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Palestinian deaths toll in West Bank hits 100 this year

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Image source, Reuters

At least 100 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem this year amid a massive increase in Israeli military raids, according to figures compiled by the BBC.

The number was reached as an 18-year-old man was shot dead in East Jerusalem on Saturday and after a week which saw Israeli forces reportedly firing an anti-tank missile at a house in Jenin that killed a wanted gunman and three others.

It means this year is now on course to become the deadliest for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2015.

The vast majority were shot dead by Israeli security forces and several by armed Israeli civilians.

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In a small number of cases the source of gunfire – Israeli or Palestinian – is disputed, while one man was shot dead during an arrest raid carried out by Palestinian security forces.

As human rights groups express mounting alarm, the figures show nearly a fifth of the Palestinians killed were children, the youngest of whom was 14.

Meanwhile the US this week called for an immediate investigation after a seven-year-old boy died of apparent heart failure when the Israeli military came to the family home after his brothers were accused of throwing stones. The army says an initial inquiry found no connection between its search and the boy’s death.

The list of fatalities includes gunmen from militant groups, teenagers and young men shot after reportedly throwing stones or petrol bombs, unarmed civilians and bystanders, protesters and anti-settlement activists, and individuals carrying out alleged knife attacks or using other weapons against Israeli soldiers or civilians.

Palestinian officials have accused Israel of carrying out “field executions”, while the period also saw the worst wave of violence against Israelis in years.

In the spring, a spate of deadly attacks by Arab Israelis and Palestinians killed 16 Israelis and two foreigners, after which near nightly army raids have taken place in the West Bank as Israeli officials said they would aggressively counter a growing terrorism threat.

Their pace has stoked fears of a much wider flare-up, with the Israeli military accused of routinely using excessive force and collective punishment, while security forces of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) have been losing their grip to armed groups whose firepower has grown to levels unmatched in years.

The raids frequently spark gunfights with young, newly-armed militants in densely populated areas of Jenin and Nablus.

Israeli and Palestinian officials blame each other for the security collapse in the northern West Bank.

An armed man attends a funeral of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in Jenin (28/09/22)

Image source, Reuters

In a statement the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it used live fire when all other options were exhausted in response to “violent riots and acts of terrorism daily”.

It said: “In the case of the death of a Palestinian as a result of IDF activity, a Military Police criminal investigation is generally launched to clarify the circumstances of the incident. However, in incidents where the operations were of a real combat nature, a criminal investigation is not immediately launched.”

In August, then-UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said many cases appeared to break international law combined with “an almost total lack of accountability”.

Our analysis of the Palestinian death toll draws on a range of sources including the BBC’s own on-the-ground coverage, regional media reporting and official statements cross-referenced with reports from non-governmental groups and UN agencies.

The youngest Palestinian killed in the West Bank was 14-year-old Mohammad Salah, shot by soldiers in late February close to Israel’s separation barrier south of Bethlehem.

The IDF alleged he threw petrol bombs on to a road but didn’t say why it used lethal force to stop this. His family say he wasn’t close to the road when he was shot dead.

The oldest fatalities were two 80-year-old men in separate incidents. One of them, Palestinian-American Omar Assad, died from a heart attack after being bound and gagged by troops during a village search in January.

The army later said it had suspended two officers from command positions and passed the file to military investigators.

By mid-March, 20 Palestinians had been killed, before this year’s deadly wave of violence that struck Israel’s streets.

Relatives and friends mourn during the funeral of an Israeli killed in an attack in Tel Aviv (08/04/22)

Image source, AFP

Those attacks were carried out by Arab Israeli supporters of the Islamic State group and by Palestinian gunmen mostly from the Jenin area.

The deadliest attack was claimed by the militant group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades while each was praised by Hamas – the Palestinian militant group that dominates the blockaded Gaza strip – and Islamic Jihad. All three are listed by Israel and the West as terrorist organisations.

The Israeli military then launched Operation Breakwater. Naftali Bennett, prime minister at the time, gave security forces “full freedom” to end the threats. “There are not and will not be limits for this war,” he said.

‘Uneven battle’

Of the 100 fatalities, most were shot dead by Israeli forces during search, arrest and punitive home demolition raids.

More than half the total number have been in Jenin and Nablus or surrounding villages in the northern West Bank.

Around a third of all those killed were militant gunmen. In many but not all cases Israeli soldiers shot them during or after reported exchanges of fire, although the IDF virtually never gives accounts of what happens in any detail.

Across the West Bank, at least a quarter of the total number of fatalities took place when soldiers used live ammunition to fire at young men or teenagers in groups it said had thrown stones, petrol bombs or improvised explosives.

In June the BBC witnessed the aftermath of an army raid into Jenin, reportedly a weapons search, in which gunmen from three militant groups were said to have pursued and fired at army jeeps, before an Israeli sniper on a rooftop shot them dead in their car.

Several young men also suffered bullet wounds after apparently throwing stones, while crowds outside the hospital called for revenge.

It came amid a collapse of security control by the PA, which has limited powers to govern Palestinian cities.

We saw the growth of weaponry in Jenin refugee camp, new formations of militants – many still just teenagers – and a rejection of the formal Palestinian leadership viewed as corrupt and unwilling to defend them.

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Young gunmen backed by established armed groups have fused into the Jenin Brigade, while in Nablus militants patrolling the Ottoman-era alleyways of the Old City dub themselves the Den of Lions.

In the summer Israeli forces targeted the group’s 19-year-old leader Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, or the Lion of Nablus, as he was known from his TikTok videos – as part of a trend for such footage to go viral among Palestinians.

Early on 9 August soldiers raided the city in unmarked vans, surrounded his safe house and fired shoulder launched missiles at it, killing him and another gunman.

Israel wanted al-Nabulsi for a spate of shooting attempts against Israelis around Nablus. Another two Palestinians, including a 16-year-old boy, were also shot dead during the raid in unclear circumstances.

The building’s ruins have become a shrine, where other gunmen vow to fight on.

But this is an “uneven battle”, according to Amos Harel, defence analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, given Israel’s overwhelming military superiority.

He says the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) did two things to try to stem the threat of attacks: It flooded Israel’s West Bank separation barrier with troops, and readied battalions and commando units to raid Palestinian cities to carry out “preventative” arrests.

Mr Harel was embedded with Israeli forces on a raid into Jenin refugee camp in March.

“You saw young people on motorcycles getting close to the Israeli jeeps, sometimes 20 or 30 metres [65-100ft] behind them, and just shooting,” he told the BBC.

“This is different [from the recent past]. These are people who are willing to fight and willing to die.”

‘Life has changed a lot’

According to the figures, 19 Palestinian children have been killed in the West Bank this year.

Most of the under-18s were shot dead by Israeli soldiers during military search-and-arrest raids or anti-occupation protests.

One boy was killed while carrying out an alleged hammer attack on a soldier.

Mourners carry the body of a Palestinian gunman who was killed by Israeli forces in Nablus (09/08/22)

Image source, Reuters

The human rights group Defence for Children International (DCI) Palestine has said the death toll indicates a “complete disregard for international norms” by the Israeli military.

In July, 16-year-old Amjad Nasr was shot dead in the village of Al Mughayyir, where tensions frequently erupt as Israeli settlers have targeted nearby land to build illegal outposts.

Palestinians and settlers confronted each other, both groups throwing stones, while at least one of the settlers was armed with a machine gun.

Video of the moment Amjad was hit shows him starting to run away as a gunshot is heard.

A soldier can be seen nearby although it’s still not clear who fired the fatal bullet – Amjad’s family maintain it was one of the settlers.

Amjad’s father, Nashaat Nasr, told the BBC he had not received any explanation from the army about his son’s death.

“Life has changed a lot without Amjad. He left school to help me as I suffered from cancer and underwent chemotherapy treatment. He used to help the family,” he said.

Asked about the incident at the time the Israeli army said it was being “examined”, and forwarded the BBC a video and photos of Palestinians on a road attacking a passing Israeli car with stones. It didn’t respond to questions about how this was connected to the shooting of Amjad Nasr in a different location while he was running from security forces.

The IDF subsequently said a military police investigation was under way into his death.

Meanwhile, the IDF’s competence or willingness to investigate itself over fatal incidents has been increasingly subject to question this year.

After the killing in Jenin of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Israeli officials gave misleading statements to the media, before a final internal probe falsely suggested a soldier probably mistakenly shot her because he was being fired at by militants from her location at the time.

Israeli soldiers check damage in a bus, at the scene of a shooting attack in the Jordan Valley, in the West Bank (04/09/22)

Image source, Reuters

The IDF routinely says it acts to protect its civilians and soldiers from “violent riots” during raids or protests, while officials defend its rules of engagement allowing for the use of live fire.

Two years ago, a 21-year-old Israeli soldier was killed when a large rock was thrown at him from a rooftop during an arrest raid near Jenin.

This year, two members of Israel’s security forces have been killed in the escalating violence in the West Bank.

One of them, Maj Bar Falah, was shot dead in September near the separation barrier in a reported gunfight with two Palestinian militants who were also killed.

The IDF says the number of gun attacks by Palestinians targeting civilians and the military in the West Bank has risen three-fold compared with last year. It put the number at 170 by mid-September.

Israeli officials also briefed reporters that Operation Breakwater had prevented 550 separate attacks in the last two months, but did not provide further details.

In at least eight cases this year Palestinians were killed during attempted or alleged attacks against Israeli soldiers or settlers in the West Bank.

On 31 March, an Israeli bus passenger was stabbed with a screwdriver near the settlement of Efrat, leaving him badly wounded. Another Israeli civilian onboard shot dead the alleged attacker, 30-year-old Palestinian Nidal Jaafra.

Meanwhile the frequent IDF raids have seen more than 1,500 Palestinians arrested since April.

Aseel AlBajeh, an advocacy officer with the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, describes the overall impact of Israel’s operation as “collective punishment on the entire region”, citing further restrictions on movement, the closure of military checkpoints to Israel, denial of work permits and detentions without trial that have accompanied it.

Many Palestinian families have been waiting for a clear explanation about loved ones’ deaths.

Omar, child of Palestinian woman Ghada Sabatien who was shot by an Israeli soldier on 10 April

Image source, AFP

A 47-year-old widow, Ghada Sabatien, was shot dead by an Israeli soldier at close range after the IDF says she “ignored orders to halt”. It happened on 10 April in the village of Husan near Bethlehem.

She was unarmed and a subsequent report by the UN’s humanitarian affairs agency said she was visually impaired. The IDF said afterwards it had opened an investigation into her death.

Human rights groups say they will seek to add many of this year’s cases to a current investigation by the International Criminal Court into possible war crimes by Israel and Palestinian armed groups.

In August, 49 Palestinians were also killed in the Gaza Strip during a military escalation between Israel and Islamic Jihad.

The list of 100 fatalities does not include Palestinians who were killed this year while carrying out the attacks inside Israel.

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