Eyewitness Accounts Point to Israeli Death Squads

By Sherry Lapp

Originally published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , January 1989

Recently three foreign journalists reported the rumor that Israeli "hit squads" were methodically executing leaders of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, and then attributing the deaths to "stray bullets" or shots fired at random to control rioting crowds. Press credentials of correspondents who transmitted the reports were withdrawn and further evidence substantiating such reports has been deleted by the Israeli censors. The evidence continues to accumulate, however, and fear of the Israeli assassination squads is forcing young Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories to take extraordinary steps to preserve their lives.

These wanted men, most in their 20s, but some still in their teens, no longer sleep at home. They take to the hills at night, or move from house to house. Frequently their own families have no idea of their whereabouts, so that soldiers who come to their homes cannot obtain information by threatening family members.

When wanted persons are not found at home, however, soldiers or security police sometimes detain a brother or a father as a hostage. The ransom is the wanted family member. The military has even demolished homes of family members who have failed to inform on wanted men.

In one such instance in the village of Burkiin, in the northern part of the West Bank, a family-owned olive oil extraction factory was destroyed at the outset of the olive season when a wanted son did not emerge from hiding. Two of his brothers are now under detention, but the wanted son is still in hiding.

Increasingly there are reports of youths actually turning themselves in to Israeli authorities for detention to avoid becoming the targets of Israeli hit squads.

Originally, Palestinian activists went underground to avoid detention. Increasingly, however, there are reports of youths actually turning themselves in to the Israeli authorities for detention to avoid becoming the targets of Israeli hit squads.

Israeli soldiers are forbidden to shoot live ammunition at persons unless they are in a life-threatening situation or if they are in pursuit of a fleeing suspect. In the latter situation, soldiers are required to shout warnings and fire into the air prior to shooting directly at the suspect.

Despite this, increasingly in recent months, Israeli security agents or military personnel have killed persons in circumstances which seem to indicate that the executions were planned in advance.

Despite the silencing of foreign journalists who transmitted these reports, Arabic- and Hebrew-language newspapers have continued to report indications that Israel has indeed adopted a policy reminiscent of the death squad tactics long implemented by Latin American regimes to quell popular antigovernment resistance.

One such incident involved the slaying of 23-year-old Kamal Mohammed Hassan al-S'ria and 25-year-old Fadal Ibrahim Shehadeh Najar from the West Bank town of Yatta, south of Hebron. A relative of one of the victims related the following account of the incident:

At 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, four men in civilian clothes drove through Yatta in a white Ford van with a West Bank license plate. Because a general strike was being observed to mark the 10th month of the intifadah, the van was conspicuous and a group of children at the far end of the village threw stones at it.

The men in the car, however, did not react but instead circled back through the village and pulled up to a group of eight youths active in the uprising who were standing at the Yatta post office. After the men inside the car greeted them in Arabic, some of the youths stepped forward to warn the driver and passengers that it was not safe for them to be driving on a strike day. The two passengers in the back suddenly jumped out of the van, cursed the youths in Arabic, and opened fire at them with Uzi machine guns and pistols. The driver and front seat passenger also opened fire from their seats at the youths, none of whom were more than six feet from the van.

Marked Men

One youth who was hit in the leg fell but then struggled to his feet and escaped. A second youth, Kamal, was hit in the side of the stomach. As he fell, his identity card dropped out of his pocket onto the ground. One of the men read the name on the card, exclaimed, "I'm looking for you," and shot Kamal four more times. Fadal, a close friend of Kamal's, tried to pull Kamal away. Two more shots were fired and Fadal was hit in the stomach. He collapsed on top of Kamal's body.

As the other youths fled, the men continued shooting and threw a grenade at them. All eight youths were wounded, either by bullets or grenade fragments. Another youth who arrived at the scene after the shooting was seized by the armed men, who dragged Fadal and Kamal into the van as well. According to townspeople, Kamal was not yet dead.

As they drove off, the men fired into the streets to frighten off pursuers. Many residents reported hearing the sound of a revolver being fired inside the van. A quarter mile from the post office, the men stopped the van and dumped the two bodies onto the roadside. One of the men fired tracer bullets into the air, apparently as a sign for the Israeli soldiers outside the town to come to the scene. Within minutes soldiers entered the village from two sides and evacuated the four men in the van and their live captive with them. The entire incident took 15 minutes.

Fadal and Kamal were both wanted by the Israeli authorities and had been in hiding for seven months since March 1988, when soldiers first came to Yatta to arrest them. For three months their families had been harassed repeatedly by soldiers who raided their homes after midnight. During searches, soldiers destroyed household goods and dumped food supplies on the floor. Then the soldiers stopped coming. A week before the incident, however, Fadal's family had received a phone call informing them in Arabic that Fadal was a marked man who would be killed.

Curfews and Guarded Funerals

After the shootings, soldiers imposed a three-day curfew on Yatta. The two youths were buried in a ceremony closely guarded by Israeli soldiers which only 10 members of each family were permitted to attend.

The Hebrew weekly Kol Ha'ir published an article on Oct. 21 recounting details of the incident corresponding to those recounted here. In addition, however, an unnamed relative added several telling details regarding the burial: Kamal's body was riddled with eight gunshot wounds. Fadal's body had four gunshot wounds. One bullet had entered Fadal's neck from underneath his chin and exited upward through his head, giving credence to the townspeople's claim that Fadal had been shot again from very close range, presumably after he was taken inside the van.

An Israeli officer guarding the funeral was overheard by relatives of the dead boys, explaining in Hebrew to another officer that "we had been looking for them."

In another incident, IDF marksmen apparently missed their assigned target. The result was the death of four-year-old Dia' Hajj Mohammaed Fayez Jihad of Nablus. The Israeli military investigation concluded the boy was hit by a "stray bullet" fired into the air from 500 meters away.

What the military investigation failed to make public was that Dia's 26-year-old uncle, just released from Naqab Prison (Ansar 111) after serving six months of administrative detention, was standing with Dia' when the child was shot. Nor did the investigation seek to establish why a "stray" bullet might have been shot from a distance of 500 meters into the secluded alley in front of Dia's grandfather's house on a morning when there were no disturbances anywhere in the area.

In fact, an examination of the incident strongly suggests that the bullet that killed Dia' was fired by a sniper at his uncle and missed its target by only a foot or two. It happened on the morning of Oct. 18. Dia' and his family had arrived at his grandfather's house along with other relatives to celebrate his Uncle Imad's release from Naqab Prison in the Negev the night before. The uncle had arrived at his parent's home that morning, and from the moment of his arrival he was surrounded by an adoring crowd of siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews. When the released prisoner ventured out of the house and started walking down the 30-meter driveway, Dia' was close by his side.

When several shots rang out, Imad took several steps backward, but Dia' cried out and fell to the ground. None of the family members or neighbors saw any soldiers or exactly where the bullets had been shot from. They believe, however, that the shots were fired from an Israeli lookout post located on the roof of a three-story building some 400 to 500 meters up the hill behind their house.

Imad ran quickly to an automobile and his brother followed with Dia' in his arms. As they pulled out of the driveway, heading for a hospital, shots were fired at the car, but missed. Bullet holes peppering a wall and a storefront mark the location of the car when that second fusillade was fired. The child, Dia', had suffered three bullet wounds and was pronounced dead on his arrival at Ittihad Hospital in Nablus.

The military report states, however, that Dia' was hit by just one bullet. The family says the hospital was pressured by the military to record only one bullet injury.

Suspicions About Israeli Hit Squads

Such incidents provide substance to suspicions that Israel has turned to hit squad tactics to quash the Palestinian uprising. The Israeli Defense Force claims it does not operate against standing orders for opening fire. Those slain in the incidents described, however, were neither threatening the lives of IDF personnel nor fleeing from them. Nor were the victims armed. In Yatta, the dead youths were meters from their killers and could easily have been detained alive had that been the intention. In the Nablus incident, the child and his uncle can hardly be accused of threatening or fleeing from a slayer they never saw. Is there a second set of standing orders unknown to the Israeli public and grounded in different law than that to which the IDF publicly claims to adhere?

On Oct. 13, 1988, the Jerusalem Post carried a front-page story headlined: "IDF blows up four homes of suspected Palestinian hit squad." It reported that four houses were destroyed and four others sealed. They belonged to families of men suspected of killing three Palestinians known to have collaborated with the Israeli authorities. The story reported that three suspects had been caught and confessed to the killings. Six other persons suspected of involvement in the killing incidents were still at large. None of the suspects were tried in court prior to the demolitions, nor were any charges brought against the families displaced by the demolitions. Their crime was being related to suspected members of Palestinian hit squads. What then does the law say about suspected members of IDF hit squads and their families?