Palestinian Security Forces Under Attack

As a human rights organisation dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Al-Haq is gravely concerned by the killing of two Palestinian security officers in the Bitouniya neighbourhood of Ramallah on 2 February 2007. After thorough investigation, Al-Haq has learned that at approximately 2:45 am on that morning, a resident of al-Dik building heard someone attempting to open the door of his fourth-floor apartment. Upon receiving no reply when he inquired as to the identity of the intruders, the resident called the Palestinian Preventative Security Forces, fearing for his safety given the internal security crisis prevalent throughout the OPT at the time.

The first member of this police force to arrive on the scene, Muhammad Abu-‘Arab, 33, entered the building and took the elevator to the fourth floor along with two unarmed civilians, a married couple, who had arrived simultaneously. These two individuals confirmed that upon the opening of the elevator doors, at least three armed men were standing in the darkness of the landing. When Muhammad Abu-‘Arab enquired as to what they were doing there, the men began shouting in Hebrew and opened fire on the security officer from less than four metres away, killing him instantly with six bullets in the chest. The two eyewitnesses then saw that the men were in fact uniformed Israeli soldiers with their faces blackened. The soldiers ordered them out of the elevator and subsequently brought them to the third floor of the building, where more Israeli soldiers were positioned.

Meanwhile, a clearly marked Palestinian Preventative Security Forces patrol jeep had arrived to the scene, also in response to the resident’s initial phone call, containing seven members of the force. They stopped a few metres from the entrance of the building; four of the force went towards the building to investigate, while the other three stayed at the patrol jeep. These three officers were then surrounded by seven Israeli military jeeps which reached the scene almost immediately after the Palestinian officers had exited their vehicle, arriving stealthily with no lights on. When the First Lieutenant of the Palestinian security force attempted to approach the Israeli military jeeps in order to introduce himself and explain the objective of his force’s presence, he was ordered back.

The other four members of the Palestinian security force, who by this stage were at the entrance of the building, were startled by the unexpected and unannounced arrival of the Israeli military. They decided to go back to their patrol jeep to present themselves to the Israeli military and explain the situation. As they began walking away from the building, the officer at the rear of the group, Khaldoun Shoman, 33, was shot and killed without warning by Israeli soldiers apparently hiding in the shadows on a ground floor balcony of the building. An examination of Khaldoun Shoman’s uniform shows that at least five bullets hit him from behind. The remaining six Palestinian security officers then had their weapons and IDs seized by Israeli officers.

The two individuals being held inside the building on the third floor confirmed that a number of shots were fired outside the building approximately six minutes after the killing of Muhammad Abu-‘Arab in the elevator. Moments later they heard shouting from outside that “Khaldoun is dead.” Upon retrieving Khaldoun Shoman’s body and dragging it to the jeep, the Palestinian security officers radioed Preventative Security headquarters who in turn called the Palestinian Red Crescent Society to request an ambulance. When the ambulance failed to arrive, one of the Palestinian security officers walked back towards the main road. He found that the ambulance had been prevented from entering the area by Israeli military jeeps which were blocking the road to al-Dik building. Two medics from the ambulance then went on foot to the scene with this security officer, and carried Khaldoun’s body back to the ambulance.

After being held on the third floor of the building until approximately 4:00 am, the two eyewitnesses to the first killing were brought by Israeli soldiers to the area outside the building where the Palestinian security officers were still being held. They then informed the Palestinian security officers of the presence of another deceased inside the building. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society was thus called again, and the same ambulance returned to remove the body of Muhammad Abu-‘Arab, this time unimpeded.

Witnesses saw approximately 20 armed Israeli soldiers exiting the building, wearing an unusual uniform of green trousers and black tops, with blackened faces and high-tech equipment attached to their helmets. An apparently higher ranking Israeli officer had in the meantime arrived. He spoke to the Palestinian officers, told them that what happened had been a “mistake” and went with his aides to investigate the scenes of the killings.

The two eyewitnesses to the killing of Muhammad Abu-‘Arab were taken away by Israeli military officials and interrogated at ‘Ofar prison before being released. Having been returned their IDs, the Palestinian security officers were told by the Israeli soldiers not to leave the area until five minutes after the Israelis themselves had left, and that their guns would be returned to them at a later date. They waited the requested five minutes, whereupon they went to Ramallah hospital to visit the bodies of their deceased colleagues.

Al-Haq is deeply concerned at the nature of this and other recent military operations in the West Bank, whereby Israeli forces have infiltrated civilian areas and failed to provide the civilian population with any warning as to their presence. As a result of such tactics, Palestinian civilians have been killed and wounded after unwittingly finding themselves in the midst of military operations. In carrying out these kinds of operation, Israel, the Occupying Power, is failing to comply with its obligation under international humanitarian law to take the necessary measures to spare civilians from the effects of the armed conflict.

With respect to this particular incident in Bitouniya, the security forces of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), while carrying out their duty to uphold public order and internal security in areas under their responsibility, were deliberately attacked by the Occupying Power. This severely undermines the already fragile ability of the PNA to uphold the rule of law in the OPT. The lack of respect for Palestinian law enforcement authorities displayed by the Israeli military on this occasion was surpassed only by the blatant disregard shown for the non-derogable right to life of the officers who were killed. The two men summarily executed by the Israeli military were taking no part in hostilities and posed no threat to the soldiers who fired at them. Both men were targeted with numerous bullets to the upper part of the body; indicating an intention on the part of the Israeli military officers concerned to cause death or serious bodily injury. Indeed, Khaldoun Shoman was targeted and executed from behind, without any warning as to the presence of Israeli soldiers behind him.

Such deceit has become a worryingly regular tactic of the Israeli military, as witnessed in the frequent use of undercover units and the veiled penetration of civilian buildings, evidenced in this case, and just one day prior to it in the killing of 16-year-old Taha Mahmoud Subhi al-Qaljawi in Qalandiya. That up to 20 armed Israeli soldiers entered the civilian apartment building in Bitouniya unannounced is dangerous enough; that there was no advance notice given of this operation, whatever its objective may have been, to the Palestinian authorities entailed a grossly negligent endangering of human lives. Such actions are indicative of a general Israeli military policy of unilateralism and lack of recognition of the authority of Palestinian security forces.

Al-Haq is further alarmed by official statements given by military sources which describe the two victims as “gunmen,” whereas they were in fact members of the official security forces wilfully killed in the course of their duty. This raises serious questions as to the reality of how Israel views Palestinian security forces. National police and security officers in occupied territories are among the persons protected under Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The wilful killing of such protected persons is defined as a “grave breach” of the Fourth Geneva Convention under Article 147 thereof. Grave breaches comprise the most egregious violations of international humanitarian law, for which the perpetrators are criminally responsible under customary international law.

Israeli military sources have acknowledged that the killings were the result of a “misunderstanding.” This itself implies the necessity of further investigation, which Al-Haq has formally requested Israeli Military Judge Advocate General Brigadier Avichai Mendelblith to initiate. To explain the unprovoked killing of two law enforcement officers as a “misunderstanding” is simply not acceptable by any legal standard.

At a time when there is widespread recognition of the need to bolster internal security within the OPT, such actions by the Israeli military as that which occurred in Bitouniya clearly serve to aggravate, rather than advance, this agenda. Under the Oslo Agreements, Israel agreed to bestow authority onto the PNA to uphold public order and security in areas under PNA jurisdiction. In practice, however, it does not respect the jurisdiction of the Palestinian security forces, as evidenced by this and other incidents, such as the arbitrary executions of 12 Palestinian security officers in Nablus and Ramallah in February 2002, and the killing of five Palestinian policemen by Israeli troops at a checkpoint in Bitouniya in May 2001. A highly worrying and unacceptable double-standard is thus in effect, whereby Israel has in theory accepted the mandate of the PNA security forces, but in practice actively obstructs them from fulfilling that mandate.

Moreover, under international humanitarian law, the Occupying Power is obliged to enable public officials in the occupied territory to carry out their duties without subjecting them to intimidation or unwarranted interference. By wilfully killing two public officials who were merely carrying out their duties, the Israeli military has acted in clear breach of this obligation. Thus, Al-Haq calls on the international community, and especially on those who contribute to funding the Palestinian security sector, to intervene with the Israeli authorities:

  • To ensure that the incident in Bitouniya is fully investigated and that those responsible for the killings are brought to justice; and
  • To exert pressure on Israel, as the Occupying Power, to comply with its obligations under international law, and particularly to respect the authority of Palestinian law enforcement agencies within the OPT.

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