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Testimony: Soldier fired directly at Bil'in demonstrator killed in 2009

New light is shed on the shooting death of non-violent demonstrator Bassem Abu Rahme in Bil’in in 2009: A soldier who served in the same brigade as the shooter testifies how the incident was perceived by other soldiers. The testimony strengthens the claim that the shot was fired against army regulations.

“The guy who shot him… was kind of pleased with the whole thing, he had an X on his launcher.”

On April 17, 2009 Bassem Abu Rahme was killed by an extended-range tear-gas canister that hit him directly in the chest. Abu Rahme, one of the most prominent figures in the popular struggle against the wall in Bil’in, was demonstrating non-violently and shouting at the commanding officer across the fence to stop firing tear gas, as a foreign national had just been hit in the ear by a gas canister. Another projectile was fired, hitting and killing him almost immediately. The entire incident was caught on tape by artist and photographer David Reeb (the deadly shot is fired at around 3:10).

(Video: David Reeb)

Military orders are quite clear in regards to the shooting of tear gas canisters, stating that they should always be fired at an arched angle, never point-blank (in a direct trajectory), which makes the canisters much more lethal. Even so, as B’Tselem has warned several times and has documented, it is a common practice amongst soldiers to shoot projectiles directly at demonstrators, causing serious injury and at times even death – as in the cases of Abu Rahme and Mustafa Tamimi (in Nabi Saleh) after him.

As is often the case, the army refused to open an investigation into the case of Abu Rahme, claiming the shot was fired in accordance with procedures, and that the canister changed its arched course after hitting a wire. Only after the Abu Rahme family and attorney Michael Sfard petitioned the High Court, with video evidence and a forensic expert opinion supporting the claim that the shot was fired directly, did the army launch an investigation, which has been going on for more than two years now.

Officers told soldiers the shot was fired against regulations

Now, three and a half years after the shooting, a new testimony given to “Breaking the Silence” exposes how the story looked from the uniformed side of the fence. A soldier who served in the same brigade as Abu Rahme’s shooter told the NGO’s researchers that officers informed the troops that the shot was illegal, that soldiers would watch Reeb’s video of the incident and laugh about it, and that the shooter marked a victorious X on his rifle, signifying a successful kill. The testifying soldier was a sergeant in the 7th Armored Brigade at the time.

Some soldiers had a grenade launcher installed on their guns, so they also had the option of shooting tear gas canisters. In the second company, which was stationed in Ni’lin at the time, there was one person… you know the man who got killed in Bil’in? So this is how he got killed, from one of the soldiers’ launcher. The actual order is to not shoot the gas canisters point-blank, but rather to aim in an arch at where the demonstrators are standing. The grenade flies into their midst and releases the gas and that should disperse them. But this one time, one of the soldiers simply aimed at someone point-blank, and it hit his chest and he got killed.

How did you hear about this?

Everybody heard about it. It was a mess. Once something happened in the [military] sector everybody would hear.

How did everyone know that it was point-blank?

Because they would tell us.

Your commanders talked about it?

They didn’t linger on it for too long, you know. Just explained what happened. The use of grenade launchers is not really that common (amongst army units, H.M). Dispersing demonstrations is mostly handled by the Border Police.

Who “explained what happened”?

The platoon commander or something. Usually in briefings they’d tell what had happened recently and explain. At the time there was a video of this incident where you see the man who got shot, you see something hit him, then he roles over and shouts and then he actually dies. Some of the soldiers had this clip on their phones and they’d send it to one another and have a bit of a laugh. The guy who shot him, I don’t remember his name, I personally don’t know him but I had an idea of who it was. He was kind of pleased with the whole thing, he had an X on his launcher.

(The full testimony was published in Hebrew on Breaking the Silence’s site. This is my own translation)

Bassem Abu Rahme Was Killed by a Tear Gas Canister in Bil'in in 2009

Bassem Abu Rahme, killed by a tear gas canister in Bil’in in 2009

Following the publication of this testimony, B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli wrote on her Facebook page that she herself once documented a soldier aiming a grenade launcher directly at a Palestinian youth, threatening to “give him the Abu Rahme,” in the soldier’s own words. As mentioned above, the investigation of the shooting of Abu Rahme is still ongoing.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Shaun

      Hope that there will be some Justice. Am I the only concerned that many of the soldier breaking their silence, are happy to talk about other soldiers crimes and call for others to be tried, but they never seem to want to be prosecuted themselves.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Haggai Matar

      I think many of them also talk of things they themselves have done, and I also think not many of them would want to see others put on trial (otherwise they would contact authorities and not an NGO). I think it is mostly about getting something off your chest, and trying to force society into seeing what the occupation is making soldiers do

      Reply to Comment
    3. Gil Franco

      Just curious Haggai, are Breaking the Silence’s testimonies ever first hand? The ones I have seen, like this one (the English excerpt posted here), are double or triple hearsay. Not very reliable. Witnesses to such a shooting would be more convincing than someone repeating what someone else told him that someone else said they saw.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        And some people resist convincing when the conclusion wouldn’t be to their liking.

        Reply to Comment
      • Some Body

        Their first major report was of first-person, non-anonymous testimonies by soldiers who recounted their own actions and those of their unit members which they witnessed first-hand, and the commands they received.

        The military swiftly responded by arresting and interrogating all the soldiers who testified (but not any of their friends or commanders).

        Breaking the Silence realized they have to publish reports anonymously and use some distancing techniques, so now the Israeli right-wing propaganda uses this fact to accuse them of spreading lies and hearsay. How useful!

        Reply to Comment
    4. Charlie

      Not to minimize the tragedy and lack of accountability described above, but the translation of “pointblank” should be changed to something more like “aimed straight.” The word “pointblank” suggests that the distance between the grenade launcher and Bassem Abu Rahme was 0, while the Hebrew testimony suggests that the canister was fired straight with some distance between the launcher and Abu Rahme as opposed to with an arc as required by IDF protocol.

      While I realize this distinction might be small, I think it has large ramifications for the moral implications of what the soldier is accused of.

      Reply to Comment
      • Haggai Matar

        Charlie – actually, Noa the editor and I just debated on that. It appears that what you’re thinking of is “point blank range”, while simply saying “point blank” actually says nothing on the distance. The free online dictionary has it that “point blank” means: “Aimed straight at the mark or target without allowing for the drop in a projectile’s course”. Other online dictionaries confirm this.

        Reply to Comment
        • Charlie

          Haggai,

          Thanks for the thoughtful response. While the proscriptive definition of pointblank might be more expansive, the common understanding (in the US at least) is its use in regards to range. Again, I add this not to minimize the tragedy of Bassem Abu Rahme’s death, rather to ensure a clearer understanding of what occurred in Bil’in that day.

          Reply to Comment
    5. Haggai Matar

      Yes, there are quite a few first hand accounts

      Reply to Comment
    6. Nikki

      Watching this video is so enraging, I couldn’t even finish it. Regardless of how vehemently I disagree with someone I cannot imagine for a moment having such a blatant disregard for human life. I do not understand how so many can see the attrocities which are being committed by the State of Israel on a daily basis and not feel compelled to respond. Of course the ultimate decision will be left to my sons but I truly pray they will be conscientious objectors and refuse to serve in the IDF. Either you are part of the problem or part of the solution.

      Reply to Comment
    7. To me, “point blank” means, given a straight shot, you can’t be expected to miss. A sniper gun may effectively shoot straight with little evident gravitational pull, but I would not think of that as “point blank.” There is a trade off between skill and distance, point blank needing little skill.

      The circulated videos within the military should not have been allowed. Command could at least refuse a culture of gloating. The occupation is a policing, not direct military action, and the police are, for good reason, trained and ordered to control their force.

      I think of the IDF as one of four parts of your “unwritten constitution.” A three year invesigation is simply a delaying tactic to nullify the Court’s bid to alter the boundries of constitutional power. Quite obviously, the IDF could prevent mostly prevent such outcomes by training and command; it does not want to. I suspect there are some in Command who do want to, but they seem less powerful. What is really going on here is yet another slow motion constitutional war involving your Court (as in the failure to relocate part of the Wall for years, disregarding a High Court order until it is clear who finally decides). Your Court seems to have capitulated on the alter of Security and now, in any case, is being remaned through recent appointments.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        Look over to the next article on the impotence of the court to give relief to homeowners cut off by the wall. It’s a pervasive phenomenon, the erosion of the rule of law.

        Reply to Comment
        • directrob

          I do not believe anymore in the impotence of the court. The court is actively supporting the system and part of it.

          The wellbeing of Israeli (also in illegal settlements) is guaranteed by Israeli law. In the OPt it is up to the military commander to guarantee this wellbeing even if that means limiting the human rights of some Palestinians.

          Reply to Comment

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