HRW calls for an end to impunity for Israeli killings of Palestinian children, use of unlawful lethal force

The Israeli military and border police forces are killing Palestinian children with virtually no recourse for accountability, today said Human Rights Watch.

Last year, 2022, was the deadliest year for Palestinian children in the West Bank in 15 years, and 2023 is on track to meet or exceed 2022 levels. Israeli forces had killed at least 34 Palestinian children in the West Bank as of August 22. Human Rights Watch investigated four fatal shootings of Palestinian children by Israeli forces between November 2022 and March 2023.

“Israeli forces are gunning down Palestinian children living under occupation with increasing frequency,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless Israel’s allies, particularly the United States, pressure Israel to change course, more Palestinian children will be killed.”

Human Rights Watch researchers, in documenting the four killings, interviewed in person seven witnesses, nine family members, and other residents, lawyers, doctors, staff and fieldworkers at Palestinian and Israeli rights groups, and reviewed CCTV and videos posted on social media, statements by Israeli security agencies, medical records, and news reports.

Human Rights Watch investigated the case of Mahmoud al-Sadi, 17, killed by Israeli forces as he walked to school near the Jenin refugee camp on November 21, 2022. The Israeli military did not address his killing specifically but said its forces had been conducting arrest raids in the camp, during which they exchanged fire with Palestinian fighters. However, the nearest exchange of fire occurred at one of the alleged fighter’s homes, about 320 meters away from where Mahmoud was shot, based on residents’ statements.

Mahmoud stood by the side of a road, waiting for the sounds of shooting in the distance to stop, and was not holding any weapon or projectile, a witness said and a security-camera video that Human Rights Watch reviewed showed. After the distant shooting had stopped and the Israeli forces were withdrawing, a single shot fired from an Israeli military vehicle roughly 100 meters away struck Mahmoud, the witness said. No Palestinian fighters were in the area, the witness said. Mahmoud was killed a block away from the street where Israeli forces killed the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11, 2022.

In the other cases investigated, the security forces killed boys after they had joined other youths confronting Israeli forces with stones, Molotov cocktails, or fireworks. While these projectiles can seriously injure or kill, in these cases, Israeli forces fired repeatedly at chest level, hitting multiple children, and killed children in situations where they do not appear to have been posing a threat of grievous injury or death, which is the standard for the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers under international norms. That would make these killings unlawful.

Mohammed al-Sleem, 17, was shot in the back while running from Israeli soldiers after a group of friends he was with threw rocks, and allegedly Molotov cocktails, at military vehicles that had entered a village near his hometown of Azzun in the northern West Bank. Three other children were shot and wounded by automatic gunfire while running away.

An Israeli officer shot Wadea Abu Ramuz, 17, from behind while he was with a group of youths throwing rocks and launching fireworks at Border Police vehicles in East Jerusalem at around 10 p.m. on January 25, 2023, two witnesses said. Another boy in the group was shot and wounded. Security forces shackled Wadea to his hospital bed, beat and prevented his relatives from visiting him, withheld his body for months after he died, and required his family to bury him quietly at night.

In all cases, Israeli forces shot the children’s upper bodies, without, according to witnesses, issuing warnings or using common, less-lethal measures such as tear gas, concussion grenades, or rubber-coated bullets. Adam Ayyad, 15, was fatally shot from behind in Deheisheh refugee camp on January 3 while with a group of boys throwing stones and at least one Molotov cocktail at Israeli forces. The soldier also shot and wounded a 13-year-old boy, witnesses said.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in January that since “December 2021, soldiers are allowed to shoot at Palestinians who are fleeing if they had previously thrown stones or Molotov cocktails.” Human Rights Watch wrote to the Israeli military and police on August 7 with questions about the four cases and the forces’ rules of engagement. The police responded, but the military did not. The police rules of engagement permit the use of firearms against persons who are throwing stones, Molotov cocktails or fireworks only if there is an “imminent risk to life or bodily integrity.” The police also stated that they could not provide information about the case of Wadea Abu Ramuz because it was under investigation.

Israeli authorities have used excessive force against Palestinians in policing situations for decades, said Human Rights Watch. The authorities have routinely failed to hold their forces accountable when security forces kill Palestinians, including children, in circumstances in which the use of lethal force was not justified under international norms. From 2017 to 2021, fewer than one percent of complaints of violations by Israeli military forces against Palestinians, including killings and other abuses, resulted in indictments, the Israeli rights group Yesh Din reported.

Israeli forces killed at least 614 Palestinians whom the UN classified as civilians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank during this period. But only three soldiers were convicted for killing Palestinians, according to Yesh Din, and all received short sentences of military community service. The Israeli rights group B’Tselem, which for decades filed documented complaints about killings to the Israeli military, has deemed the Israeli law enforcement system a “whitewash mechanism.” In 2021, out of 4,401 complaints to the department of internal police investigations, which include complaints by Israeli citizens, just 1.2 percent resulted in indictments, according to the state comptroller.

The killings take place in a context in which Israeli authorities are committing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians, including children, as Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have documented. The then International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, opened a formal investigation in 2021 into serious crimes committed in Palestine.

The UN Secretary-General is mandated by the Security Council to annually list military forces and armed groups responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict. Between 2015 and 2022, the UN attributed over 8,700 child casualties to Israeli forces, yet Israel has never been listed. The reports have repeatedly listed other forces that killed and injured far fewer children than Israel did.

The stigma attached to the Secretary-General’s “list of shame” is considerable, and the parties named must create and carry out an action plan of reforms to end the abuses in order to be removed from the list. The UN missed an opportunity to protect children by omitting Israel, Human Rights Watch said. The Secretary-General should use objective criteria to determine the list for 2023.

“Palestinian children live a reality of apartheid and structural violence, where they could be gunned down at any time without any serious prospect of accountability,” Van Esveld said. “Israel’s allies should confront this ugly reality and create real pressure for accountability.”

International human rights standards prohibit law enforcement officials from “the intentional lethal use of firearms” except when “strictly unavoidable to protect life,” said Human Rights Watch. Throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails, and explosive fireworks could pose a risk to life, depending on the circumstances. However, nonviolent means and warnings must be used first whenever feasible, and force may be used “only if other measures to address a genuine threat have proved ineffective or have no likelihood of achieving the intended result.” The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials provides that, “Every effort should be made to exclude the use of firearms, especially against children.”

Palestinians in the West Bank are protected under the Geneva Conventions. Willful killings of protected persons by the occupying power outside what is permissible under human rights standards would constitute a grave breach of the laws of occupation.

Under international human rights law, governments “must ensure that individuals also have accessible and effective remedies to vindicate” their rights, including the right to life.

The Israeli military does not automatically open criminal investigations into cases in which soldiers use lethal force against Palestinians in the West Bank, including if a complaint is filed. Human Rights Watch has found that investigations are more likely to be opened in cases in which international news media report extensively on the killing. The armed forces military police carry out investigations and, regardless of whether an investigation is opened, impunity remains the norm.

Human Rights Watch recommended:

The Israeli military and Border Police should end the unlawful use of lethal force against Palestinians, including children. The Israeli government should issue clear directives publicly and privately to all security forces, that prohibit the intentional use of lethal force except in situations where it is necessary to prevent an imminent threat to life;

The United Nations Secretary-General should list Israel’s armed forces in his annual report on grave violations against children in armed conflict for 2023 as responsible for the violation of killing and maiming Palestinian children;

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court should expedite his office’s Palestine investigation, including for grave violations committed against children;

Foreign governments, such as the US which pledged $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel in 2023, should condition assistance on Israel taking concrete and verifiable steps toward ending their serious abuses, including the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution and the regular use of lethal force against Palestinians, including children, that violate international standards, and to investigate past abuses. It should suspend assistance so long as these grave abuses persist; and

Members of the US House of Representatives should support the Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Occupation Act (H.R. 2590), which would prohibit US funding to Israel from being unlawfully used for the military detention and abuse of Palestinian children, destruction of Palestinian property, and expropriation of land for settlements.

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