IDF killed unarmed teens, not militants, Haaretz probe finds

By Arnon Regular

Haaretz

Elul 3, 5765

An investigation by Haaretz and the human rights group B'Tselem repudiates the army's version of events concerning the August 24 operation in which five Palestinians were killed by Israel Defense Forces fire in the refugee camp of Tul Karm.

The official IDF announcement described the late-night undercover operation as follows: "Five terrorists from the terror network responsible for the attacks at the Stage club and [Hasharon mall] in Netanya were killed in Tul Karm." That announcement, which later changed several times, termed Anas Abu Zeina, 17, "an accessory to wanted militants"; Adel Abu Khalil (Al-Gawi), 26, "a senior Islamic Jihad operative"; and Majdi Atiya, 18, somebody who "engaged in preparing explosive devices and participated in attacks against IDF forces."

However the material collected by Haaretz and B'Tselem reveals that the three teenage boys killed - Abu Zeina, Mohammed Othman, 17, and Mahmoud Ahadib, 17 - are not known members of any terrorist organization. The two adults killed were low-ranking operatives who did not behave like wanted militants and were unarmed at the time. They were shot by the soldiers at short range, from 10-15 meters away, while they were in a largely-enclosed courtyard. Witnesses say they heard the soldiers shout at the group "Stop" and "Don't move," but that seconds later the soldiers opened fire without giving the men a chance to turn themselves in. Some scattered in every direction, and some were killed on the spot.

Witnesses report that in several of the cases the soldiers proceeded to confirm the kill with close-range shots. In contrast to the IDF's claim, witnesses say there had been no exchange of fire in the vicinity, nor were Molotov cocktails thrown at the troops.

The witnesses do report that shortly before the operation began, senior wanted militants had passed by the site, including the camp's Hamas chief Ribhi Amara, who spotted the operation beginning and fled into a side alley, and a policeman from the Palestinian Authority's Force 17, Mushir Mansuri, who also managed to escape into an inner courtyard, toss his licensed gun and flee.

A. owns a store adjacent to the scene of the incident. At around 11:15 P.M. that night he was sitting at the store's entrance with his 3-year-old daughter, when he saw a long white van with Palestinian plates and curtained windows. "The moment it stopped, soldiers jumped out but I had a hard time seeing their uniforms. They sprinted toward the concrete structure next to the courtyard where the fatalities occured and began shouting. Seconds later they opened fire. At that point other soldiers had already run toward me and ordered me to lie face down on the ground. I hugged the child tight and didn't budge until it was all over," A. said.

P. lives about 50 meters from the site in an apartment overlooking the courtyard. "I was on the roof when I heard the shouting and then the shooting," he told investigators from B'Tselem. "I looked down and saw soldiers on both sides of the building shooting into the courtyard. I saw the youths fleeing in every direction and the soldiers approaching Abu Khalil, who was lying face down. I had just seen them shoot at him from up close when I heard a burst of gunfire on the wall by my side, and I drew back. Only later did I look again and was able to see the bodies. The soldiers continued shooting at the adjacent houses so nobody would come near."

From this and other testimony it emerges that the soldiers took cover on either side of the concrete building, and after shouting they opened fire into the courtyard. There were two groups in the courtyard at the time. One group, close to the entrance of Ahadib's house, included Ahadib, Atiya, Abu Khalil and the Force 17 man, Mansuri. A few meters from there sat teenagers Abu Zeina and Othman, along with several of their classmates from the camp's high school.

One of the boys present was Tariq Zayit, 17. "We stood and talked. Anas had brought invitations to his brother's wedding, which was two days later, and everyone was in a good mood and eating sunflower seeds. And then we heard the shouts. Everybody jumped in fright, and I turned around and began running. When I got out of the courtyard into the alley, I felt that my hand was hurt and bleeding, but I kept running. I heard only later what happened to the others," said Zayit.

Abu Khalil was killed on the spot. Ahadib's mother heard the shooting from inside the house. After everything was over she peeked out and saw her son's body through the door. Atiya made it to the alley but collapsed and died of his wounds. Mansuri, who had been closest to the courtyard door, ran into the alley, threw away his sidearm and fled over a nearby fence. Abu Zeina also jumped into the alley at the courtyard's south side, but collapsed and died of his wounds. His friend Othman collapsed in the alley across the way and was taken to Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava, where he later died of his wounds.

After the initial shooting stopped, additional troops entered the camp as reinforcements.

Palestinian security officials deny IDF claims that the three teenagers, who lived at most 150 meters from each other, had had any connection to terrorist organizations or assisted wanted militants. Anas Abu Zeina was a high school student who worked in a vegetable store in the Tul Karm market and had never been arrested. His older brother Ziad is in prison in Israel for membership in Fatah. Neither was Mohammed Othman known to have any connection to an organization. His father works in construction in Israel.

Mahmoud Ahadib's father, Mohammed, says that the IDF could have taken his son into custody easily if it had wanted to. "Mahmoud had been wearing a diaper lately because he was incontinent. He has epilepsy and received treatment in the past at Rambam hospital in Haifa, and he never took part in the activity of any organization," he said. "They prefered to kill him like his older brother Rami, who was killed in the camp a year and a half ago."

As for the two adults in the group, there are doubts whether the level of "wantedness" the IDF ascribes to them accords with the facts of the matter. Atiya's family is known to support Fatah, as do at least half the camp's residents. His father, nicknamed "the traffic light," is a known Fatah activist, but he himself was not considered an activist at all, let alone a bombmaker or senior operative in the organization.

Abu Khalil is the only one who had previously been active - in Islamic Jihad - but he turned himself in to the PA a few weeks ago and even used to sleep at police stations for protection. His name is on the wanted list for the Tul Karm region, but Islamic Jihad sources insist he had left the organization before he was killed.

In response to this report, the IDF declined to state categorically whether any of the five men killed had been armed and opted to refer generally to armed men who were in the camp at the time of the operation.

The IDF rejected outright confirming any kills.

After repeated requests for clarifications on whether any of the suspects had ever been arrested for hostile activity, military sources claimed that three of the dead had such records - Abu Khalil, Atiya and Abu Zeina.

The sources said unofficially that "it is impossible to know for sure whether there were weapons on all the wanted men because the IDF was not the first to reach them."

The IDF Spokesman's Office issued the following statement: "The IDF operated in the camp in order to arrest senior wanted militants from the Islamic Jihad network that recently launched major attacks on the Israeli homefront, Judea and Samaria and is working to launch additional attacks. During the activity, the force, uniformed and with IDF identification markings, surrounded a number of wanted men, some armed. The force conducted the full procedure for arresting a suspect, called on the wanted men to turn themselves in and fired a shot in the air. Despite the attempt to arrest them, the wanted men began fleeing. Other terrorists in the area opened fire and tossed explosives and Molotov cocktails at the force. In the course of the arrest attempt, four terrorist operatives were killed - a senior wanted militant and three accessories. As of now, it is not possible to point to the involvement in terrorism of a fifth [man] who was with the wanted [men], who was transferred to an Israeli hospital and later died of his wounds. As is customary in such cases, the chief of staff ordered a probe that has not been completed yet. The IDF will continue to invest efforts in the face of attempts by Islamic Jihad to perpetrate attacks in cooperation with Hezbollah."

Amos Harel adds: A senior IDF officer told Haaretz on Tuesday that undercover Duvdevan troops came to the camp to arrest a group of wanted militants, primarily Abu Khalil of Islamic Jihad and Ribhi Amara of Hamas. Amara left the courtyard about two minutes before the troops entered it. Advance intelligence indicated that at least three of the wanted men were armed with guns. The officer denied reports of confirmed kills, but said that in one case, when it was feared that one of the wounded in the courtyard was trying to draw a gun, he was shot again from a distance of 10 meters.

The army's probe also relied on analysis of aerial footage taken from a drone. "The descriptions of people lounging around are simply not true," the officer said. "Everyone who was hit, was hit inside the courtyard with a group of wanted militants. There were no innocent pedestrians hit in the street."