Some senior Israeli officials have been encouraging Israeli soldiers and police to kill Palestinians they suspect of attacking Israelis even when they are no longer a threat, Human Rights Watch said in an analysis of those statements. Other Israeli officials have failed to repudiate the calls for excessive use of force.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous statements since October 2015, by senior Israeli politicians, including the police minister and defense minister, calling on police and soldiers to shoot to kill suspected attackers, irrespective of whether lethal force is actually strictly necessary to protect life.
“It’s not just about potentially rogue soldiers, but also about senior Israeli officials who publicly tell security forces to unlawfully shoot to kill,” said Sari Bashi, Israel advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Whatever the results of trials of individual soldiers, the Israeli government should issue clear directives to use force only in accordance with international law.
Elor Azaria, a 20-year-old Israeli soldier, is on trial for the March 24, 2016, fatal shooting of 21-year-old Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif. Al-Sharif stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron. At issue in the trial is Azaria’s shooting of Sharif after he had been shot and injured by Israeli security officials.
There have been more than 150 instances since October 2015 in which security forces fatally shot Palestinian adults and children suspected of trying to stab, run over, or shoot Israelis in Israel and the West Bank. During that time, Palestinian assailants have killed 33 Israelis, including passersby and security officials, in Israel and the West Bank. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians.
International human rights law limits the intentional lethal use of firearms – shooting to kill – to circumstances in which it is strictly necessary to protect life, and in which no other, less extreme, option is viable. The Israeli open fire regulations do not note this limitation but do limit shooting at a person’s torso or head to situations in which it is necessary to prevent an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.
However, the calls by officials – and the apparent conduct of some soldiers and police – deviate from both international standards and the Israeli rules of engagement. With some notable exceptions, senior Israeli officials, including those who command security officers, have in some cases called for excessive use of force and in other cases failed to condemn such calls by others.
In one example, following a stabbing attack that injured two Israeli passersby in West Jerusalem on October 10, 2015, police fatally shot the 16-year-old Palestinian suspect. Jerusalem Police District Commander Moshe Edri told reporters that those who carry out attacks should be killed: “The police are doing their job and arriving quickly. Within less than a minute and a half, the attacker had already been killed. Everyone who stabs Jews or harms innocent people – should be killed.” Whatever justification may or may not have existed for shooting the child, Edri’s final statement appears to be a call to kill all persons who use violence, even after they no longer pose a threat.
In October 2015, a radio interviewer asked Israeli Police Minister Gilad Erdan if he agreed with a statement by a lawmaker from an opposition party that “if a terrorist has a knife or screwdriver in his hand, you should shoot to kill him without thinking twice.”
Erdan said yes: “Definitely. The question of course depends on the circumstances. There are clear instructions to the Israeli police. As soon as a police officer feels danger to himself or any other citizen, he needs to shoot according to the regulations. It’s clear. We don’t want to endanger any citizen or police officer. And also, every attacker who sets out to inflict harm should know that he will likely not survive the attack.”
In contrast, the army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot gave a clear admonition to follow the Israeli military’s rules of engagement, telling a group of students on February 17, 2016, that “the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] cannot speak in slogans such as, ‘if someone comes to kill you, arise to kill him first.’ A soldier can only unlock the safety catch if there is a threat to him or his fellow soldiers … I don’t want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl holding scissors.”
The next day, two 14-year-old Palestinians were arrested after allegedly fatally stabbing an Israeli soldier and injuring a passerby in a supermarket in the West Bank. Transportation Minister and cabinet member, Yisrael Katz, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, referred to the incident on Facebook, saying that: “The attackers were caught and remained alive. I hope that the statements of the chief of staff, whom I appreciate and commend, against the automatic shooting of minors, were not misunderstood, causing hesitation and endangering lives. Because sometimes the message is greater than the words. The restrictions and codes are clear, but we cannot let attackers remain alive, risking the lives of Jews.”
In the wake of the publication of a video of the al-Sharif killing, Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, and Eisenkot affirmed the need to obey the Israeli military’s rules of engagement, which limit the use of force to situations in which there is a threat of death or serious bodily injury and, in some circumstances, to stop fleeing suspects. Yaalon, however, was soon replaced by the current defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who in October 2015, when he was an opposition member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, wrote on his Facebook page that the government should adopt a policy that “no attacker, male or female, should make it out of any attack alive.”
Given the prevalence and prominence of statements encouraging security forces to shoot to kill even when not strictly necessary to protect life, and persistent and credible allegations of excessive use of force, Netanyahu and senior security officials should issue strong public and private admonitions to intentionally use lethal force only when strictly necessary to protect life, HRW said.