Officer charged with shooting Palestinian in back with sponge-tipped bullet

Prosecutors file assault charges over incident caught on video, say former border officer shot Karam Qawasmi for the fun of it; victim says more should be indicted

Palestinian Karam Qawasmi, who was shot in the back by Israeli forces in an incident caught on video last year, in the West Bank city of Hebron, November 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Palestinian Karam Qawasmi, who was shot in the back by Israeli forces in an incident caught on video last year, in the West Bank city of Hebron, November 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

A border police officer was charged Wednesday with assault after she allegedly shot a Palestinian man in the back with a sponge-tipped bullet as he walked away from a West Bank checkpoint near Jerusalem.

The policewoman, aged about 20, was said to have opened fire at the A’Zaim checkpoint without any operational reason, causing Karam Qawasmi, 22, significant injury.

Charges of physical assault and reckless use of a weapon were filed at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court against the suspect, whose name is being kept under gag order. She was also charged with obstruction of justice, as were two other Border Police officers suspected of being with her at the time of the shooting.

Qawasmi, who has alleged he was beaten by other border officers before the shooting, criticized the indictment as not going far enough.

“The defendant took advantage of her role, status and authority to bear arms and trampled the complainant’s dignity while exploiting his weakness, but only for the sake of amusement,” prosecutors said, adding that through her actions she had also damaged public trust in the law enforcement community.

According to the indictment, Qawasmi arrived at the checkpoint on May 25, 2018, for a security check. After he was cleared, the forces on duty told him he could go. As he walked away the suspect allegedly fired at his lower body, against regulations, causing him to fall to the floor.

The incident was apparently recorded on the phone of one of the unit’s officers.

After the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigation Department opened an probe into the shooting, the suspect allegedly asked other border officers not to tell anyone what had happened, deleted the video from her phone and smashed the device, and instructed a fellow officer to also remove the video from her phone.

The officer suspected of firing the shot was arrested in October this year when the footage was discovered by prosecutors.

In the 26-second clip, a group of officers can be heard shouting at Qawasmi to leave the area, with their automatic rifles pointed in his direction.

Qawasmi, holding a backpack and ID card, raises his hands and begins walking away from them.

Then, as he makes his way down the tunnel, the officers yell at him to put down his hands and walk normally. He appears to not completely understand them, briefly turning around before complying with the order.

The Palestinian man then continues walking until one of the officers fires and he falls to the ground, screaming in pain.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Qawasmi described lying on the ground for several minutes, while the Border Police officers yelled at him to leave and shot bullets at the area around him.

“About five minutes later, I got up and walked for an hour to Anata, where I took a taxi back to a hospital in Hebron,” he said, referring to another Palestinian town on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Qawasmi contended that the video only showed a sliver of a day that saw Border Police officers arrest and beat him before shooting him, seemingly without cause.

He said he first came into contact with the Border Police officers near A’Zaim, a Palestinian town outside of Jerusalem, where he said he had been searching for work at a gas station.

“I was on my way home when they hit me with their jeep. They then arrested me and brought me a few kilometers away, where they started to assault me,” said Qawasmi, a graduate of Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron who now works at a housing supplies store. “They hit me everywhere. It was incredibly painful.”

Palestinian Karam Qawasmi, who was shot in the back by Israeli forces in an incident caught on video last year, sits in his garden, in the West Bank city of Hebron, November 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

After more than three hours, Qawasmi said the forces gave him his ID card and ordered him to leave, which is where the video picks up.

Reacting Wednesday to the indictment, Qawasmi said he had been contacted by police investigators probing the case who wanted to meet with him, but did not hear back after asking that the request be made in an official letter.

He criticized Israeli authorities for only charging the one officer.

“Several Border Police officers beat me over a three-hour period before one of them shot me. They hit me in a criminal way. The indictment is not sufficient because it does not deal with how they assaulted me before I was shot.”

The suspect’s attorney told the Haaretz newspaper last month that his client denied she fired the bullet.

There does appear to be some uncertainty in the case over who actually pulled the trigger. Though the prime suspect is the female officer, a male border guard claimed to have shot the Palestinian youth in a text message to his girlfriend, which was also leaked to Channel 13.

The footage was discovered by prosecutors as part of an unrelated investigation into allegations border guards had abused a Palestinian man without justification. The video in question was found on the phone of a suspect in that case, according to Haaretz.

The female officer suspected of firing the rubber bullet was immediately kicked off the force upon discovery of the incident, Border Police said. While the PIID continued to investigate the incident, she was sent to the Israel Defense Forces to complete her required two-year national service.

The sponge-tipped bullets used by Israeli security forces are generally considered a “less lethal” ammunition, as they are less likely to kill a person hit by them than standard bullets, but have still been responsible for a number of serious injuries and deaths, especially when they are aimed at a person’s head or chest.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this article.

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