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From the field

Trigger Happy: Unjustified Gunfire and the IDF's Open-Fire Regulations during the al-Aqsa Intifada

March 2002, Summary

"You hear shooting, nothing effective. You jump and start shooting. There's nowhere to shoot. You shoot at suspicious places, which is a bush here and a bush there, more or less. But the soldiers take a bit of initiative and shoot at suspicious water tanks, suspicious television antennas, suspicious satellite dishes. Maybe they catch the al-Jazeera station and get ideas, who knows, so the soldiers shoot... This was an incident that was later reported on the army radio as 'shots were fired at the greenhouses of the Morag settlement. Our forces returned fire to the sources of the shooting.' I don't know about any sources of the shooting, and I was there."
From a soldier's testimony to B'Tselem

On the afternoon of 27 September 2001, 'Ali Abu Balima, a thirty-year-old mentally retarded man from Dir el-Balah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, was walking near the road by the adjacent Kfar Darom settlement. A week earlier, the IDF had declared the road closed to Palestinians. The soldiers at the nearby army post fired several shots at Balima, killing him. On 17 December 2001, several children from the Khan Yunis refugee camp were playing with toy weapons made of plastic. IDF soldiers at a post some one hundred meters away fired live ammunition at them, killing Muhammad Hanaidiq, age 15. These are just two examples of the consequences of the IDF's open-fire policy during the al-Aqsa intifada.

Senior IDF officials have repeatedly rejected claims that soldiers fire without justification and claim that the IDF refrains from harming innocent persons. This report contradicts these claims: The IDF's open-fire policy throughout this intifada has resulted in extensive harm to Palestinian civilians who were not involved in any activity against Israel. These incidents are not "exceptional" cases, but rather they constitute a large portion of the casualties throughout the Occupied Territories.

Open-Fire Regulations

Until the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, the Open-Fire Regulations in the Occupied Territories were based on Israel's penal code. Soldiers were only allowed to fire live ammunition in two situations: when soldiers were in real and immediate life threatening danger, and during the apprehension of a suspect.
When the intifada began, the IDF defined the events in the Occupied Territories as an "armed conflict short of war," and expanded the range of situations in which soldiers are permitted to open fire. Specifically, this was done through the artificial expansion of the term "life threatening."

The new version of the Open-Fire Regulations, which according to press reports are referred to as "Blue Lilac," have remained secret. The IDF continues its policy of the pervious intifada and refuses to publish the Regulations. B'Tselem's information is therefore based primarily on testimonies from soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories during the intifada, statements given by Israeli officials, and media reports.

B'Tselem's report reveals a series of problems with the IDF's policy regarding the Open-Fire Regulations:

  1. The Regulations permit, at least in some instances, the firing of live ammunition even in cases when there is no immediate life-threatening danger to members of the security forces or civilians.
  2. The Regulations are unclear and are not transmitted in an orderly fashion to soldiers. In contrast to the first intifada, soldiers are not provided with a written copy of the Open-Fire Regulations, but rather are given oral briefings by their officers, who also have not received the Open-Fire Regulations in writing. As a result, soldiers often receive unclear and conflicting messages regarding when they are allowed to open-fire. This is a particularly grave situation given the nature of the IDF's actions in the Occupied Territories and the high risk for injury to the civilian population.
  3. The IDF effectively grants immunity to soldiers who open fire illegally. Since the beginning of the intifada, the IDF has ceased to automatically open an investigation into every case in which a Palestinian is killed by IDF fire. The decision as to whether to open a Military Police investigation into each incident is now made by the Judge Advocate General's office, based on the results of the field de-briefings, which are also carried out by the army itself. In one case that was exposed by B'Tselem, it was clear that an eleven-year-old child had died as a result of the violation of procedures and illegal shooting. Despite this, the Judge Advocate General's office decided not to request a Military Police investigation. In addition, the investigations that are opened are generally protracted and based primarily on soldiers' testimonies, while completely ignoring the Palestinian eyewitnesses.

This policy has unavoidably resulted in a situation in which shooting at innocent Palestinians has practically become a routine.

Examples of Unjustified Firing

The report presents examples of five patterns of unjustified shooting.

  1. The use of excessive force in the dispersal of demonstrations: Soldiers fired live ammunition at stone throwers. In addition, the use of metal-coated rubber bullets is carried out without strict adherence to the rules, which turns them into a lethal weapon.
  2. Fire from checkpoints at innocent passers-by: Soldiers fired at pedestrians and vehicles that were near checkpoints, despite the fact that they were in no way endangering the soldiers' lives.
  3. Disproportionate and indiscriminate return fire: In contrast to IDF claims that in response to Palestinian gun-fire, soldiers return fire only at the source of the shooting, in many cases the soldiers fire indiscriminately. As a result, innocent people who were not involved in the fighting against the IDF were injured.
  4. Fire at Palestinians bearing weapons: On a number of occasions, soldiers received instructions to shoot at all Palestinians who were bearing weapons, despite the fact that in the Occupied Territories there are many Palestinian policemen who are armed but are not involved in the fighting against the IDF.
  5. Fire in "Danger-Zones": In a number of areas in the Gaza Strip the regulations permitted firing at anyone who approached a certain site. As a result of this fire, innocent people were killed.

The responsibility for harming innocent people does not rest exclusively with the soldier who pulls the trigger. The primary responsibility rests with the senior commanders and the policymakers. They bear the responsibility for formulating regulations that permit shooting in cases in which there is no life-danger posed to the soldier; for sending unclear messages regarding cases in which it is permissible to open fire; for effectively granting immunity to soldiers who opened fire illegally; and for the lack of a proper process to learn from past experience in order to prevent unjustified shooting from becoming a matter of routine. The definition of legal and illegal shooting must be explicit and forthright, and not left to the complete discretion of the individual soldier in the field.

In the conclusions of the report, B'Tselem calls on Israel's military and government policymakers to:

  • Avoid opening fire in cases when there is no life-threatening danger posed to soldiers.
  • Distribute written Open-Fire Regulations to soldiers in a manner that clearly and unequivocally defines the circumstances in which they can open fire.
  • Publicize at least the basic principles of the Open-Fire Regulations.
  • Conduct an in-depth investigation into all cases in which Palestinian civilians not involved in fighting were injured by gunfire, and, where warranted, bring all those responsible for such incidents to trial.