The Israeli military’s recent decision to revise its open-fire policies in the occupied West Bank seems puzzling. What is the logic behind giving Israeli soldiers the authority to shoot even more Palestinians when existing army manuals already granted them near-total legal immunity?
The military’s new rules allow Israeli soldiers to shoot and even kill fleeing Palestinian youngsters for allegedly throwing rocks at Israeli “civilian” cars. They even apply to situations where the supposed attackers are not holding any rocks at the time of the shooting.
The reference to civilians in the revised army manual applies to armed settlers who have colonized the West Bank and East Jerusalem in defiance of international law and Palestinian sovereignty. These settlers, who often operate as paramilitary forces in direct coordination with the Israeli army, endanger the lives of their own families by residing on occupied Palestinian land. As per Israel’s twisted standards, these violent settlers, who have killed and wounded numerous Palestinians over the years, are civilians in need of protection from rock-throwing Palestinian assailants.
In Israel, throwing rocks is a serious crime and Palestinians who do so are criminals, according to Liron Libman, Israel’s former chief military prosecutor. For Israelis, there is little disagreement on these assertions, even among those who question the legality of the new rules. The point of contention, according to Libman and others, is that “a person who is fleeing does not present a threat,” though Libman himself admitted that “the new policy could potentially be justified.”
The debate on the new open-fire policy in the Israeli media gives the false impression that something fundamental has changed in the Israeli army’s relationship with occupied Palestinians. This is not the case at all. There are numerous examples of Palestinians, including children, being shot and killed with impunity, whether they were throwing rocks or not.
In the Palestinian village of Beita, in the northern West Bank, eight unarmed Palestinians have been killed since May last year. This small village has been the scene of regular demonstrations against Jewish settlement expansion and the illegal outpost of Eviatar. The victims include Mohammed Ali Khabisa, the 28-year-old father of an eight-month-old child, who was shot dead last September.
Though the new rules have placed much emphasis on the status of the supposed Israeli victims, in practice the Israeli military has used the exact same standards to shoot, maim and kill alleged Palestinian rock-throwers, even when armed settlers are not present. A famous 2015 case involved the killing of 17-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Kosba at the hands of an Israeli army colonel, Yisrael Shomer. The latter alleged that Kosba had thrown a rock at his car. Shomer chased down the Palestinian teenager and shot him three times, killing him.
The Israeli officer was censured for his conduct, not because he killed the teenager, but for not stopping “in order to aim properly,” according to The Times of Israel. The Israeli military’s chief prosecutor concluded that “Shomer’s use of deadly force under the framework of the arrest protocol was justified from the circumstances of the incident.”
Israel’s disregard of international law in its targeting of Palestinians is no secret. Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights groups have repeatedly condemned the Israeli army’s inhumane and barbaric behavior in the Occupied Territories.
In an extensive report as long ago as 2014, Amnesty International condemned Israel’s “callous disregard for human life by killing dozens of Palestinian civilians, including children, in the occupied West Bank” over the years. The group said that such killings had taken place “with near-total impunity.” The report added: “The frequency and persistence of arbitrary and abusive force against peaceful protesters in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers and police officers — and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators — suggests that it is carried out as a matter of policy.”
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem concurs. In 2015, it decried the Israeli army’s “shoot-to-kill policy,” which is also applied to “people who have already been ‘neutralized’.” In the case of Abdel Fattah Al-Sharif, a Palestinian man who was shot dead at point-blank range by Israeli military medic Elor Azaria in 2016, he was not only “neutralized” but also unconscious.
According to B’Tselem, Israeli “soldiers and police officers have become judge, jury and executioner.” With this tragic and sinister trajectory in mind, one is left to wonder why the Israeli army would amend its open-fire policy at this particular moment. There are three possible answers.
Firstly, the Israeli government and army are anticipating a surge in popular Palestinian resistance in the coming months, possibly as a result of the massive expansion of illegal settlements and the forced evictions in East Jerusalem.
Secondly, the perfect alignment of the open-fire policy with the aggressive shoot-to-kill military practice already in place means Israeli soldiers will no longer have to contend with any legal repercussions for killing Palestinians, including children, regardless of the circumstances.
Finally, the revised rules will allow Israel to make a case for itself in response to the ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court into human rights violations and war crimes in the Occupied Territories. Israel’s attorney general will now argue that no war crimes are taking place in Palestine since the killing of Palestinians is consistent with Israel’s military conduct and judicial system. Since the ICC is investigating alleged war criminals, not the government itself, Israel hopes that it can spare its murderers from having to contend with the legal expectations of the court.
Though the timing of the Israeli military’s decision to amend its open-fire policy may appear sudden and without much context, the decision is ominous. When a country’s military decides that shooting a child in the back without any proof that they posed any danger whatsoever is a legal act, the international community must take notice.
While it is true that Israel operates outside the minimum standards of international and humanitarian law, it is the responsibility of the international community to protect Palestinians, whose lives remain precious, even if Israel might not agree.