IDF Col. Yisrael Shomer, the Binyamin Brigade Commander who shot dead Palestinian Muhammad al-Casba, 17, in July under disputed circumstances after he had thrown a rock at his vehicle, was cleared by the IDF legal division on Sunday.
A video of the shooting distributed by B'tselem - The Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories - at the time went viral and brought about calls for Shomer's prosecution and led to an unusual full criminal investigation.
The video did not show the actual shooting, though it showed some events before and after the shooting.
Shomer had been the highest ranking IDF commander under criminal investigation for a crime relating to conflict with the Palestinians, though at least one lieutenant colonel is under investigation for allegedly ordering the shelling of a pharmacy during the 2014 Gaza war as revenge for the earlier killing of one of his soldiers.
The incident took place near a-Ram, which is adjacent to Ramallah, at a time of a heightened security level in the West Bank following a spate of terrorist attacks against Israeli targets.
The commander was on his way to the Kalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah when the rock hit his windshield.
B'tselem's review of the case stated that though al-Casba had thrown a rock at Shomer's vehicle which had broken his car window, at the time that Shomer shot him he was fleeing the scene already around 10 meters away and was not threatening his life in any way.
The human rights group had also alleged that Shomer’s conduct had been wrongful due to failing to bring al-Casba to a hospital once he was obviously wounded.
The IDF Spokesman’s Office told The Jerusalem Post
on Sunday, “On July 3, 2015, a Palestinian resident of Kalandiya threw a stone toward the vehicle of the Binyamin Brigade commander. In response, the brigade commander carried out the procedure of detaining a suspect, which included a warning shout, shooting into the air and two shots directed at the legs of the suspect. The military advocate-general has said that the shooting which was done as part of the procedure of detaining a suspect was justified and was intended to bring about the arrest of the stone-thrower. The Palestinian was medically treated at the scene by Palestinian medical services.”
A senior security source added that Shomer had been censured by the commander of the IDF's Central Command for failing to assist in the process of providing medical attention to al-Casba.
Regarding the decision to close the case, Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek ruled that Shomer had properly executed the rules of engagement for apprehending a suspect by firing two warning shots and then aiming and firing for al-Casba's legs.
Afek stated that Shomer missed by mistake due to firing while moving, as opposed to firing from a static standing position, and that despite this unintentional error, the procedure of firing at al-Casba's legs had been correct.
This had been Shomer’s narrative leaked to the press at the time of the incident and many Israeli politicians on the Right, but also including centrist Yesh Atid party leader, Yair Lapid, had supported him, though his critics had questioned the veracity of his story, believing he had aimed to kill.
Further, Afek stated that despite the gravity of Shomer's mistake, the mistake occurred in "unambiguously operational circumstances" and did not rise to the level of a criminal offense.
The finding of operational circumstances as trumping holding Shomer accountable for missing his mark leading to al-Casba’s death is a crucial and controversial issue.
Critics will likely say that such a grave mistake at a minimum warrants a charge of negligent homicide, if not manslaughter or murder, while supporters will argue that rock throwing is a serious threat and IDF personnel responding in real time to such a threat should be given wide latitude.
B’tselem slammed the decision, saying, “the MAG’s decision is an inseparable part of the system of covering-up which characterizes the military investigative apparatus.”
They emphasized that Shomer had shot al-Casba, not one, but three times in his upper body, including once in the head, arguing that a conclusion that he had aimed for the legs was not viable.
Rather, B’tselem said that the IDF legal division was bending over backwards to avoid indicting its own “if only to exempt the security forces from culpability for illegally killing Palestinians.”
The human rights group also noted that the IDF announcement dropped any reference to the rock throwing having been a planned ambush specifically targeting Shomer or to al-Casba throwing multiple rocks which had been part of the initial IDF explanation of the event.
In contrast, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman stated, "I praise the decision of the MAG to close the criminal investigation against...Shomer, who shot to death a Palestinian who threw rocks at him. The time has come that everyone should know that the blood of Israeli soldiers is not free."
Connecting the decision to the most recent investigation into an IDF soldier's shooting of a Palestinian on March 24, he concluded "Now they just need to free from detention the soldier from Hebron."
MK and IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Eyal Ben Reuven (Zionist Union) also “praised the decision of the MAG to close the case…after a thorough and exhaustive investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident.”
Ben Reuven also referenced a recent bill he sponsored to place a gag order on the names of all IDF personnel under investigations so that situations like this one, where the media scrutinized Shomer for an extended period despite that eventually he was not even indicted, would be avoided.Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.