Witnesses challenge Israeli policeman’s killing of Palestinian

Footage showed Ammar Mefleh trying to grab the police officer’s weapon during the strugle

JERUSALEM — An eyewitness to the killing of a Palestinian by Israeli forces has told the BBC he believes the man was shot simply for punching a policeman.

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Ammar Mefleh was killed at close range in the occupied West Bank last Friday.

He is the 10th Palestinian shot dead by Israeli troops in the space of a week.

Video of the shooting drew a massive reaction online and sparked a diplomatic rebuke by Israel to a top UN official who said he was “horrified” at the killing.

Israeli officials praised the officer involved saying he responded after the Palestinian stabbed a policeman in the face, and his actions prevented a “mass terror attack”.

Palestinian leaders described it as an execution “in cold blood”.

Mefleh, 22, was killed in the Palestinian town of Huwara, which lies on a main road frequently used by Israeli settlers and has been the scene of growing violence in recent months.

This year in the West Bank more than 150 Palestinians have been killed, nearly all by Israeli forces. The dead include unarmed civilians, militant gunmen and armed attackers.

Meanwhile, a series of Palestinian 

attacks targeting Israelis, as well as militant gunfire at troops during arrest raids, have killed more than 30 people including civilians, police and soldiers.

The footage from Friday, shared extensively online, was rare in capturing in detail part of the event that led up to the shooting. The last 13 seconds are caught in a second video from another angle.

In the recording, the Israeli officer is seen holding Mefleh in a headlock as the pair struggle. Two other Palestinians are in the melee at first, but then step back.

After Mefleh struggles out of the headlock, he tries to grab the policeman’s rifle. As they wrestle over the weapon the officer takes a hand off it — first to try to hit the Palestinian, who strikes him back — then to reach for his pistol.

Mefleh for a split second has hold of the rifle but almost instantly throws it down or lets go of it, recoiling as he sees the officer raise his pistol. The policeman shoots him instantly, four times.

Following his killing, a popular Israeli news website reported that the officer had “eliminated the terrorist”. The footage was repeatedly circulated on Palestinian social media with people appalled at the killing.

The UN’s envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, tweeted that he was “horrified by today’s killing of a Palestinian man, Ammar Mefleh, during a scuffle with an Israeli soldier,” calling for those responsible to be held accountable.

A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, Emmanuel Nahshon, tweeted in response that Wennesland’s reaction was a “total distortion of reality”.

“The incident is a terror attack, in which an Israeli policeman was stabbed in his face and the life of another officer was threatened and consequently he shot his assailant,” Nahshon added.

“This is NOT a ‘scuffle’ — this is a terror attack!”

The row drew increased focus on the precise events leading up to his killing.

On Friday evening, Israeli police said the incident began when a Palestinian armed with a knife picked up a rock and tried to break into an Israeli couple’s car. They said the driver, an off-duty soldier, shot the man leaving him injured — thought to be from the bullet or shrapnel glancing his head.

Police said the wounded Palestinian then approached two border police officers on patrol in their vehicle, stabbing one in the face, while the other — the policeman later seen in the video — got out and chased him, leading up to the events captured in the footage and the fatal shooting.

Police published an image of an officer with his identity obscured with a wound to his face and a close-up picture of a knife lying on a roadside (although one Israeli media report cited the police investigation as saying the knife fell into the police car after the officer was stabbed).

Over the weekend police released footage of the officer who killed Mefleh describing the events: “Me and my team were on a mission patrolling the road [when] the terrorist came and stabbed my driver in the face. Immediately I knew it was a terrorist attack. I got out of the vehicle and went after the terrorist,” said the policeman who is not identified.

“I identified the terrorist and the Israeli civilian vehicle he tried to infiltrate while armed with a knife, and the terrorist immediately confronted me violently,” he said in a further statement.

“[He] tried to steal my weapon. I knew that if he took my weapon there would be a mass terror attack and I took out my pistol. I succeeded in pulling out my gun and shot the terrorist until he was neutralized,” he added.

However, the accounts of four eyewitnesses who spoke to the BBC in Huwara did not match the police version of events.

One said the incident appeared to begin with a confrontation in the street, possibly connected to a road accident that was blocking traffic.

“I was standing over there next to the butchers,” said Nader Allan, who had just left a nearby wedding.

“A settler’s car stopped. I’m not sure if he hit the [Palestinian] guy’s car, or if the guy was walking in the street. They started yelling at each other and I heard a shot. The settler shot the guy in the face. He was bleeding and he fell on the floor,” he said.

Like the other eyewitnesses, Allan said this was the moment the Israeli police officer arrived. A short video taken by one witness shows an officer — who looks similar to the one in the fatal shooting footage — giving directions on a police radio and standing close to Mefleh who is lying with a bloodied face in the street, as passers-by gather.

Another photo shows a similar scene, which appears fairly calm as locals speak on their phones. A witness said people tried to give Mefleh first aid.

Another witness, Mahmoud Abed, who works in a kebab restaurant, said he also rushed out when he heard Mefleh being shot at by the Israeli driver.

“We found a guy on the floor with his face covered in blood. A policeman came from far away. He looked at him and kicked him, then the policeman said something on the radio,” he said.

Both Abed and Allan say the wounded Palestinian then got up and confronted the Israeli officer, trying to hit him. They say this is what triggered the confrontation that led to the officer getting him in a headlock, before fatally shooting him.

Another eyewitness, Bahaa Odeh who runs an ice-cream shop, said he heard a commotion and came out to see the policeman holding Mefleh in a headlock, and then saw him kill him.

“Because of how upset I got from what I saw I started shouting at the soldier telling him ‘you’re despicable… there was no danger to your life, why did you kill him?’

“I told him ‘you are a coward… you killed him because he punched you. He has a right to defend himself,'” said Odeh.

As the sense of anger grew in response to Mefleh’s killing, confrontations later broke out between Israeli forces and residents. Odeh was hit by a rubber bullet, leaving him with wounds to his chest and arm.

Asked whether Mefleh had a knife, all four witnesses insisted he did not. No weapon is visible in Mefleh’s hands or anywhere in the photo of him lying wounded after being shot by the Israeli driver.

To add to the discrepancy over the sequence of events, on Saturday Israeli police were quoted as saying they were “97% certain” that it was Mefleh who had stabbed the police officer in the car; whereas on Friday their statement contained no doubt over this.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited police as saying they had longer footage of the incident from several different cameras which “strengthens the assessment” that the Palestinian man who was killed was the one who stabbed the policeman.

Israeli police did not respond to questions about the eyewitness accounts compared to those of the officers.