It is clear that the death of Mustafa Tamimi, a Palestinian protester hit by a tear gas canister during a
protest in December 2011, was a tragedy.
Beyond that, however, there are
many more questions by both sides than there are satisfying answers.
IDF told Reuters it had closed the case against the soldier who fired the
canister, saying that although Tamimi had not been lethally armed, he had put
himself at risk by throwing rocks at the IDF jeep carrying the soldier, and
moving into the line of fire.
A December 5, 2013, letter to B’Tselem went
into further detail, stating that the jeep had been the target of a “massive”
volley of rocks and the soldier did not see Tamimi.
raised several piercing questions. It said that even with the charge of
manslaughter off the table, if the soldier could not see whom he was aiming at,
he clearly violated the IDF’s rules of engagement by using potentially lethal
force in a mere law-enforcement situation.
The point about the legal
framework and principles applied to a situation are important. If the IDF
claimed that the rock throwing constituted a danger to human life and was not a
mere “law enforcement situation,” the soldiers potentially would have been
permitted to use live fire, and not just tear gas.
But since the army did
not claim this, B’Tselem says neither lethal force nor the closerange firing of
tear gas canisters was allowed.
Tear gas canisters are a repeat issue for
B’Tselem, which says the IDF officially claims that it prohibits firing tear gas
from close range, something that can be deadly, as with Tamimi.
practice, though, the rights group says commanders on the ground regularly break
the rule without a second thought.
B’Tselem notes that stun grenades and
other kinds of weapons designed for nonlethal, close-range encounters would have
avoided a fatality.
While these are solid questions, anyone who has
studied the history of Palestinian protests that involve rock throwing knows
that the answer could be a clear IDF error, although it could also reflect more
complex circumstances, as the IDF claims.
From the vantage point of the
photo that has been a main reference point for the incident, one could say that
it speaks a thousand words in damning the soldier’s conduct.
It seems to
show a gun barrel firing directly at Tamimi from close range.
about rock throwers not in the photo? The IDF’s letter to B’Tselem mentions
massive rock throwing, maybe implying that the soldier was aiming at rock
throwers farther away.
The photo, which seems to show a direct line of
fire between the soldier’s weapon and Tamimi, does not show what the soldier saw
the moment before he fired, or any sudden last movements Tamimi might have made
to enter the line of fire.
The IDF did not anticipate all of B’Tselem’s
criticism and gives no discussion of alternative, non-lethal means the soldier
could have used. But what if the soldier had been armed solely with the
long-range tear gas and most of the rock throwers were reachable only with a
long-range canister, a situation the army would call “disturbing the peace?” All
of this might be counterfactual apologetics, and the IDF would probably do
itself more justice if it released greater detail about its investigations to
Also, regardless of Tamimi, the army could consider more
aggressive restrictions for the use of long-range tear gas in order to preempt
future situations of this type. Of course, it could also say that protesters
should stop throwing rocks.
Another complex debate is whether the IDF
properly implemented the February 2013 recommendations of the Turkel Commission
to speedup its investigations. It is hard to evaluate recommendations published
14 months after an incident and when an interministerial committee still has not
finished its going over them.
It will be easier to evaluate cases arising
after February 2013, but both sides have serious claims for why the
investigation dragged on for too long and why additional complexities, including
soliciting a special expert report, necessitated more time.
None of the
questions or answers are simple, and at the end of the day, without an end to
the conflict, Tamimi is, unfortunately, not likely to be the last tragic