Over the years, Israel has killed thousands of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Some were killed by security forces during routine activities to enforce the occupation, such as arrests or crowd control. Others were killed during rounds of fighting, such as those in the Gaza Strip or Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. Thousands more have been injured by security forces’ fire, some seriously and with life-long repercussions, including physical or mental disabilities.
Most of the tasks performed by Israeli security forces in the Occupied Territories are policing activities, which include dispersing demonstrations, making arrests, enforcing travel restrictions, conducting body frisks and home searches, and more. Soldiers performing these tasks must follow the military’s open-fire regulations, the official goal of which is to regulate and limit the use of firearms. These regulations set the rules for the use of various types of firearms, as well as the permitted ranges and “targets”.
According to the open-fire regulations, live ammunition may be fired in two situations only. First, shooting to kill is permitted when members of the security forces or other individuals are in life-threatening danger. Even then, the use of firearms is permitted only if there is no other way to avert the danger and only against the assailants themselves. Second, members of the security forces may only shoot at a person’s legs, as the last phase in an attempt to arrest the person in question, only after they have given warning and fired in the air, and only when no one else is in danger of getting hurt.
These regulations, meant to prevent unnecessary harm to life and limb, have failed to prevent the killing of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – partly because they are repeatedly violated, sometimes on the orders of senior ranking officers or with their consent. On the ground, soldiers are sometimes given orders that contradict official directives. Sometimes the regulations are interpreted broadly, such as the artificial expansion of the term “life-threatening” to include circumstances in which soldiers’ lives are not actually in danger, such as stone-throwing or tire-burning during protests, or fear of damage to the Separation Barrier. Another broad interpretation is permission to fire at the upper body instead of the legs during suspect apprehension, along with expanding the understanding of a person suspected of a serious offense to include virtually any Palestinian. Another violation is the use of lethal measures when less injurious ones could diffuse the threat, and illegal use of allegedly “non-lethal” measures such as rubber-coated metal bullets, sponge rounds and tear gas in a way that renders them lethal.
In using firearms in the Occupied Territories, Israel’s actions are also subject to the provisions of international humanitarian law (IHL). These allow security forces to open fire even under non-life-threatening situations. However, and most importantly, they restrict the actions of security forces so as to protect civilians who are not taking part in the fighting, and their property, as much as possible.
Under IHL, the actions of security forces during fighting are governed by two fundamental principles: the principle of distinction and the principle of proportionality. The principle of distinction requires the parties to the conflict to direct their attacks only against persons taking part in the hostilities and against objects that are used for military purposes. To ensure that this distinction is respected, it is forbidden to mount an attack against an object that is not a specific military target, and to use weapons that do not allow sufficiently precise distinction between military and civilian objects. The principle of proportionality prohibits an attack even where the intended target is a legitimate object of attack, if the damage to the civilian population will be greater than the military advantage anticipated from the attack.
Israel claims to follow these rules. However, its open-fire policy during fighting, and particularly in massive incursions into Palestinian cities and rounds of fighting in the Gaza Strip, ignores these rules almost entirely. Among other things, soldiers have fired indiscriminately, hitting passersby; they have used live ammunition and weapons that do not allow sufficient distinction between those participating in the fighting and those not; they have bombed residential buildings with the occupants inside, and have destroyed homes and other properties on a massive scale. All of these actions were justified based on a formalistic adherence to IHL provisions and to an expansive interpretation of these rules, to the point where they are drained of all meaning and substance. This conduct, which has caused thousands of casualties, has been largely ignored by the military law enforcement system. In most cases, no investigation is opened at all; in the rare cases that are investigated, no further action is taken. Other than a handful of cases, usually involving low-ranking soldiers, no one has been put on trial for harming Palestinians.
For years, B'Tselem regularly wrote to the military law enforcement system in order to promote accountability for cases in which security forces harmed Palestinians. But, given the reality described here, in May 2016, we decided to stop contacting the MAG Corps to demand investigations. At the same time, B'Tselem continues to advocate for accountability by independently investigating incidents and bringing them to the public’s attention. Naturally, the legal system continues to be responsible for investigating such cases and prosecuting all those responsible. The military open-fire regulations and the declared adherence to IHL create a semblance of legality, by limiting when lethal fire power can be used. In practice, security forces resort to such fire in many other instances, with backing from command ranks and with retroactive approval from the MAG Corps, with the latter ignoring harm to human life and ensuring no one is held accountable. This policy conveys Israel’s deep disregard for the lives of Palestinians and their property, and facilitates continued use of lethal force – a crucial element in Israel’s ability to maintain violent control over millions of Palestinians.