B’Tselem: `“Soldiers shot to death ‘Itaf Zalat, 43, in her living room, Tulkarm, May 2006`

In the early morning hours of 1 May 2006, soldiers from the "Duvdevan" undercover unit carried out an operation to arrest a wanted person in the Thannaba neighborhood of Tulkarm. During the operation, the soldiers fired at the second floor of a residential building in the neighborhood, killing ‘Itaf Zalat, 43, and wounding her two daughters, Ahlam, 21, who suffered moderate injuries, and Ansam, 15, who was slightly injured.

This report was prepared by the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (B’Tselem)

Army sources told the media that they regretted the death of the woman but justified the shooting into the apartment on the grounds that the wanted person was a sub-tenant in the apartment, and that the soldiers opened fire after they noticed a "suspicious movement."

However, in its response to B’Tselem’s query, sent more than two weeks after the incident, army Spokesperson contends that the woman was killed by "warning fire" intended to get the wanted person to surrender.

 B’Tselem’s investigation indicates that the wanted person did not live in the Zalat apartment and was not staying there, and that at the time of the fatal shooting, the soldiers’ lives were not in danger. B’Tselem has demanded that the Judge Advocate General not rely on the operational debriefing, but immediately order a Military Police investigation into the matter. [??what, no mention of the army’s contention they were investigating, or about the procedure for investigations of this kind??]

Chronology of the incident

The target of the operation was Iyad Mu’in, who lived in one of the two apartments on the first floor of the building. The apartment next to his was vacant. The second floor has two apartments. In one, the Zalat family (parents and five children) lived, and Mr. and Mrs. al-Masri lived in the other apartment. The three occupied apartments were rentals. The building’s owner, ‘Abd al-Hadi Taqawa, told B’Tselem that Mu’in had rented the apartment under the name Wissam ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, and had presented forged documents.

Around 3:30 A.M. on 1 May 2006, some twenty soldiers from the "Duvdevan" unit broke into the house of ‘Othman Rashid ‘Othman, which is located on the second floor of an apartment house about thirty meters east of the building in which Mu’in lived. At some stage, soldiers also took up a position in a building to the west of the building in which the wanted person lived.

At about 3:45, Yusef Zalat was awakened by the sound of calls on loudspeakers "to come outside." Zalat mistakenly thought that the calls were directed at the occupants of the neighbor’s building, so he and his family stayed inside their apartment.

About fifteen minutes later, there was a sound of stun grenades exploding, and the other members of the Zalat family woke up and assembled in the living room. According to media reports, the grenades were fired "for deterrence purposes" and not in response to gunfire or stone throwing by Palestinians. Later, around 4:45, the al-Masri couple joined the Zalat family.

Around 5:10, immediately after the alarm clock on one of Zalat’s daughters’ cell phones rang, a burst of crossfire lasting a number of seconds struck the family’s apartment. The gunfire came from the ‘Othman apartment and from the other building in which the soldiers had positioned themselves.

From the ‘Othman apartment, the soldiers aimed at the window of the Zalat’s kitchen, which opens into the living room, where the family and the neighbors were assembled. Ahlam Zalat was hit in the hand and thigh, and Ansam, 15, was struck by debris. A few seconds later, a bullet struck the mother, ‘Itaf, in the head, killing her.

Sketh of the scene of the incident. In the center, the Zalat family house and on the left, the house of the ‘Othman family, from which ‘Itaf Zalat was shot.

Immediately after the shooting, Yusef Zalat went outside, his hands raised, to call for help. He went over to one of the soldiers in the street and asked that the ambulance parked at the end of the street be permitted to come to the entrance of the building to evacuate his injured daughters. At this stage, Zalat already knew that his wife was dead. The soldier refused, but allowed Zalat to take his daughters to where the ambulance was parked.

Shortly after that, Iyad Mu’in surrendered to the soldiers. The reports on his arrest did not mention that weapons or ammunition were found on the premises, so one can assume that he was not armed. Testimonies given to B’Tselem indicate that not one shot was fired at the soldiers. After Mu’in was arrested, an army bulldozer destroyed the stone fence around the building and one of the walls of Mu’in’s apartment. The reason for the destruction is not clear.

At 8:30 A.M., the soldiers left the neighborhood.

Was the shooting justified?

According to army sources, the soldiers opened fire after they saw "suspicious movement" in the apartment. According to the testimony of the family members, it is not clear what raised the soldiers’ suspicion. The claim there was "suspicious movement," which purportedly justified the soldiers commencing fire, is also hard to understand in light of the relatively short distance, some 30-40 meters, between the Zalat’s apartment and the ‘Othman apartment, where the soldiers were positioned. The claim is even more confusing because soldiers generally have sophisticated visual aids, including night vision equipment.

Furthermore, even if the soldiers noticed "suspicious movement", as claimed by the military sources, it is unclear how the movement could have endangered the soldiers’ lives. The soldiers who were watching the apartment from the two adjacent buildings were behind walls and were not exposed to gunfire. The soldiers in the street were standing alongside the two armored jeeps that had brought the forces to the area, and presumably used these vehicles as protection during the siege on the building.

Was the shooting justified?

A slightly different version of the reason for the shooting was given by the army spokespersons’ Office in a letter to B’Tselem on 18 May 2006: the soldiers did not open fire at the house because of "suspicious movement," but as "warning fire" intended to cause Mu’in to surrender.

This contention is even harder to understand than the previous version, given that the bullet that hit Zalat in the head was not an "stray bullet" that penetrated her apartment, as appears from the version given by the army Spokespersons’ Office, but was part of the crossfire aimed at the windows of the apartment that lasted for some time.

Trigger-happy soldiers

From January 2004 to the time of this incident, Israeli forces have killed 157 persons in actions to arrest wanted persons in the West Bank . At least thirty-five of the fatalities were civilians who were not wanted, and at least fifty-four others were listed as wanted but were not armed or did not use their weapons when they were shot and killed.

The killing of innocent civilians and wanted persons who did not endanger soldiers’ lives during the arrest operations is not a matter of "regrettable mistakes" or the "inevitable" product of the circumstances of the particular case.

It is a direct result of army policy. Following the outbreak of the second intifada, the army changed its open-fire regulations in general, and regarding operations to arrest wanted persons, in particular, in a way that encourages a "quick trigger finger."

Soldiers are instructed to open fire also in situations in which their lives are not at risk. Soldiers are given verbal orders, which are often vague, enabling a wide variety of interpretation and partial, or mistaken, transmission of the orders.

 In addition, since the second intifada began, the Judge Advocate General’s Office has refrained from opening Military Police investigations in cases in which Palestinian civilians were killed by soldiers’ fire, except in exceptional cases. This fact creates an atmosphere of immunity and non-accountability.

B’Tselem’s report Take No Prisoners, published in May 2005, which describes and analyzes four operations to arrest wanted persons during the preceding year, indicates that the soldiers acted as if they were sent on missions to kill, and not arrest, the wanted persons, in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law. In two of the cases, soldiers besieged a house in which a person on the wanted list was staying and opened fire at another person who lived there, at the moment that he opened the door, without prior warning and without giving him any opportunity to surrender.

The persons killed in these cases were unarmed and did not endanger the soldiers’ lives. In the last two of the four cases, security forces "neutralized" the person wanted by them, but they still fired at him and killed him. In one of the cases, the person raised his hands in surrender and was then shot; in the other case, a person who was wounded by soldiers’ gunfire later tried to escape and was shot while lying wounded on the ground, after his weapon had been taken from him.

B’Tselem demanded the judge advocate general to open a Military Police investigation into the circumstances of the killing of ‘Itaf Zalat and the wounding of her daughters, and, if appropriate based on the investigation, prosecute the persons responsible for these acts.

Also, B’Tselem demanded that the government of Israel order the security forces to refrain from opening fire when their lives are not at risk, and to ensure that all soldiers are given a written copy of open-fire regulations that state clearly and unequivocally the circumstances in which they are permitted, or forbidden, to open fire.

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