Relatives of Mustafa Tamimi_311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Every death is a tragedy for the family and friends of the deceased. Yet a death
you can see coming from miles away, a needless death that could have been
prevented, is a tragedy about which hard lessons must be learned.
the case of Mustafa Tamimi, the 28-year-old Palestinian man killed in the
Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh last Friday. Tamimi was shot at close range
with a tear gas canister. The canister hit him in the face, causing
massive bleeding, and he died the following day.
But Tamimi was throwing
stones, some will argue, and it is true: Shortly before his death, Tamimi was
filmed running after an armored jeep and throwing stones. This is indeed a
But there is no death penalty for stonethrowing – as
the army itself affirms. The soldiers were not in any danger, and Tamimi could
have been arrested and charged for his offense.
Tear gas is intended as a
non-lethal crowd-control tool. The canister that delivers the gas is not intended
as a weapon. For this reason, IDF regulations prohibit firing tear gas directly
at people. However, the military regularly and blatantly violates its own
regulations in Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank.
of tear gas canisters has resulted in at least 13 serious injuries and one death
besides Tamimi’s: In April 2009, Bassem Abu-Rahmah, from the village of Bil’in,
was killed by a tear gas canister that struck him in the chest. B’Tselem video
volunteers filmed many recent cases of canisters being directly fired that did
not result in injury. Yet we knew it was only a matter of time if the practice
were not stopped.
SO B’TSELEM documented the cases and tried to wake up
the military to this danger. We sent letters and met with senior military
officials – the commander of the Judea and Samaria Brigade, the Military
Advocate-General and his staff, the IDF Legal Adviser’s Office for the West
Bank – demanding that commanders clarify to soldiers serving on the ground that
firing tear gas canisters directly at a person is illegal. We also provided
extensive video documentation of this illegal practice.
response to our appeals showed an infuriating gap between words and actions. Two
years ago, Col. Sharon Afek, then the IDF’s legal adviser for Judea and Samaria,
responded that “direct firing [of tear-gas canisters] at persons is prohibited”
and that “very soon, an explicit and broad directive will be issued that will
prohibit the firing of a tear-gas canister directly at a person.” But still the
This past July, following further requests by
B’Tselem, Maj. Uri Sagi from that same office wrote that “following your letter,
we have again clarified to the forces operating in Central Command the rules
relating to firing of tear-gas canisters at persons, including the prohibition
on directly firing a tear-gas canister at a person.” But still the practice
Just a few months ago, I met with then-commander of the Judea
and Samaria Brigade Brig.-Gen. Nitzan Alon. He assured me that the direct firing
of tear gas was illegal and no longer occurred.
AND STILL the practice
continued. And last Friday it claimed yet another victim.
The day of
Tamimi’s death was International Human Rights Day. The fundamental principle
underlying human rights is that they are inherent to all of us as human beings.
It is not only the innocent who have rights. Law-breakers, too – in this case,
stone-throwers – do not lose basic rights, like the right to life. The military
has the authority and all the tools to respond to such offenses in a manner that
adheres to its legal obligations. No one should have been killed on
So who is responsible for this needless death? Certainly the
soldier who pulled the trigger must be investigated – the Military Police are
already conducting such an investigation. However, this is not enough. It
is wrong to hold this one soldier responsible as if he were operating in a
vacuum. As far as we know, no one was punished for the earlier cases, and the
practice continued. This soldier, in fact, was operating in an
environment where soldiers routinely employ this practice, where commanding
officers stand by, where the highest echelons of the military knew of and failed
to stop the extensive violation of their own regulations.
So when we
attempt to draw legal and moral conclusions about Mustafa Tamimi’s death, we
need to look much further than that one soldier.
The writer is executive
director of B’Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the