AL-AROUB REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — The afternoon sun beamed lazily over the quiet clearing that lies between the Palestinian town of Beit Fajjar and Migdal Oz, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
Against the peaceful rustle of the grass, it seemed almost impossible to believe that, just a week ago, it was here that Israeli soldiers shot dead Ammar Abu Afifa, a 19-year-old Palestinian student.
According to the army, the soldiers shot Abu Afifa as he ran away. Unlike many other disputed killings in the tense West Bank, the Israeli military did not accuse Abu Afifa of having committed any violent act.
The army’s internal police force announced a probe into his death, but critics note that military investigations rarely lead to indictments against Israeli soldiers.
Abu Afifa, a resident of the nearby Al-Aroub refugee camp, entered the pastoral clearing to enjoy a stroll with a friend, his family said. Palestinians who live in the camp’s winding, cramped alleyways camp once regularly patronized the spot.
“We left to breathe some clean air. There aren’t any green places in the camp. We live in a cage,” said Mohammad, 17, one of Ammar’s closest friends. He was with him in the moments before he died.
According to the Israeli military, soldiers spotted Abu Afifa and his friend Mohammad approaching a small outlook built in memory of Ari Fuld, an American-Israeli Jew who was murdered in a 2018 Palestinian terror attack.
A terse statement released by the Israeli military shortly after Abu Afifa’s death said: “Israeli soldiers who were called to the scene saw the fleeing suspects and pursued them. Afterwards, they began to conduct the arrest procedure, which included gunfire towards the suspects. One of them died.”
ٍSeven Palestinians have died in violent confrontations with Israeli forces over the past two weeks. Some died in violent gun battles with Israeli soldiers near Jenin, others in attempted stabbing attacks in Jerusalem’s Old City.
But some, like Abu Afifa, were killed under far murkier circumstances. Two weeks after his death, the Israeli army has yet to amend its initial account that Abu Afifa was shot without any violence on his part.
The teenager’s sudden death has crushed his family. Abu Afifa’s relatives gathered last week in a cramped salon in their modest home about 40 minutes south of Jerusalem. Outside, the dead teenager’s visage gazed down from posters fluttering over the gateway.
His family stressed that the bookish, jocular Ammar was the last person they would have expected to be shot by Israeli soldiers.
“Ammar isn’t a hero. He was a victim, and we want justice,” said cousin Shadi Abu Afifa.
Young kid, big dreams
Ammar Abu Afifa was a diligent, conscientious student with “big dreams,” his sister Asman said. Despite his hardscrabble upbringing in one of the West Bank’s toughest refugee camps, he was determined to make something of himself, she said.
“He would encourage other kids to study, to have big ambitions. He encouraged them to think about going to college,” said Asman, 21.
Ammar did well enough in his high school matriculation exam to win admittance to a prestigious university in Ramallah. But the family’s modest income — his father Shafiq works as a janitor — meant he could not afford to go, so he attended a local technical college instead, his brother Issa said.
His mother, Samiha, described him as a young man passionate about his studies, quick to smile and laugh. Ammar loved nature, she said, even raising a clutch of birds on the roof of their family home.
“Ammar loved green things. He loved to walk on the grass, to lose himself in nature,” said Samiha.
Abu Afifa’s hometown, Al-Aroub refugee camp, regularly sees violent clashes with Israeli soldiers. An Israeli military tower looms over the entrance to the maze of tightly clustered concrete buildings and narrow alleyways, and troops patrol its entrance.
Most of Ammar’s brothers and cousins — like many Palestinians in the camp — served time in Israeli jail for security offenses. But Ammar was not involved in politics, his family said.
“His whole mind was bent towards his studies and his future,” said his cousin Ahmad.
When the Israeli army raided the camp to conduct arrests, Ammar stayed in his room, rather than hitting the streets to throw stones. His family hoped the successful student would make it out of Al-Aroub, unlike others trapped in the camp’s generational poverty.
Until March 2, the day Ammar was shot. Earlier that afternoon, Ammar told Shafiq that he was heading with his friend Mohammad to a clearing well away from the refugee camp’s entrances, which are frequent sites of clashes with Israeli troops.
The two stopped a local grocery store to buy some sunflower seeds before making their way up the steep, torn-up road that leads out of the refugee camp, away from the Israel military tower at the camp entrance, and up into the hillside.
Ammar and Mohammad arrived on a green hilltop dotted with trees about a kilometer from the camp. The Israeli settlement of Migdal Oz lay about 400 meters (about a quarter of a mile) away, across a small road.
According to Mohammad, who asked that his last name not be publicized for fear of reprisal, the two spotted a soldier who yelled at them in Hebrew. Terrified, the two fled. Gunshots erupted almost immediately behind them.
“There were dozens of bullets, they were shooting everywhere. We fled,” Mohammad said.
In the chaos, the two ran off in different directions. Ammar ran one way, Mohammad another. It was only later, Mohammad said, that he discovered that his friend was dead.
“Gunshot wounds over his left eyebrow. A gunshot wound in his left thigh. Much blood all over his head and on his leg. Dilated pupils,” an Israeli first responder wrote in a report.
The Israeli military held Ammar’s body for several hours. Finally, around 3 a.m. — after his death had been confirmed by Israeli medics — his corpse was turned over to his family for burial.
According to Shafiq, the family received a phone call from the local Shin Bet commander a few days later. The officer, known by his Arabic-language moniker “Captain Nidal,” told Shafiq to “take care of the rest of his children.”
“He was threatening me. How can you shoot my son, and then threaten me? I hung up,” Shafiq said.
The Shin Bet security service declined to comment.
Since the killing, Ammar’s older brother Issa has tended to the birds his brother left behind on the roof of their home. Some of the brightly plumed creatures could fetch a good price, but Issa said he had no plans to part with them.
“They’re Ammar’s,” he said. “I couldn’t sell them.”
‘A deferent stance’
The Israeli army’s Military Police branch has opened an investigation into Ammar’s death. But Israeli soldiers are rarely convicted for shootings that take place under disputed circumstances.
Israeli military prosecutors ultimately decide whether to close the case, recommend internal disciplinary measures, or file charges. If indicted, soldiers stand trial in a military court before the Israeli army’s judges.
Between 2011 and 2019, out of nearly 200 investigations into Palestinian shooting deaths, just two soldiers were convicted, according to official figures provided to the left-wing B’Tselem rights group.
הנה עמאר כמה ימים לפני שחייל ירה בראשו. מלא חיים. חברו הכי טוב מוחמד שלח לי את הסרטון. "היינו כמו אחים", אמר, "היה מגיע אלי הביתה להכריח אותי ללמוד". מוחמד היה איתו יחד, כשברחו מהחייל שירה. רגע קודם טיילו, חרטו את שמותיהם על אבן. אל תשלו עצמכם: איש לא ישלם מחיר. כי כיבוש צבאי pic.twitter.com/mHTwumeHOk
— Yuval Abraham יובל אברהם (@yuval_abraham) March 7, 2022
According to former Israeli general Nitzan Alon, Israel tries to strike a balance that enables soldiers to use deadly force when necessary and avoiding reckless fire that takes innocent lives.
“The policy takes a deferent stance toward mistaken fire by soldiers, unless there is clear evidence of negligence or malicious intent,” said Alon, who oversaw Israel’s Central Command — which includes the West Bank — from 2012 to 2015.
The former commander warned, however, that repeated “incidents” in which Palestinians died in such a manner would risk sparking a wider conflagration.
“Such incidents can raise the temperature across the West Bank. And if there are several in a short period of time, that can lead to a greater deterioration of the situation,” said Alon.
Former senior Israeli military attorney Asher Halperin emphasized that the full picture was not yet clear, regardless of the initial statements made by the Israeli army.
“Often, an investigation is opened, and at first glance it appears that the open-fire rules were violated. But then, as the investigation progresses, the picture becomes more complex,” said Halperin, who served as the army’s top defense attorney between 2012 and 2016, tasked with representing soldiers accused of violating military law.
According to the Israeli army, the soldiers shot at Abu Afifa and his friend Mohammad in an attempt to arrest them. Soldiers are permitted to open fire in order to detain suspects — though it is not clear what, if anything, Abu Afifa and Mohammed were suspected of doing.
Even if soldiers do use lethal force to carry out an arrest, they are not meant to shoot to kill. But mistakes happen, Halperin said.
“When you shoot toward someone’s legs, and they’re running or crawling, you can’t be precise. The fact that such an incident ends in someone being killed isn’t necessarily an operational failure, let alone a criminal offense,” Halperin said.
Critics say military investigations protect soldiers at the expense of Palestinians. The probes often take years and most cases are closed without indictments.
“The system simply doesn’t want to hold soldiers accountable for this. It’s not a coincidence that soldiers are not put on trial, except in very rare cases,” charged Yael Stein, a researcher at the left-wing B’Tselem rights group.
Even when soldiers are convicted of opening fire on innocent Palestinians for no defensible reason, the punishments are rarely severe, Stein said.
In 2019, an Israeli soldier shot and wounded a Palestinian man, Alaa Ghiyada, whom he believed to have thrown stones close to a checkpoint near Bethlehem. Ahmad Manasrah, 22, saw Ghiyada bleeding out on the road and stopped his car to help. The soldier fired again, killing Manasrah.
Investigators later concluded that neither Ghiyada, who survived, nor Manasrah had thrown stones at all. Israeli military prosecutors reached a plea bargain that handed the soldier three months of unpaid service and a demotion to the rank of private.
Sitting in their salon only a handful of days after Ammar’s death, the Abu Afifa family debated whether a military investigation would be worthwhile.
“At the end of the day, Israel has laws. There’s an occupation, but they admitted that this killing was a mistake,” cousin Shadi Abu Afifa insisted to Ammar’s parents.
His mother and father, still visibly shocked by their son’s death, seemed far from convinced. Samiha, in a voice thick with emotion, quoted a verse from the Quran: “The Lord sent against them birds in flocks, pelting them with stones of hard clay.”
“God will have his justice with him,” Samiha explained, referring to the soldier who shot Ammar.
“I just want them to leave us alone, to stay away from the rest of us and my kids,” she added. “Leave us alone.”
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