Israel escalates attacks on UN agency after killing employee during raid

Woman raises her hands above passing funeral procession

Thousands attended the funeral of three men killed by Israeli forces in Qalandiya refugee camp last week.

Issam Rimawi APA images

During the early morning hours of Monday, 26 August, undercover and uniformed Israeli forces invaded Qalandiya refugee camp, near the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, during an arrest operation. When residents confronted them, clashes ensued.

Eyewitnesses who spoke to The Electronic Intifada, as well as human rights groups and the United Nations, have contradicted key elements of Israel’s claims about the invasion that left dead three Palestinian civilians, including an employee of the UN refugee agency UNRWA.

“It felt like the refugee camp was Gaza,” Yehya Mteir, a camp resident who witnessed the raid, recalled.

“One of my friends was shot in the arm by a dumdum bullet,” he added, referring to bullets that explode inside their target after entrance. “He asked me to look at it, and I became scared because it looked like the only thing holding his arm to his body was the sleeve of his shirt.”

Qalandiya is home to some 11,000 United Nations-registered Palestinian refugees — nearly half of its population are 14 years old or younger.

The invading Israeli soldiers met resistance from local residents, who threw stones at the military jeeps as they tried to navigate the narrow alleyways of the camp, as documented on video.

Live ammunition

During the clashes, soldiers responded by firing live ammunition at the crowd, fatally wounding three young Palestinian men: 20-year-old Jihad Aslan, 22-year-old Younis Jahjouh and 34-year-old Rubeen Abdulrahman Zayid.

A report released by Human Rights Watch today, referring to medical sources, states that “5 of the 18 people wounded by gunfire during the clashes were under 18 years old, and 12 of the 18 required surgery.”

According to Al Jazeera English, 3,000 people came to the funeral on Tuesday and marched with the families of the deceased.

Deadly arrest operation

An Israeli military spokesperson, Luba Samri, told Agence France-Presse that border police entered Qalandiya camp “to arrest a hostile terrorist activist,” referring to Yousef al-Khatib, who was recently released from Israeli prison after ten years of detention, according to the Ma’an News Agency.

According to Human Rights Watch, Israeli forces at first arrested a relative of al-Khatib, mistaking him for the wanted man, zip-cuffed and blindfolded him and drove him to a nearby military base. “One of them was hitting me in the stomach all the way there with a heavy object, maybe a fire extinguisher,” the relative testified to the rights group.

After being informed by the Israeli soldiers that Yousef al-Khatib had been arrested, the relative was then driven back to Qalandiya camp to identify al-Khatib. “I could barely recognize him. They had broken his nose and knocked out his teeth, and his hand was broken,” the same relative told Human Rights Watch.

Al-Khatib is currently detained without charge at the Ofer military jail in the occupied West Bank.

“We had no guns”

“After [al-Khatib’s] arrest a mob of about 1,500 residents began a disturbance, throwing petrol bombs and stones, endangering the lives of force members, who responded with riot dispersal means,” Israeli army spokesperson Samri added.

The Israeli military also accused Palestinians of shooting at soldiers, saying that “bullet holes were later discovered in the [military] vehicles,” as reported by The Jerusalem Post.

Yehya Mteir, who was present during the clashes, denied the Israeli military spokesperson’s version of events.

“One of the martyrs was my close friend, and we were together the night before,” he said.

“There was only one tear gas canister fired at the beginning and one at the end, but other than that, it was all live ammunition and dumdum bullets,” he added.

“There were so many people in the streets because everyone was on the way to work; usually [the military] comes in while we’re asleep,” Mteir explained. “The only means of fighting we had were rocks. We had no guns or Molotov cocktails, none of us.”

Human Rights Watch’s report on the incident refers to camp residents throwing stones, Molotov cocktails and other objects but states that “soldiers shot Palestinians who were not throwing stones in circumstances indicating that they intentionally used lethal force that was not necessary to protect life …”

Chris Gunness, spokesman for the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, said in an interview with The Electronic Intifada that the agency’s investigation found discrepancies in the Israeli military’s claims.

Human Rights Watch also stated today that Israeli soldiers “appear to have used unlawful lethal force” during the raid, calling for the prosecution of those soldiers “who shot people unlawfully.”

“All of the people we interviewed strongly denied that Palestinians shot [live ammunition], or said that they were not aware of it,” Bill Van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Electronic Intifada. “If the Israeli military has evidence of this, they should make it public.”

UN employee killed

One of those killed, Rubeen Zayid, a 34-year-old father with four children, was an UNRWA employee.

“We have nine independent eyewitness accounts which all confirm that he was unarmed, he was not involved in violence, not engaged in throwing stones, and yet he was shot with a bullet through the chest no questions,” UNRWA spokesperson Gunness told The Electronic Intifada.

As Zayid made his way to work, he attempted to bypass the clashes. When the Israeli soldiers opened fire, a bullet struck him in the chest and killed him on the spot.

“According to the eyewitnesses we spoke to, there were no Molotov cocktails or petrol bombs in the area where Rubeen was killed,” Gunness said.

Mteir also said that Zayid “was just going to work. He was not fighting or throwing rocks at the Israelis.”

According to Human Rights Watch’s investigation, Van Esveld said, Zayid was “walking around the corner and was shot in the chest … witnesses told us that no one around him was throwing stones. The last soldier was getting into the last military vehicle as they were leaving, turned and shot him in the chest.”

Another UNRWA employee was also shot in the back of the leg as he attempted to avoid the clashes, Gunness said. An eyewitness interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that “there was a single shot, which he believed indicated that the soldier had aimed deliberately at Abu Murad,” a 50-year-old trash collector with the UN agency.

The rights group adds: “both witnesses to Abu Murad’s shooting said they did not see anyone throwing stones at the Israeli forces from Abu Murad’s direction in the street at that time.”

UNRWA condemns killing

“UNRWA condemns the killing of its staff member and calls on all sides, at this delicate time, to exercise maximum constraint and act in accordance with international law,” an UNRWA press release states.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a response condemning UNRWA’s statement as “one-sided political advocacy.”

“Quite aside from the fact that UNRWA did not even bother to approach any official Israeli sources for comment, its statement was rushed to the presses while violent riots were still raging on in Qalandiya,” the MFA states.

Gunness, however, disputed both of these accusations. “This statement by the Israeli MFA is classic case of the right hand needing to know what the left hand is doing. We spoke to both the MFA and the Israeli military before our statement was published,” he told The Electronic Intifada.

“Their claim about the timing of our report is clearly nonsense,” Gunness added. “Our statement was issued about 12 hours after our staff member was shot dead. In this location, the clashes had long stopped.”

Israel cites Kahanist filmmaker

Attacking the refugee agency’s investigation, the MFA statement further denounces UNRWA as “consistently fail[ing] to display similar zeal and enthusiasm when asked to investigate its own cases of wrongdoing,” linking to a Times of Israel article on a propaganda film released in July titled Camp Jihad.

The filmmaker, David Bedein, is a right-wing Israeli journalist who lives in the Efrat settlement colony in the West Bank and regularly accuses the UN of fostering anti-Semitism and promoting violence among Palestinians.

The film has been cited by Israeli officials since its release.

On 14 August, the official Twitter account of the Israeli Mission to the UN, headed by Ambassador Ron Prosor, promoted and linked to the Camp Jihad film, stating: “UNRWA prides itself on ‘neutrality’ — but the horrific incitement in their summer camps tell a different story.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated the film’s claims during a 16 August meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Palestinian refugee camps, Netanyahu claimed, “have been used … to instill the culture of hatred and ideas about destroying Israel amidst Palestinian children … I trust you will make sure these abuses of UN goals and UN funds does not continue.”

Netanyahu’s remark was also partially quoted by the Israeli Mission to the UN’s Twitter account.

“Grossly misleading” claims

In a statement published on UNRWA’s website, spokesperson Gunness vigorously rejects the film’s claims, adding that the “film is grossly misleading and we regret the damage it has caused to UNRWA and the United Nations.

“The filmmaker concerned [David Bedein] has a history of making baseless claims about UNRWA, all of which we have investigated and demonstrated to be patently false. It has long been the practice of the filmmaker to show non-UNRWA activities and portray them as activities of UNRWA,” Gunness’ statement adds.

An October 2011 UNRWA statement cites scholar Rex Brynen’s exposure of Bedein as “having Kahanist links,” referring to the ultra-nationalist movement based on the ideology of Meir Kahane.

Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League, classified as a right-wing terrorist group by the FBI, and the Kach Party, designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, Canada and the European Union.

The UNRWA statement quotes Brynen: “Bedein has also published work under the auspices of his organization with Samuel Sokol — an ultra-right-wing activist who, in pictures he once proudly posted online, can be seen posing with weapons in front of a Kahanist … flag.”

On the condition of anonymity, a senior diplomatic source told The Electronic Intifada that “it’s extraordinary but perhaps not surprising that the Israeli ambassador would urge the Israeli PM [Benjamin Netanyahu] to quote someone with Kahanist links to the secretary general of the United Nations.”

“It aptly demonstrates how perverse and sick the narrative has become. Imagine what would happen if such a link were present on the Palestinian side,” the source added.

Excessive use of force

Fourteen Palestinian civilians in the West Bank have been killed by Israeli soldiers so far this year, including those shot to death during the Qalandiya raid.

International human rights organizations have condemned the latest killings.

“The death of [Rubeen Zayid] raises concerns that this may have been an extrajudicial execution in violation of international law,” Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

“This deadly arrest raid appears to be yet another example of the use of excessive force by Israeli troops in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Luther added.

Human Rights Watch has also called for an immediate criminal investigation into the raid.

UNRWA grounds repeatedly attacked

UN reporting consistently suggests that UNRWA grounds have been regularly attacked, despite that they are supposed to be neutral areas and off-limits to Israeli military. This reporting paints a disturbing pattern of violations: tear gas canisters, sound grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets frequently land on or strike UNRWA premises.

Twenty-six violations were recorded during the first half of 2013 alone. In one instance on 27 June, more than 100 tear gas canisters fired by the Israeli military landed in a girls’ school at the Qalandiya refugee camp.

Israeli forces have killed and injured UNRWA workers and attacked the agency’s premises multiple times in the past decade.

Amid fighting in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank in November 2002, an UNRWA project manager, Iain Hook, was shot and killed by an Israeli military sniper.

As Israel escalated attacks on the Gaza Strip in December 2002, two UNRWA employees were killed, neither of whom were believed to have been engaged in fighting.

During Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip in winter 2008-09, Israeli forces shelled an UNRWA school, al-Fakhura, in the Jabaliya refugee camp in January 2009. At least 40 Palestinians were killed and more than 50 were injured.

During Israel’s November 2012 military offensive on Gaza, the Israeli government made allegations through social media that UNRWA was permitting armed resistance organizations to launch rockets towards Israel. UNRWA categorically dismissed these claims.


Considering the long record of Israeli impunity, it is unlikely that there will be any accountability for the three deaths in Qalandiya last Monday. When asked about the likelihood of an internal Israeli military investigation, Van Esveld said, “The record is clear.”

According to the latest statistics by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, 6,706 Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories have been killed by Israeli forces since the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000.

Yet a recent report by the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din finds that only 16 investigation files opened in that time period led to indictments.

Furthermore, a mere seven Israeli soldiers were convicted of killing six civilians, one of whom was a British national.

Though rarely punished for killing civilians, Israeli soldiers stationed in the West Bank city of Hebron were recently “disciplined accordingly,” according to a military statement, for entering a Palestinian wedding party and dancing with the attendees.

“Israel’s wars on Gaza happened and the whole world knew about it without doing anything,” Qalandiya resident Yehya Mteir concluded. “The destruction of the Jenin refugee camp happened and nothing changed,” he added, referring to the 2002 invasion in the northern West Bank.

“But this time was really hard. People in [Qalandiya] camp have stopped sleeping because we’re staying up worried, waiting for the Israelis to come.”

Patrick O. Strickland is an investigative journalist for Mint Press News. His articles have appeared at Al Jazeera English, Truthout, and Electronic Intifada. Follow him on Twitter: @P_Strickland_.