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Rights groups have condemned the killings of two unarmed Palestinian teenagers by the Israeli army as illegal based on video evidence showing that the teens posed no threat to soldiers at the time they were shot. Though the Israeli military denies that its soldiers used live ammunition on protesters, “a wave of evidence” points to its use in the deaths, B'Tselem, an Israeli rights group, said Tuesday.
Nadeem Nowarah, 17, and Mohammad Abu Thaher, 16, were fatally shot last Thursday near Ofer military prison. Three others were also wounded by the shootings, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
The two were participating in a demonstration to mark Nakba Day, a Palestinian commemoration to what is referred to as the Nakba (“catastrophe”) — the traumatic event in 1948 that saw close to two-thirds of the Palestinian population turned into refugees during the conflict over the creation of the state of Israel.
A video that captured their deaths — from a store’s surveillance footage — was obtained by Defense for Children International (DCI), a Geneva-based rights group, on May 17. A spokesman for DCI said that the boys did not appear to be posing any threat to soldiers at the time of their deaths.
“In the video there is a lull in the violence, and it’s at that time when both teens were not posing a direct and immediate threat to life that they were shot,” Ivan Karakashian, advocacy unit coordinator for DCI-Palestine, said. “According to the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF] rules of engagement, you can’t use live ammunition on protesters if they’re not posing a mortal danger to soldiers or others.
“The killings appear to be unlawful,” he added.
The U.S. on Tuesday called for an inquiry into the shooting.
"We look to the government of Israel to conduct a prompt and transparent investigation to determine the facts surrounding this incident, including whether or not the use of force was proportional to the threat posed by the demonstrators," Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the State Department, said.
The IDF's North American media office said in an emailed statement that “a preliminary investigation determined that live fire was not used by security forces. This incident remains under investigation.”
The IDF called Thursday’s demonstration “violent” and said Palestinians had burned tires and thrown rocks, so security forces used riot dispersal means to restore calm.
Karakashian said DCI does not deny there were violent clashes at points throughout the protest, with Palestinian youths throwing stones at heavily armed Israeli soldiers in riot gear, but said the shootings occurred during a period of calm.
The owner of the store whose footage captured the shootings said in the video released by DCI that one of the youths was shot “when nothing was going on. The army had fired plenty of tear gas canisters, and the youth had retreated back.”
Then, he said, “I heard live ammunition being fired. Four shots, to be exact. At the moment of the killings, nothing was going on and no stone throwing was taking place.”
‘Definite’ live ammo use
When asked about the possible use of live ammunition at the protest, Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B'Tselem, said there was a “definite” use of live bullets that day. Michaeli said several eyewitness testimonies corroborated its use.
The nature of the wounds also indicated live ammunition, according to Michaeli, who said the bodies had entrance and exit wounds that rubber bullets could not create at the range they were fired from. A medical report for Nowarah from the Ramallah hospital that was obtained by Al Jazeera cited a "liver-penetrating bullet injury" as a cause of death.
A bullet that appears to be live ammunition was recovered from Nowarah’s backback, Michaeli said. “There’s a hole in the backpack near the exit wound in his back, and that’s where the bullet was recovered from. Without forensic analysis, it’s impossible to link the bullet to any gun, but it adds to the wave of evidence."
“I know the army denies it used live ammunition, but that can be quite a psychological — they say no live bullets were used because the soldiers said they didn’t use live ammunition. And according to their operational standards, they’re only allowed to use such ammunition in extreme situations,” Michaeli said.
"The soldiers were likely lying. We’ve seen cases like this in the past."
Another eyewitness, Samer Nazzal, said it was live ammunition that killed Nowarah and Abu Thaher and injured others.
“I have covered these clashes a lot, and it has never been as violent as it was Thursday. The Israeli soldiers used live bullets from the start without any danger on the soldiers’ lives,” Nazzal said.
The shootings were “just killing for killing. That’s what I want the world to know. They have killed them in cold blood — without any need to kill or use live bullets.”
Nowarah’s cousin Lina Nowarah described the teenager as a “caring person, passionate and loved everyone.”
He was an honor student at Ramallah’s St. George Christian school and had many friends. His family said he didn’t belong to any political parties and hadn’t been to many demonstrations. Nowarah’s mother had tried to talk him out of going to the demonstration on Thursday, but the teen decided to go anyway.
‘Killing with impunity’
This is not the first time the Israeli military has killed unarmed protesters with impunity, DCI said.
“Israeli forces continue to use excessive force and recklessly fire live ammunition and rubber-coated metal bullets on unarmed protesters, including children, killing them with impunity,” said Rifat Kassis, executive director of DCI-Palestine. “While Israel claims to open investigations into such incidents, they are not transparent or independent, and seldom result in a soldier being held accountable.”
The April 2009 killing of Bassem Abu Rahmah, a nonviolent Palestinian protester in the West Bank city of Bil’in, was also captured by photos and videos. The evidence showed that Abu Rahmah was shot and killed with a high-velocity tear gas canister directly in the chest while posing no threat to any soldiers.
In September 2013, Israel’s military said that investigators had closed a probe into Abu Rahmah’s death, citing a lack of evidence of wrongdoing.
Rights groups have spotlighted Israel’s use of live ammunition on unarmed Palestinian civilians, including children. In February, Amnesty International released a report finding that the Israeli army uses excessive force throughout the occupied territories, showing a “callous disregard for human life.”
The report, titled “Trigger-Happy: Israel’s Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank,” documents the killings of 45 Palestinians “who did not appear to be posing a direct and immediate threat to life.” It said thousands of others had been wounded in similar incidents.