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License to Kill: Why did Colonel A. order the sniping of Ihab Islim?

Members of a family are standing on a balcony and chatting. The commander of IDF forces in the region orders snipers to open fire on them. One brother is killed, the other one loses an eye. The commander fails to account for the order in the investigation that ensues. The case is closed, and the commander is promoted. In the following months, other civilians in the region are killed in the exact same manner. No one is found guilty. The third installment of the License to Kill series. [Read part one and two.]

By John Brown and Noam Rotem (translated from Hebrew by Ofer Neiman)

License to Kill, part 3.

In the first two installments of the License to Kill series, we surveyed two cases in which the need for a professional investigation was completely obvious and the failures of the Military Police and the Advocate General were glaring. However, in both cases the IDF insisted on arguing that people were shot because they had constituted a threat, despite the fact that the courts concluded otherwise. The following case is somewhat different: here the IDF has admitted that an innocent person had been shot, and that the targeted sniping of 17-year-old Ihab Islim in his head was carried out without him having committed a crime.

Yet the Military Police has failed to find the shooters; an IDF video clip that documents the shooting and the preceding events; or the operations logs that could have shed some light on the events that transpired in Nablus on June 25, 2004.

Similar failures have occurred in the investigation of the killings of other innocent civilians in the same region. Some of them will be surveyed here. These failures cast doubts on the claim that the shooting was an isolated case that resulted from an error, and may attest to an illegal open-fire policy. Despite testimonies that corroborate this version, the Military Police also failed to investigate the allegation.

The sniping of Ihab Islim

The end of June 2004 — the twilight of the Second Intifada. IDF forces are carrying out large-scale activities in the Nablus region, under the codename “Ishit Loheztet“ (Man2Man). Every night, the soldiers enter the city and the nearby refugees camps, arresting tens of Palestinian residents who are taken to a conversation with the Shin Bet security services. Soldiers who were there describe an intense, “action-laden” period that claimed quite a few casualties, mostly on the Palestinian side.

On the night of the 25th, at around 9 p.m., the father and two brothers of the Islim family went out to the balcony of their house, located in the Yasmina neighborhood of Nablus. They leaned on the railing as they chatted among themselves, as well as with the neighbors across the street, for two hours. Until, all of a sudden, a bullet cut through 17-year-old Ihab’s head, killing him on the spot. Another bullet (or perhaps the same one) hit the eye of his 15-year-old brother. Ihab’s father and little sisters, who were standing at a distance, were hit with shrapnel. Palestinian medical services were unable to save his brother’s eye, also due to ongoing IDF shooting which prevented them from immediately reaching the Islim family.

The investigation fails to find the shooters

Not a single investigation was opened for two years. No efforts were made to try and find out what had really happened there, although the basic failure — the shooting of innocent youths, standing in their house, far away from any military activity — was known to the army from the start.

Following a letter sent by Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem to the IDF Military Advocate General, the Military Police was instructed to examine the details of the case. Only a year later would an investigator contact B’Tselem to receive documents and the family’s phone number. Three months later, a military investigator on reserve duty interviewed the family and the witnesses. It is clear from their testimonies that Ihab had been shot for no reason.

[See some of the original investigation materials in Hebrew, here.]

Three more months passed before the hunt for the operations logs began. The investigator made tens of phone calls, during which he tried to locate the logs from that period. Again and again, he was told that these were to be found in a locker, and the only key was with an officer who happened to be in the Golan Heights. Later the investigator was told that the logs had been destroyed, before being told that they were actually found.

The investigator drove to the brigade headquarters only to find out that the man with the key was absent. He went back to his unit, sent mails, faxes, called, went up and down the chain of command, and finally, after a year full of dozens of attempts, he was notified that the logs had been transferred to the IDF archive. But when he searched there, the investigator could not find the regiment’s operations log. Furthermore, the report had been blotted out with a pen from the brigade logs. It is not clear by whom and for what reason. However, one can still read the claim that two people had been observed crawling on a roof. This version was later refuted by the accounts of all those involved. The investigator was also told that the computer on which the operational debriefing had been stored crashed just a few months after the shooting.

Instead of looking further into this coincidence, which would almost make the entire investigation redundant, the investigator gave up on trying to find the only documentation of the incident. Two years after the start of the investigation and four years after the shooting, the Military Police was able to begin its work, but without any physical evidence or written documentation. The consequences of this should be obvious.

Does crawling on the roof justify shooting?

The investigators interviewed five soldiers over the next three years. Four of them either did not remember that they had been at the scene or argued that they had not been there. Some of the soldiers argued that crawling on the roof is an action that justifies shooting, while others thought that those who are crawling can only be shot if they have something in their hand.

In any case, the question of crawling is entirely irrelevant, since the family was standing on the balcony of their home. Indeed, this is the top floor of the building, and the distance to the roof is just two meters, but there is no testimony that claims the family was on the roof.

Posters in Nablus commemorate the killing of Ihab Islim by IDF snipers.

Posters in Nablus commemorate the killing of Ihab Islim by IDF snipers.

Furthermore, the aforementioned testimonies contradict the open-fire regulations, which allow shooting only in response to a clear and present threat to the soldiers’ lives, and not due to “suspicious behavior.” In addition, some skimming of the brigade’s operations logs from that era reveals at least eight cases in which soldiers identified young Palestinians on a roof, or crawling on it, and did not open fire. Therefore the soldiers’ claim regarding an order to shoot anyone observed crawling on a roof cannot be accepted as truth. In any case, such testimony is completely irrelevant to this case.

Later on, the investigator interviewed Major G., who claimed he had arrived at the scene only after the shooting. According to G., the commander of the shooting force told him that Ihab and his brother “were behaving in a soldierly way.” Although he himself commanded the snipers who shot and killed Islim, he claims that he “does not remember the names” of the snipers. Major B., another officer who was questioned and claimed he was not involved, said that his soldiers were not the ones to identify the brothers or shoot them. However, he did remember some talk about crawling as the reason for the shooting. He also claimed that when it comes to such long distances, soldiers do not carry out the arrest procedure, but shoot instead.

The investigator did not bother to ask what risk was posed by the family if they truly were so far from Israeli shooters.

The figures become dangerous, two hours later

The only relevant interviewee whom the Military Police investigators managed to find, six years after the shooting, was Colonel A., who served as both brigade commander and operational commander on the ground during the incident. His account of the events was quite strange: he claimed that an observation post had identified two figures on the roof, at a distance of 200-300 meters from the force. The figures stood there for two hours, during which, according to his testimony, they did nothing but talk to one another. In spite of this, he gave the order to shoot, even after he used the special snipers’ gear to see who was in the crosshairs.

Two or three snipers fired between one to four bullets each at the two figures who were standing and talking on the roof at a distance of 200-300 meters from Colonel A, and did not pose a threat to anyone. And that’s it. This seemingly incriminating evidence, remains untouched. No reason, no justification, except for “they looked suspicious.”

The commander of the force, Colonel A. is not even confronted with the indisputable fact that this was an erroneous decision. And in any case, he did not have to pay for it. Since the shooters were not found, it was impossible to pit his version against theirs, making it impossible to examine the plausibility of that decision.

Colonel A. now serves in a senior position in the IDF.

Shooting on rooftops at will

During the Second Intifada, the IDF’s finger on the trigger was much looser. However, even the “shooting due to suspicious behavior” defense is not very plausible. As a regiment commander, Colonel A. knew the open-fire regulations well, and he must have known that suspicious behavior in itself does not justify shooting.

Things look even worse when one takes into account additional killing incidents in the region. One is under the impression that a serious investigation of the shooting of Ihab Islim could have prevented the harming of other innocent Palestinians in the following months and years.

Less than two months after Ihab’s death, on August 16, 2004, Zaher Samir Abdu el-Adham was shot in the head when he was on the roof of his house in Nablus. No investigations have been opened in his case.

One day later, a nine-year-old boy, Khaled Jamal Salim el-Usta, was shot and killed at the entrance to his home in Nablus, according to B’Tselem. Ibriz Durgham Dib el-Manawi, 19, from Nablus, was shot while standing on the roof of her house on on September 17, 2004.

There had also been previous incidents. One month before the Islim family incident, on May 7, 19-year-old Bassim Bassam Muhamad Kalbouna was been shot in his chest while standing on the roof of his house with some friends. On May 2, Jamal Shehada Radwan Hamdan was shot in the back while standing on a street in Nablus. The evidence collected in these cases shows that the victims posed no threat to IDF soldiers when they were shot.

In the very same region, in April of that year, Dr. Yasser Ahmad Muhammad Abu Laiman, 32, was shot in the village of Talouza. The IDF claimed at first that this had been a targeted assassination, since Abu Laiman was suspected an active member of Hamas. After it turned out he was just a lecturer at the Arab-American university in Jenin, the IDF spokesperson changed his version. According to the new one, Abu Laiman was in contact with Palestinians wanted by Israel. This version too was refuted, and eventually the IDF admitted that the assassination was carried out by mistake, since the deceased wore clothes resembling those of the wanted Palestinian militant who was allegedly to be in the area. No investigation was opened in this case.

One month earlier, six-year-old Khaled Maher Zaki Walweil was shot and killed while watching soldiers raid Balata refugee camp from his window.

After the Intifada: The pattern repeats itself

Similar events also occurred after violence in the West Bank decreased significantly. Amer Hassan Bassiouni, 16, was killed by sniper on March 3, 2006, in Ein Beit el-Maa near Nablus. Amer, too, was shot while was standing on the roof of his house. Muhammed Ahmad Muhammed a-Natour, 17, and 16-year-old Ibrahim Muhammed Ahmad a-Sheikh Ali, both from Balata refugee camp, were shot and killed on March 19, 2006, while standing on the roof of Ali’s house.

On March 2, 2007, a curfew was imposed on Nablus. Fifty-two-year-old Anan a-Tibi went up with his two sons to the roof of his house at noon to fix the water tanks. When they saw soldiers nearby, they began to go down the stairs and back into their house. Shots were fired at them. Anan was hit in the neck, fell down the stairs, and died. No investigation was opened in this case as well. The Military Advocate General argued that at that time in Nablus, “no innocent people were supposed to be outside.” This is an irrelevant argument since the family members were on the roof of their house, and were shot when they were going down the stairs.

The limits of the Military Police

The accumulation of these events attests to a recurring pattern that should have been, at the very least, a key component in the investigation of the Ihab Islim case, and bring about a minimal effort to find the shooters and those who had called for the shooting of the family. Most of all, the issue of open-fire commands, which were in effect in the region, should have been brought to a military and criminal investigation. This is all the more evident in view of the soldiers’ testimonies, which clearly attest to an erroneous understanding and implementation of the instructions. Instead, Colonel A. has been promoted.

The conduct of the investigation of Ihab Islim’s killing is outrageous. It took the Military Police investigators four years to interview five people. During one of the interviews, Major G. says that the whole incident was probably filmed on video, but a perfunctory examination by the investigators reveals that by that time, four years after the incident, the tapes had disappeared and had apparently been destroyed.

None of the investigators bothered to confront those being questioned with the fact that they all speak of two figures, when in fact at least three people were standing at the scene, and all three were shot by the soldiers (as well as two little sisters who were wounded by shrapnel). No one even bothered to ask about the “life-threatening situation” toward the officers who were standing hundreds of meters away from the two youths.

The investigators also did not bother to check why, even after two hours during which the brothers were standing and chatting among themselves, IDF soldiers armed to their teeth, sensed such a threat to their lives that they had to kill the brothers. Furthermore, the investigators fail to find the two or three soldiers — according to the testimony of the commander of the force — who fired the shots. And these are only the visible failures.

The army can no longer hide behind justifications of “combat” when it shoots people, since this army serves as a de-facto policing force. The entire condition of a military occupation, under international law as well as Israeli law, should be a temporary matter. The role of the military police in any army is to investigate its ranks, and we are convinced that in matters of order, discipline and even drug and arms trafficking in and out of the military, this unit does a great job. But when it comes to finding those who are guilty of shooting protected persons by members of the very same army, the Military Police fail time after time, and in an utterly shameful way.

In this case too, when events seemingly take place during operational activity, when the physical evidence completely refutes the soldiers’ version and when the commander of the force himself admits to an unjustified shooting of innocent youths — even then no one is to blame.

The IDF Spokesperson was asked for comment on the matter several weeks ago. The comment will be published here if and when it is received.

Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and author of the blog o139.org, subtitled “Godwin doesn’t live here any more.” John Brown is the pseudonym of an Israeli academic and blogger. This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call, where this series was first published. Read it in Hebrew here.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      Apartheid 101: “Beyond the Ballot Box: How Israel’s Arab Voters Are Second Class Citizens”:


      “Indeed, the election has demonstrated the weakness of one of the talking points repeated ad nauseam by Israel’s spokespersons – that charges of systematic discrimination are somehow ‘disproved’ by the fact that Palestinian citizens can vote and run for the Knesset.”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Whiplash

      Did you note that the article claims “end of June 2004 — the twilight of the Second Intifada”? The twilight of the intifada was still long away. In 2004 140 Israelis were killed. Israelis were attacked thousands of times. That year Israel thwarted 197 suicide attacks against its citizens. Over the course of the second intifada over 1100 Israelis were killed and 10,000 injured. The Palestinians have not investigated one of those incidents must less brought the guilty to trial and justice. Instead the Palestinians grant them or their families honors and life time salaries. Those who sent the bombers and murderers sit in the Palestinian governments at the highest levels.

      Nor have the Palestinians brought to justice the killers of Palestinians by Palestinians during the first Intrafada. You will recall celebs like Jenin’s “Little Hitler” pulled people from their beds and shot them in the street. Palestinian factions killed almost as many Palestinians as the Israelis did in the first intifada. Nor have the murderers of Fatah men in Gaza in 2007 or 2014 been brought to justice by the Palestinians. Hamas commits war crimes and the Palestinians do nothing to bring them to justice. Abbas refuses to use force against Hamas or Islamic Jihad to stop their crimes instead he formed an unity government with Hamas which emboldened Hamas to kidnap three Israeli youth and kill them.

      Abbas himself incited hatred and terror claiming the al-Asqa mosque was at risk and Palestinians responded with deadly violence against Israeli civilians. No one has brought him to justice for his incitement to murder. Abbas himself admits he sent Palestinians to kill Israelis. No one has put him under lock and key.

      Yet 972mag seems only interested in potential Israeli transgressions where soldiers or commanders may have exceeded their authority and Israel has done a poor investigation.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        If you go to “Breaking the Silence” (interesting name, huh?) you will find testimony of Israeli soldiers who either themselves “exceeded their authority” (Orwell award!) or saw others “exceed their authority”. Better, if your city has a branch of the American Friends Service Committee you can contact them and find Israeli or Palestinian speakers who will speak about authority being exceedingly exceeded.

        Reply to Comment
      • Joel


        Nothing you’ve said goes to whether or not the balcony shooting was justified or why there was a subsequent coverup.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          What cover up? Haaretz reported that on June 27, 2004 the IDF admitted it had accidentally hit innocent bystanders while targeting suspected combatants attempting to target Israeli soldiers operating at ground level. Israel admitted that the snipers were given authorization to shoot. They were looking for combatants on the roof when through their scopes saw people hiding behind a solar water heater. Thinking that they were about to throw explosives charges at the troops below they fired.

          Now what was the context of the day? Shechem, which the Arabs call Nablus, had become the nerve center of Palestinian terrorism and a center of bomb and suicide belt manufacture. There was fighting in the old city almost every night. Intensive battles took place with the IDF engaging in fire fights with militants during the night. Other Palestinians regularly threw explosives from the top of their houses against soldiers operating below. Palestinians regularly recruited Palestinian youth into terrorist activities. Amirra Haas reported in 2004 “Nobody is able to control the youngsters being recruited for suicide missions.”

          On June 25, 2004 Nablus was under military curfew. Haaretz reports that Palestinians knew what a curfew meant, it meant to stay indoors. Palestinians knew to huddle in indoors to keep safe. They knew the IDF would target people outside. That very day at 5.00 pm the IDF shot and killed 17 year old Mohammed Fouqaha as he was about to throw a gas balloon at troops operating below. His parents admitted he was on the roof, but denied he had a gas balloon. The IDF in intensive fire fights also killed 7 wanted terrorists operating out of the old city that night.

          How did Ihab Islim die? His family had been inside obeying the curfew for two days and Ihab got bored. Haaretz reported: “The voices of their friends and the boredom of two days of imprisonment under curfew encouraged the boys to go out onto the porch to get a little air and chat with their friends.” The mother warned Ihab that there was a unusual light in the alley and maybe soldiers were operating in the alley. It was a lethal mistake for Ihab to go since IDF forces were operating beneath them. IDF sharp shooters were looking for combatants looking to do harm to their soldiers on the ground.

          Haaretz reported the military report on the June 25 incident two days later on July 27, 2004:

          “at approximately 10:00 p.m., two figures were spotted crawling on the roof of the house. It should be recalled that the modus operandi in the kasbah (old city) is to throw or set off explosive devices from roofs. The two figures hid behind a solar water heater. The soldiers who spotted them shot at one of the figures, right underneath houses in which IDF was operating at the time. The assumption was that they were about to operate an explosive charge, and therefore fire was initiated. It turned out that we hit innocent people, but the soldier received authorization to fire on the basis of this description, which was given in real time. This is not an excuse, concocted post facto. Due to the irregular time of day and the irregular situation, the order was given to shoot.”

          The mother noted as she tried to get medical assistance from a medical facility only 20 meters away from her house that the IDF were involved in a fire fight.

          The immediate reasons that Ihab died was that he ignored a curfew and went outside and the IDF in real time during active military operations mistook him for a person about to throw an explosive device. However, the real reason for his death was the PA’s use of Nablus as a center of terrorist activities. In 2004 Palestinians sent hundreds of Palestinian suicide bombers in addition to committing thousands of attacks against Israelis.

          Amira Haas reported during a short period of time Israel had arrested 5 Palestinian children 15 or under recruited for suicide operations. These kids were not recruited by Hamas but by the PA’s al-Asqa military brigades. Another boy was caught acting as a mule transporting an explosive device through a checkpoint.

          The situation in Nablus was war. In a war people make mistakes and get killed or kill others. If Ihab’s parents would have kept him inside their home as they knew they should have, he would not have been misidentified as combatant and mistakenly shot.

          Reply to Comment
          • Joel


            Thanks.Very informative.You added some much needed context.

            Reply to Comment
    3. dekkers


      Reply to Comment
    4. dekkers

      It makes no sense that war criminals investigate their own coward racist killings. Only an idiot would believe their insulting findings

      Reply to Comment
    5. CDWard


      – is an oppressive, colonialist, expansionist and supremacist “Jewish State”;

      – has been stealing, occupying and colonizing Palestinian land and
      oppressing, torturing and killing Palestinians for over 60 years;

      – refuses to honour its obligations under international law;

      – refuses to accept responsibility and accountability for its past and on-going (war) crimes; and

      – refuses to enter into sincere negotiations for a just and mutually-beneficial peace.

      See http://www.ifamericansknew.org for more information.

      Reply to Comment