments under international human rights law to provide an effective remedy to victims of human rights abuses.
On the criminal level, some attempts have been made to put IDF officers on trial in the past, but not only do most of these fail; the verdict usually serves up a further slap in the face for the victim too. Just five days after Akaber’s murder, Ha’aretz reported that Captain “R”, a Givati Brigade soldier in the IDF, would be awarded 80,000 NIS in compensation from the State of Israel, after being acquitted of a five-count indictment against him related to the killing of Iman Al Hems, a 13-year old Gaza schoolgirl. Iman had been shot by the IDF in October 2004, when she came in the vicinity of their outpost. Captain “R” had then approached Iman, who was already lying injured on the ground and had shot her at point blank range. Transcripts of radio exchange between the soldiers during the incident revealed that Captain “R” stated he did this, “to confirm the kill”.
Contradicting himself in court, Captain “R” said he opened fire, not directly aiming at Iman, in order to create deterrence, and that he believed that the young girl posed a serious threat. How mentally disturbed and/or cowardly must an Israeli captain be to feel scared of an unarmed 13-year old schoolgirl, who was already lying wounded and helpless on the ground?
Ludicrously, the judges believed his version of events. This is the way it works here, folks: Captain R was acquitted and then rewarded with compensation and a promotion to major while Iman’s family were rewarded with another helping of gross injustice to add to the first injustice of losing their child.
According to the Israeli judge advocate general’s office, only 131 criminal investigations into the unlawful killing and injury of Palestinians by Israeli security forces were opened from September 2000 to June 2005, leading to just 28 indictments and a mere seven convictions.
Yet, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem documented the killings of at least 1,722 Palestinians, outside any combat situation, by Israeli soldiers during the same period. According to the Palestinian section of Defence for Children International, more than one-third of those killed were children.
These figures revealing Israel’s sweeping practice of impunity leaves me more and more in utter disbelief. It is the kind of disbelief that catapults you into a state of shock. The sheer fact that the Israeli military are getting away with killing hundreds and hundreds of innocent children, without paying any consequences whatsoever, is so outrageous, so unbelievable, that it paralyses you. It renders you helpless, unable to react, unable to focus on what actions to take to remedy the situation. After a while of dealing with this every day, I run the risk of becoming totally numb and, as a result, increasingly unfazed by each new incident, like so many “guest” bystanders before me. On the outside, this could seem like resignation. And it often is. Israel feeds on this. And even the outside world becomes immune; you, the reader, become immune - your threshold for passively accepting atrocity becomes higher. It is to be expected – we all need to protect ourselves from such horrors of daily life in order to survive. The skin gets thicker. But let us not fool ourselves in thinking we cannot do anything to influence the situation.
Our indifference is already influencing the situation. Our indifference is an essential part of the equation that keeps the ongoing impunity in place: it is indifference which allows child killings to continue unhindered. It is the same indifference which breeds state terrorism, and as a response, other forms of terrorism.
I am horrified as are many others that this can go on unchallenged. Of course, there are civil society organisations which are committed to challenging Israel’s impunity. They use all the mechanisms available to them to denounce Israel’s practices and to demand accountability and reparation for the victims.
Expressions of grave concern and urgent calls to action are issued on almost a daily basis. Research is conducted, reports published and resources made available, yet all these efforts become symbolic in the face of the inertia of the international community.
It seems paradoxical: the EU and the UN provide mechanisms and tools through which and with which civil society can supposedly harness the political and economical clout of intergovernmental organisations to remedy cases of violations of human rights by a state.
Yet the EU and UN have consistently failed to use their political leverage to stop Israel’s barbaric policies and practices against Palestinians. Is not one of the principal roles of intergovernmental organisations to protect civilians from mass human rights violations perpetrated by a state? The UN Charter clearly states that the “United Nations shall promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms” and that “all Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization to achieve this”.
If Israel, as a member state, does not uphold the Charter, then why is there no effective pressure from the UN to make Israel abide by the principles of membership? The EU-Israel Association Agreement, which regulates political and economic cooperation between the two parties, stipulates respect for human rights and democratic principles as an essential element of the agreement.
Israel obviously does not observe human rights and democracy in its treatment of the nation it illegally occupies, so why does the EU not follow up this incongruence? The failure of the UN and the EU to use their capacity to hold Israel accountable for its actions is tantamount to actively contributing to the perpetuation of Israel’s de facto and de jure impunity.
This depressing fact leads me to search for the motives for their inaction. Is it fear? Perhaps the EU and the UN feel threatened by Israel as Captain “R” felt threatened by Iman Al Hems or as 30 undercover Israeli agents felt threatened by 7-year old Akaber. Are they afraid that by openly criticising Israel the whole geopolitical balance will crumble? Are they afraid that the US would really be in the position to ostracise everyone willing to respond to civil society’s pleas for political intervention on behalf of Palestinian civilians? Are they so afraid of being labelled anti-Semitic that they cannot bring themselves to go further than meekly denounce blatant violations of human rights? Yet how can their fear override their humanity?
From where Palestinian children are sitting, it seems that even the bloodiest and most horrifying massacre is not enough to mobilise these supranational powers into action.
After hundreds of deaths of Palestinian children, and hundreds of urgent appeals to the international community falling on deaf ears, it is easy to acquire that dangerous “what’s the point in trying?” attitude. As mentioned above, Israel feeds on this.
The Occupation thrives on the millions of people, inside the OPT, inside Israel, in Europe, in America, in the rest of the world, saying to themselves or others, “Yes, this is clearly wrong and unjust but what’s the point in trying to do anything to stop it if mass efforts so far have not been able to put an end to it?” While this may be a normal reaction, it is also normal, and necessary, for human beings to find fresh motivation to keep on trying.
I appeal to politicians to review the motives behind their inaction and bystanders all over the world to fight against the numbness and banality of seeing or hearing about child after child being killed. We must keep trying to achieve justice for Palestinians.
As U.S. human rights activist Rachel Corrie wrote in one of her diary entries, just months before she was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in March 2003, “This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop.”
Leigh Brady, from Ireland, has been living in the West Bank since May 2005. She works for the Palestinian Section of the international child rights organisation, Defence for Children International.