The weekly protests in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh can seem like a game, a ritualized contest between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers.
The protesters start at the same time every week, follow the same route, attract the same Israeli and foreign supporters, and generate the same sort of media coverage.
The Israeli soldiers in combat gear push back against the demonstrators, fire tear gas and stun grenades, and blast people with putrid, high pressure “stinky water.”
Then one day something goes wrong. People get seriously hurt. And in the case of Mustafa Tamimi, killed. Tamimi, 27, was mortally wounded on December 9, 2011 and died the next day. He was the cousin of Mohammad Tamimi, a central character in Holy Land.
Holy Land includes a video that shows the immediate aftermath of Mustafa’s injury. A human rights activist from the group B’Tselem was filming the demonstration on that day, and she tapes as she runs toward Mustafa, s lying on the road with a grave wound to the eye. Screaming, angry, distraught demonstrators surround the body as an ambulance pulls away.
The incident was filmed from more than just one angle. Photographer Haim Scwarczenberg captured the shooting with a series of powerful still photos. The photos establish that Mustafa and another man are in the middle of the road, throwing rocks at an Israeli jeep pulling away from them. The rear door of the jeep opens, a muzzle protrudes, there’s a puff of smoke, Mustafa drops to the ground. The door closes and the jeep continues to drive away.
To the Nabi Saleh Palestinians, it was clear the IDF killed Mustafa in cold blood. B’Tselem immediately filed a complaint with the Military Police Investigative Unit (MPU) in Jerusalem, and the unit opened an investigation. IDF policy prohibits shooting gas grenades directly at people. According to Israeli newspaper Haartez: “In order to preserve their function as non-lethal crowd-dispersing weapons, grenade-launchers are trained to fire at a projectile trajectory. In addition, IDF soldiers are instructed to always look through the guns’ sights when shooting.”
The investigation lasted for two years, until Dec 2013, when the army announced it could find no wrongdoing by the soldier who fired at Tamimi, closing the case. The investigation was based on testimony from the soldier and review of the video evidence.
The soldier testified that he did not see Tamimi when he fired, and that he was firing in response to a barrage of rocks being thrown at the jeep. The IDF central command accepted this account, according to Haaretz.
“The shooting was conducted according to protocol and in full accordance to relevant guidelines, and no law was broken when it was carried out. Therefore, the case was closed with no judicial actions put forth before any party,” Lt. Col. Ronen Hirsch explained in a letter B’Tselem.
According to the IDF, the video evidence made it possible to “construct the full picture of the incident,” and that experts “concluded that due to the narrow opening of the jeep’s door, and Tamimi’s movement toward the vehicle, the solider could not see Tamimi when he fired the shot.”
B’Tselem responded that the decision ordained “the next death is only a matter of time.” “The decision illustrates a disregard for Palestinian life in the West Bank,” B’Tselem said in their response. ” We find it difficult to understand how such shooting, from within a moving jeep, under circumstances where it was unclear nobody would be hurt, can be considered legal.”
Mustafa instantly became a revered local martyr, joining other Nabi Saleh men killed in the conflict. He was one of four killed in the West Bank that year in incidents that were related to rock throwing at demonstrations, one of 11 killed that year in all incidents. His death was mostly closely associated with the death of Bassem Ibrahim Ahmad Abu Rahm in the town of Bi’lin in 2009, as recounted in the documentary “5 Broken Cameras.” And the killing was followed almost exactly a year later by another death in Nabi Saleh — Rushdie Tamimi, 31, who was killed by live fire.
For Holy Land’s Mohammad, who was only 22 when his cousin was killed, the incident no doubt had a profound impact, one that he was almost unable to articulate. Mohammad dedicated a magazine he edited to Mustafa, and a 15-picutre panel of photos of the killing is the magazine’s centerpiece.
In one particularly odd twist in the Mustafa Tamimi case, the IDF investigators claimed that they could not conduct a full-scale investigation, because the hurling of rocks at police investigators interrupted a reconstruction of the event.
“A violent riot that included throwing stones at military police officials interrupted the execution of a reconstruction several times, and was stopped before it could be completed,” an IDF statement read.
It’s hard to determine if this is Kafkaesque, Orwellian or both. While the Tamimi case itself may be complicated by the fog of war, the statement that the investigation could not be properly completed due to rock throwing is a telling forensic shred, an indicator of the absurd moral compromise that underlies Israeli policy in the West Bank.
There is no doubt that the Israeli military controls Nabi Saleh, entering it at will, answering to no constitutional restrictions that protect the Palestinians who live there. It’s common for the IDF to declare a place a “closed military” zone, and to forcibly keep people from entering it.