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License to Kill: Why did the IDF shoot the Qawarik cousins 29 times?

Saleh and Muhammad head out to their agricultural land. A settler stops them and calls the army. Four soldiers arrive. One of them empties his magazine into the two. Three other soldiers claim they didn’t see anything. The IDF says that the cousins attacked the soldier, then retracts the claim. No one is brought to justice. The fourth installment in a series examining the case files of soldiers who killed unarmed Palestinian civilians. [Read parts one, two and three.]

By John Brown* and Noam Rotem
Translated from Hebrew by Ofer Neiman

Saleh and Muhammad Qawarik

Saleh and Muhammad Qawarik

This series of reports deals with cases in which “uninvolved” Palestinian civilians were killed, as well as the superficial investigations into those killings conducted by the Israeli Military Police. No one has been brought to justice in any of these cases, but this case is unique nevertheless. Not because of the victims, whose names are remembered only by their families. Not even because of the soldier who took their lives, and, according his own testimony, even ripped down a poster mourning their deaths. The unique aspect is the way the IDF Spokesperson changed its story.

At first, the IDF Spokesperson published the claim that “a terrorist attack with a pitchfork had been foiled at a checkpoint,” and that two terrorists had tried to attack a soldier using pitchforks. The IDF was later forced concede that the report was inaccurate, and then claimed that the soldiers were attacked with a bottle and a syringe. With every new report, the volume knob was turned down a bit, until the last one, a day after the incident, according to which the two cousins were not terrorists at all, but two young men stopped by settlers after they had entered their own land — without coordinating with the army. But the IDF Spokesperson’s story had already gained prominence. Every Palestinian is a terrorist until proven otherwise.

The chain of events, leading to the moment in which an anxious soldier fired 29 bullets into the bodies of the two cousins, Saleh and Muhammad Qawarik, farmers who woke up early that morning to work their land, shows the null cost of Palestinian lives in the occupied territories. This involves the dubious initiative of a settler with a vast criminal record, one hyperactive shooter and three soldiers who do not remember anything, having managed to miss all 29 shots.

The IDF Spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

‘Their hands are soft to the touch’

On March 21, 2010, the two Qawarik cousins headed from their house in Awarta towards the family land. Later, it would be claimed that they actually intended to collect scrap metal by the side of the road, but in any case, there is no debate about the fact that they had no intention of hurting anyone when they left home that morning. They had taken two hoes and a bottle of water, and headed on foot along the road leading to the plot they owned.

At some stage, Avri Ran, an extremist settler who has been convicted of a series of violent offenses, and calls himself “The Sovereign,” passed by. Ran decided that the two had no right to be there, on their land. He stopped his car, and detained the two by ordering them to sit on the ground, and standing at a distance of 10-15 meters (30-50 feet) from them.

Ran alerted Nahshon Gideon, the security coordinator of the Gideonim outpost (near the settlement of Itamar), and the latter quickly arrived. Lior confiscated the hoes belonging to the two cousins, pointed his weapon at them, and the two settlers waited there for the IDF soldiers.

Ten minutes later, four soldiers of the IDF’s Kfir brigade, arrived at the scene and Ran left. The patrol commander, A., thought the two cousins were talking too much to one another, and therefore he sent Muhammad to sit under a tree on the other side of the road. According to the security coordinator’s testimony, A. questioned the two cousins in Arabic. According to A., the person who spoke to the two was the patrol’s Bedouin driver.

A. and the security coordinator soon decided that the two cousins were suspect. The reason? “Their hands were soft to the touch.” Not rough and hardened as the hands of Palestinian farmer should be, so they thought. After a while, the security coordinator left the scene as well, and the soldiers remained alone with the Palestinians whom they had not arrested, were not suspected of anything. Just people on their way to work.

How can anyone not hear or see the firing of 29 bullets?

A. contacted the brigade’s operations room on the radio, and extensive communication took place for two hours, on the radio as well as by text messages, between him and G., the deputy company commander. G. would later testify that there had been previous cases of abusing Palestinians in the battalion, and therefore he ordered A. not to handcuff the two — because “there was no reason.”

All that time, A., who appeared to be hyperactive, according to the investigator who questioned him later, was very close to Saleh. D., a soldier who was tasked with guarding Muhammad, was standing at a distance of 10-15 meters, leaning on the jeep. The two other soldiers did not leave the vehicle, and claim they did not see anything. One of them went as far as arguing he was “sleeping off to the side” (he would later retract this claim).

From this point on, everything the Military Police investigators know comes from A. the shooter. D. claims he did not see anything.

According to A., Saleh asked to pee. He took his water bottle and went a few steps away. When he returned, so claims A., he picked up a stone, 20 centimeters by 30 centimeters, and when he asked Saleh what he was doing, Saleh placed the stone back and sat down. A. says he then cocked his weapon quietly.

The two cousins asked to pray. After the prayer, they sat down separately again, and then. according to A., he saw Saleh put something in his pocket. When he asked him what it was, says A., Saleh rose up all of a sudden and swung the object in the air, as if to strike him. A., who claims he was under stress and fear, switched off the safety catch of his weapon, and fired approximately 10 bullets, seven of which hit Saleh in his upper body, from a very close distance. D., who was standing about 10 meters (30 feet) away, claims he did not see anything.

Only when A. finished firing at Saleh, did D. bother to turn his head in the direction of the shooting, yet he still missed the next development somehow: Muhammad, who was sitting around 15 meters from D. and 25 meters from A., stood up. A. emptied everything left in his weapon’s magazine, 19 bullets, into Muhammad’s body, until he, too, fell lifeless to the ground.

D. did not see this either. The two other soldiers who were sitting in the military vehicle also claim they did not witness the the entire period of time in which A. emptied an entire magazine, shooting the two members of the Qawarik family. In order to substantiate his claim, one of the two explains that the vehicle was facing the opposite direction to that of the shooting. A. claimed exactly the opposite. The investigator did not confront the two contradictory witnesses, or even examination this decisive point. The questions regarding which way the jeep was facing, and how can it be that a soldier empties an entire magazine into two people and no one around him sees anything — have not been resolved.

Contradictory drawings of the scene, by the soldiers. Top: Drawing by L., who stayed int he vehicle. Bottom: A’s sketch.

Contradictory drawings of the scene, by the soldiers. Top: Drawing by L., who stayed int he vehicle. Bottom: A’s sketch.

No fingerprints

The soldiers claimed in their interrogation that Muhammad had held in his hand a plastic syringe that was found at the scene. The needle must have been broken when it fell, so claimed A. in his questioning. A bottle and a syringe (without a needle) were indeed found at the scene, and the items were sent to the Israeli national police’s forensic lab in order to pull fingerprints from them. No fingerprints were found.

If one of the two cousins indeed swung these objects, surely at least one fingerprint should have been found on them, even a partial one. But no, nothing. Zero fingerprints, according to the forensic report. The Military Police investigators did not bother to mention this critical detail even once during the questioning of the soldiers.

Nothing was left of the shooting soldier’s version (the IDF Spokesperson’s pitchfork version had been refuted earlier): the shooter’s fellow soldiers do not corroborate his version (but also fail to provide any other information), and the evidence at the scene does not match his claims.

What really happened that day? Why did A. shoot the two Qawarik cousins? Did he intend to shoot them, or did he panic and lose control? The Military Police investigators were not particularly interested in those questions.

Another detail that has caught our attention is the fact that A. carried on with his duty the very next day. In his testimony he even recounts that he stopped in Awarta in order to remove a poster with the photos of the two cousins he had killed a day earlier. He would later take pride in showing the poster to the Military Police investigator.

The operational debriefing: A. is demoted

Following the shooting, A., the patrol commander, ordered the other soldiers to get out of the vehicle and put on their helmets, and then he reported what he had just done on the radio. Dozens of officers quickly arrived at the scene and initiated an operational debriefing.

The army regards such debriefings as a tool for analyzing operational incidents. Debriefings are held shortly after incidents, and according to army procedures, the contents are not to be passed to the investigating authority (namely the Military Police). Even if a person admits to murder in the operational debriefing, this admission cannot be used in his trial, and will not even be passed on to the investigators.

Why is this important? Because immediately after the debriefing, an officer in the Central Command spoke to a Haaretz journalist, saying that, “according to a preliminary analysis, it does not seem that there was any threat to the life of the sergeant who shot the two Palestinians.” Following the debriefing, the IDF Chief of Staff issued a (reprimanding) commander’s notice to the commander of the Samaria brigade, Colonel A., and the commander of the Nahshon regiment also received such a notice. The same goes for G., the deputy company commander. As for A., the shooter, the IDF chief of Staff decided that he would be removed from any command position.

If there had indeed been a threat to the life of the shooter, would all these disciplinary actions have been taken against the entire chain of command? And if there was no threat, and there was a suspicion of an unlawful shooting of innocent persons, why is nobody facing justice? The IDF Chief of Staff, who occasionally approves the publication of operational debriefings, refused to do so in this case.

The investigation: Happy Valentine’s Day

Only after an appeal to the Israeli High Court of Justice by Yesh Din, did the Military Police agree to open an investigation into the killing of the Qawarik cousins. The investigation began in September 2010, around six months after the incident. Another year would pass before the investigators would manage to question A., the shooter. He had been abroad on a long trip. Fewer than 10 people were questioned during the investigation, which was closed in mid January 2014.

The investigators did not bother to confront the soldiers with the fallacies and contradictions in their stories. Numerous contradictions between the testimonies, as well as contradictions between the testimonies and the investigatory findings, remained unresolved. In spite of the reasonable suspicion that some of the soldiers were lying or withholding details known to them, nothing was done to try to find out once and for all what really happened that day.

Just like other investigations which we have reviewed, it appears that the Military Police investigators role in nothing more than stenographers for the soldiers’ statements. Don’t push too hard, don’t ask questions that are too difficult, do not set traps, and certainly do not address more substantial questions: why can a settler with a criminal record stop and detain Palestinians? Under what authority and since when can a settlement security coordinator stop and detain people “because their hands are soft to the touch?”

A. argues that he was stressed out by the cousins speaking Arabic among themselves, because he “did not understand what they were saying.” However, in the same testimony he claims he spoke Arabic to Saleh, and according to the settlement security coordinator, A. interrogated the two using good Arabic. On this point too, the investigators do not press any further. A.’s claim that the cousins’ request to pray at noon was suspect is also unclear, since this is precisely the Muslim prayer time.

Another question: why did A. cock his weapon “quietly?” If he had wanted to show his authority and scare the two, so that they would not try anything again, he surely would have done so in a noticeable manner. That is in fact one reason for cocking a weapon. So why did he do so discreetly? What was he trying to do here? The investigators do not bother to clarify this point.

As one can see in the drawings made by the soldiers (above), the jeep is standing on the road, and next to it stands D., who was charged with guarding Muhammad. A. is right next to Saleh, where he also shoots him, while Muhammad is on the other side of the road at a distance of at least 20 meters from his cousin and A.  Following the shooting of Saleh, according to D., A. turned around and shot Muhammad from where he was standing. A., who was standing around 10 meters from the road, claims he “went up to the route” in order to Shoot Muhammad.

This contradiction is decisive: did A. notice an attempt to harm D., as he claims, or — since D. was standing on the road next to the jeep — did he run a relatively long distance and, only from there, fire 19 bullets into the second victim’s body? The fourth soldier as well, the one who was sitting in the vehicle, claims he saw A. moving past the vehicle in the direction of the second Palestinian as the latter was already falling down. This critical point — how exactly the shooting of Muhammad took place — remains a mystery, and the investigators do not notice this, or deliberately chose to ignore the issue.

D. claims he did not see or hear anything during the two shooting incidents, even though he was standing 10-15 meters from the scene. Could a normal person argue this and not arouse suspicion, to the extent of not being asked about this even once? According to the Military Police investigators, the answer, apparently, is yes. The same applies to the two other witnesses, who did sit in the car, but apparently had a clear line of vision towards A. and the two arrestees. Failing to press witnesses who were so close to two killing incidents and claim they did not see a thing amounts to negligence — as simple as that.

One can learn something about the atmosphere during the questioning from the final statement of the fourth soldier, the one who made the drawing seen above. That soldier also testified that he had not seen the syringe in question. Finally, when asked whether he had anything to add, he said to the (female) investigator: “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

Another double killing — one day earlier

Commanders are usually not confronted with their negligence during the investigation of acts committed in their area of responsibility, even when the same military unit committed another double killing just one day earlier, and that case had already raised difficult questions. That was the killing of Muhammad Qadous, 15, and Usaid Qadous, 17, who were shot and killed in the village of Iraq Burin. the soldiers and the IDF Spokesperson claimed than that they had been shot with rubber bullets, but the injuries, the entry and exit openings, as well as an X-ray photo of the bullet stuck in Usaid Qadous’ head attests to that being a lie.

It should be no surprise that no indictment was filed as a result of that investigation either. To this day, the case files are still on the desk of the IDF Military Advocate General, even though the soldiers are no longer under the military’s jurisdiction and cannot be indicted by the IDF.

Justice

We will not determine A.’s criminal responsibility, and it is also hard to determine whether a professional investigation would have led to his indictment. It is also hard to say whether an investigation would have led to the indictment of his commanders, who negligently placed the lives of the Qawarik cousins in the hands of a soldier who was clearly unfit for the task. On that day, the commanders also lingered at length while giving contradictory and sloppy orders, blatantly disregarding the time of the two cousins, and later — their lives as well. These are the ones who made A. detain the two at gunpoint, while his frustration and stress levels were growing — until he shot them.

But one thing cannot be disputed: two young men left their house that morning with no wish to hurt anyone, and they never came back. This happened neither during war nor in a combat zone. Just like that. How can anybody accept that?

In our conversations with Atty. Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man of Yesh Din, who represented the family on the criminal side of things, and Atty. Ghada Hliehel, who represents the family in a civil lawsuit, both spoke of the emotional toll that accompanied uncovering the facts of this case. The sense of wrongdoing is further amplified in light of the fact that even the little justice a court could have meted out — has not materialized because of the negligent investigation. We sent detailed questions to the IDF Spokesperson, which decided this case does not merit a response.

Saleh and Muhammad Qawarik are dead, and that cannot be changed. What can, and must change, is the impunity the state gives every soldier involved in de-facto policing activity in the West Bank. An army engaged in policing cannot hide behind the shield of operational conduct. The fact that the state gives weapons to those who are in fact still youths does not give the latter a right to shoot whomever they want without paying for it. Dozens of cases of this type occur every year, and the authorities of the military regime feign innocence. When will this end?

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

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    1. Pedro X

      In war bad things happen. In the day before the described incident happened, there had been a violent riot in Awarta and two Palestinians involved in throwing rocks had been shot dead. The IDF had ordered the area around Itamar a closed military zone. The next day two Palestinians appear within the closed military zone claiming to either going to do some farming or picking up scrap metal, despite the closure. A member from Itamar, which has been the subject of a number of murderous attacks from Palestinians in the area, stop the Palestinians and calls a security officer who attends and calls the IDF to investigate.

      Now here one should remember that Palestinian terrorists have killed over 20 members of the Itamar community, including multiple murders of Itamar children on three occasions. So community members have concern to patrol the roads leading to their community for people who should not be there.

      Things break down after the IDF takes control. The IDF question the Palestinians and separate them. They keep the Palestinians there for hours. One Palestinian picks up a rock and put it down after being questioned what he was doing. He is allowed to go urinate and comes back with something in his pocket. When he is challenged he swings at the soldier with something. The soldier shoots him with a multiple burst of shots in a small fraction of a second. The soldier then sees the other Palestinian stand up and he shoots him. The article focuses in on the soldiers who claimed they did not see what happened.

      If the soldiers were trying to cover up for A’s actions it would have been easy for them to claim that they saw the first Palestinian try to assault A. However after being in the same location for several hours, with two in a vehicle they likely were not paying attention to what was happening between A and the first Palestinian killed. It is unknown whether they actually grasped what was happening a second or two later. Again it would be more easy for the soldiers to have gotten together and made up a story to protect A than to say they saw nothing.

      The writers make a very curious statement part way through their article:

      “We will not determine A.’s criminal responsibility, and it is also hard to determine whether a professional investigation would have led to his indictment.”

      How could this be according to the facts the writers give in relation to the second Palestinian killed, unless the writers have held back some pertinent fact that was disclosed by the report. There is some hint that A thought the other Palestinian was about to do D harm. This is not fleshed out in the article.

      Did A, after believing that A was trying to attack him, think that D was doing the same thing to D and shot him? Decisions made in a fraction of a second in the brain in tense situations may be the wrong ones. The fact that the second Palestinian was not observed attacking D by any of the other soldiers does not mean that in A’s mind he had to act in defence of D.

      There was an operational breakdown here which lead to discipline against A and his commanders. If A thought the Palestinian had picked up a rock, he should have restrained him with plastic hand straps. He should have made others aware of the situation. A’s commanders seem to have detained the Palestinians and soldiers at the location for a long period of time without ordering the Palestinians to be arrested or ordered to go home. One of the Palestinians seems to have tried to attack A which led to his death and the death of the other Palestinian.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This was NOT in war. This was murder. A double murder. One murder followed by what looks like a second murder to silence the witness to the first murder, but a second murder no matter what. Followed by silence from all the remaining witnesses–the soldiers who who see, hear, and speak nothing. You repeat the soldiers’ quite evident lies as if they were the truth. I think this exercise of yours reveals, Pedro X, why you are so keen to prevent soldiers from breaking the silence. Yes indeed.

        David Shulman:

        “Susya is a microcosm of the Israeli occupation, a lucid embodiment of its norms and habits. Only the scale of the planned expulsion is a little unusual; normally the process, though relentless, proceeds in smaller steps. Note that the legal aspect of the situation, which I’ve only outlined, is little more than a superstructure, one might even say a distant theory; on the ground what one sees is a refined form of human malevolence, incapable of justification in rational terms. The Israeli army, the police, the bureaucrats of the Civil Administration, the government, the cabinet, the Knesset, the military and civilian courts, and large parts of the Israeli press—all are deeply implicated in an act, or a series of acts, of gratuitous violence inflicted on innocent human beings, in broad daylight. No one should pretend that any of this is anything but a crime.”

        http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/jun/28/susya-demolition-israeli-occupation/

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          War, yes. Israel has been fighting a war against Palestinian Arab terrorism. When Palestinians plan and slit the throats of Israel children in their sleep and stab their parents to death, in continuation of murders of other Itamar children, this is war. When Palestinians honor child killers of children in Itamar as military heroes and ones who have carried out “heroic operations” against Jews, this is war.

          Nariyeh Shaboo lived until he was 15 when a Palestinian terrorist entered his home in Itamar and killed him, his mother and two other siblings, including his fragile 5 year old sister. Two other siblings were shot, one in the chest and one had to have her leg amputated. Nariyeh had survived a terrorist attack only a month ago on a school in Itamar which took the lives of 3 of his class mates. Both terrorists were shot dead. Both terrorists received a military funeral from the PA. The PA recently honored Hanani, one of the killers of the attack on the school. At the funeral of Hanani, Fatah and PA officals gushed at “the heroic deeds” of their martyrs. Hanani was described as a Commander. Fatah poster on the casket read

          “The Palestinian National Liberation Movement – Fatah… escorts its Martyr Commander Habash Al-Saud Hanani to the Dark-eyed Maidens (i.e., virgins), [Hanani] who saturated the soil of Beit Furik with his blood in his heroic operation (i.e., killing 3 high school students) on the soil of the Itamar settlement.”

          The PA governor of Nablus in 2014 eulogized the killers of children as national heroes:

          “These are heroes and they defend their cause, and they have a special place in the heart of the Palestinian people. Therefore they are honored as heroes should be honored.”

          PA TV’s news program in 2014, honored the second murderer of Itamar’s school children, Ahmad Al-Faqih, as a “Martyr” and praised his “sacrifice”:

          “After a 12-year separation, the city of Dura now embraces the remains of its Martyr, who wrote the most wonderful and sublime words of sacrifice with his blood.”

          Just last year 4 Palestinian terrorists tried to infiltrate Itamar again and carry out another attack against the civilians of this community. Lookouts spotted 4 suspicious Palestinians who were intercepted. Three were arrested carrying gloves, break in tools and knives. A fourth suspect was found hidden in Awarta. He was also armed with break in tools an knives. By vigilance another killing of Israeli children in Itamar was averted.

          This is war being waged against Israel and its citizens.

          Reply to Comment
          • David T.

            “Israel has been fighting a war against Palestinian Arab terrorism. … This is war being waged against Israel and its citizens.”

            If that’s really the case and not the other way around you won’t have any problems answering the following questions:
            How many Palestinians terrorized Jews before 1948, because they couldn’t accept the mandatory’s 1939 white book’s policy to finally release Palestine into independance until 1949?
            How much land did Palestinians conquer from Palestine to create a state?
            How many Jews did Palestinians massacre, expell and terrorize to become a majority in this state?
            How many Jews are kept expelled to maintain this artificial majority which amounts to the crime of Apartheid as defined by international law?
            How many Jewish villages, streets, homes, wells and trees were destroyed by Palestinians since 1948?
            How many homes were taken over by Palestinians after its Jewish residents and owners were expelled?
            How many Jewish bank accounts and private property were looted by Palestinians in 1948?
            How much land did the Palestinians confiscate from Jews to develope and cultivate it primarily for Palestinians?
            How many Jews were made to live under military law, in enclaves and under a permit system which prevented them from accessing their homes and their land one one side of the armistice line until 1966 an on the other since 1967?
            How many Jews are considered to be present absentees?
            How much land did the Palestinians occupy and illegally annex since 1948?
            How many illegal settlements have Palestinians created and how many illegal Palestinian settlers live there since 1967?
            How many Jews have to endure collective punishment by an illegal blockade and an illegal wall under a Palestinian occupation?
            How many Jewish children suffer from malnutrition under a blockade imposed by Palestinians?
            How many Jews died, because they were prevented to leave an area under Palestian blockade or the entry of medical personell equipment and medicaments was restriced?
            How many Jewish bones were broken by a Palestinian occuping force?
            How many bullets were fired at Jewish protesters since 2001 by a Palestinian occuping force?
            How many Jews were killed or injured since 1948 comparered to Palestinians, women and children included?
            How many rockets were fired at Jews since 2001 compared to rockets, bombs and artillery shells fired at Palestinians?
            How many Jewish homes are raided by Palestinians every night?
            How many Jewish children are kidnapped by Palestinians in the middle of the knight and not allowed to be accompanied by their parents or a lawyer and tortured, molested or simply terrorized to turn them into informants?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Well, you are simply excusing the brutal murder of two innocent young civilians by a soldier and the coverup of those murders by a corrupt and brutal system. So it explains very well why you want no one to break the silence. If you want to play a cold, shallow game of semantics and say that what went on that day took place during “war” then fine, what went on that day (and during the ensuing coverup) took place completely outside of battle or engagement with an enemy and was a war crime. Nothing less. And that being the case, the soldiers involved ought to be tried, if not in an IDF court martial, which will never take place, then at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This murder, like the other crimes documented in this series, demonstrates very well the utter impunity with which Israel’s military and its proxies, the settlers, such as the repellent Avri Ran, operate in the occupied territories. Whether it is at Susiya or in these murderous incidents, Pedro X, you’ve made it abundantly clear that as far as you are concerned there is absolutely nothing the settlers and the IDF can ever do that is criminal. As such, you are a declared supporter of the “refined form of human malevolence” David Shulman describes. You are abundantly illustrating why Breaking the Silence is an indispensable organization. Congratulations. Another own goal by the Hasbara Team.

            Reply to Comment