Stories Differ After Israeli Soldiers Kill Palestinian

A Palestinian man who was killed by Israeli soldiers earlier this year did not make many headlines. Rashid Shawakha was fatally shot in the occupied West Bank one evening in late March. Israeli authorities initially declared him a terrorist. But months later, new details have raised fresh questions about how and why he died.

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The death of Palestinian Rashid Shawakha earlier this year in the Occupied West Bank made few headlines. Rashid was fatally shot on the night of March 27th by Israeli soldiers. Initially, Israel declared him a terrorist. But months later, details have emerged that raise fresh questions about how and why he died.

Sheera Frenkel has the story.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: The village of Ramun isn't the kind of place where this sort of thing happens. It's a pastoral community, made up mostly of villas owned by Palestinian expatriates. There have been few, if any, anti-Israel demonstrations here or clashes with nearby Jewish settlers.

AKRAM SHAWAKHA: (Through Translator) Ramun is a peaceful village. That's why this was such a shock.

FRENKEL: That's Akram, the oldest of the three Shawakha brothers who lived, side by side, on the northern edge of Ramun. On the night of March 27th, Akram was on guard duty.

SHAWAKHA: (Through Translator) We had gotten into the habit of watching the area at night because there had been robberies. It was around 1:30 in the morning when I took a look around and saw two guys sitting on the hood of my neighbor's car.

FRENKEL: Akram woke his brothers. Within minutes, Anwar and Rashid had grabbed kitchen knives and Anwar a wooden baton. They confronted the two men at the end of a short driveway that leads up to their homes.

SHAWAKHA: (Through Translator) They told us they were visiting the village. They looked like Arabs. They spoke with a true Palestinian accent, but not from here. I thought maybe they were from Hebron. We asked to see their IDs. They reached into their back pockets, but they didn't take out IDs. They took out guns.

FRENKEL: He says the clash that followed took less than a minute. Anwar and Rashid were shot at close range when they struggled with the two men. Akram says he was shot twice before he managed to get back to the house. He flicked the lights on, hoping to warn the neighbors. Then, he saw 40 to 50 Israeli soldiers standing down the road.

SHAWAKHA: (Through Translator) I was so happy when I saw the soldiers. I thought they had come to help. I called out to them, please come, there are robbers here.

FRENKEL: Instead, Akram says the soldiers opened fire at him as he lifted his shirt to show the bullet wounds in his stomach.

SHAWAKHA: (Through translator) Then I understood they would not help us. I was afraid for my two brothers and I saw that one of the soldiers was shooting Rashid again and again.

FRENKEL: According to medical reports, Rashid was shot six times. Less than a week later, he would succumb to his wounds. Anwar with a pierced lung and Akram with severe intestinal damage, would survive, though both are still recovering.

It took days for the brothers to sort out what had happened. The two men that they had first encountered, the ones that they were sure were robbers because of their Arabic dialect and cheap local clothes, were actually Israeli soldiers, part of an elite unit called Duvdevan, that specializes in undercover operations. Anwar says they never identified themselves.

ANWAR SHAWAKHA: (Through translator) Had we had one tiny bit of suspicion that the two men outside were soldiers, we would have never left our homes.

FRENKEL: The Israeli version of events is significantly different. Initially, the military put out a news alert saying an Israeli soldier had been stabbed and wounded by Palestinian militants, suggesting it was a terrorist incident. Israeli army spokesman, Eytan Buchman, says an investigation has been launched, but he wouldn't provide details.

EYTAN BUCHMAN: The idea of conducting a preliminary inquiry looking into the events of March 27th in Kfar Ramun. As the issue is currently under investigation, we cannot comment further at this point.

FRENKEL: An Israeli official familiar with the investigation agreed to speak to NPR on background. He confirmed that on the night of March 27th, Israeli forces were in Ramun and that those forces regularly operate covertly and overtly. He says that the soldiers were attacked in the village and used minimal force to neutralize their assailants.

Gili Cohen, a military affairs reporter for Ha'aretz, was one of the first to report the story.

GILI COHEN: (Through translator) From the beginning, I thought the story sounded strange. Two things were that Duvdevan is not the type of unit that normally gets into firefights. They're meant to be quiet, undercover. And second was that it happened in Ramun, an area that has never been known for violence or militant activity.

FRENKEL: She says that, at first, she was told that the army had not launched an investigation into the incident and wasn't planning to. She says she was also told that the army had been in Ramun on a training exercise, not a mission.

Neil Ciorcian, a spokesman for the Palestinian NGO al Haq, said that what the army was doing in Ramun is only one of the questions his organization has posed to the Israeli military.

NEIL CIORCIAN: There's a clear principle under international humanitarian law that military forces cannot, under any circumstances, claim civilian status. OK. And that's - to do so is known as perfidy.

FRENKEL: Al Haq and Israeli human rights group Btselem both filed complaints with the Israeli military, but the details of that night may forever remain murky.

A study conducted by the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, last year found that approximately 94 percent of criminal investigations launched by the military against Israeli soldiers for violence against Palestinians are closed without any indictments.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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