The killing was apparently done in the context of an operation for the targeted assassination of another person, Wa’el Bitar. According to the Israeli army spokesperson, Wa’el Bitar is a senior member of Hamas and Umar Qawasmi was “staying in the house of one of the terrorists” (referring to Wa’el Bitar) when he was killed. The spokesperson also alleged that Umar Qawasmi “burst out” in the direction of Israeli soldiers during an attempt to arrest him.
Al-Haq has conducted a full investigation of the incident, the findings of which conflict with important aspects of Israel’s official account.
Background to the Israeli army operation
Umar Qawasmi was killed in the early hours of 7 January 2011 during an Israeli military raid in Hebron. According to the Israeli army spokesperson, the operation was targeted at five out of six Hamas members who had been released the day before from Palestinian Authority (P.A.) prisons after having spent two years in custody without charges and due process.
Wa’el Muhammad Sa’id Bitar – the man who was apparently the target of the Israeli army operation that killed Umar Qawasmi - was one of the six men released from P.A. custody on 6 January 2011. In 2008, the Israeli army had demolished Wa’el Bitar’s home, claiming he was hosting members of Hamas there. As a result, Wa’el Bitar, who is Umar Qawasmi’s nephew, was renting an apartment in the house owned by Umar Qawasmi’s family and was residing there at the time of the incident.
Umar Qawasmi was 66 years old and the father of five boys and seven girls. His wife and his 45-year-old son Yousef, who is disabled and lives with his parents, were in the house at the time of the incident.
The circumstances of the killing of Umar Qawasmi
During the early hours of 7 January 2011, the Israeli military arrived at the four-storey house owned by the Qawasmi family in the al-Sheikh neighbourhood of Hebron. Umar Qawasmi and his family live in the first floor of the house, whilst Wa’el Bitar and his family live on the ground floor. The house is positioned on a hill and can be accessed from two sides; the eastern side leads directly to Umar Qawasmi’s home on the first floor of the house while the northern side leads to the ground floor where Wa’el Bitar lives. The Israeli army appears to have mistakenly entered the first floor of the house from the eastern side, under the assumption that this was Wa’el Bitar’s home.
Israeli soldiers entered the house at approximately 3:45 am using a special device that caused the lock of the front door to break. They entered Umar Qawasmi’s bedroom. Umar Qawasmi was asleep on the far side of the bed, which was to the left of the room as the soldiers entered it. His wife, Subhiyya, was praying beside the bed and the light in the room was on. Subhiyya froze at the sight of a gun being pointed at her and of the five masked soldiers who were standing at the entrance of the bedroom. Within seconds, the soldiers shot Umar Qawasmi in his bed about fourteen times. After the shooting had stopped, soldiers pointed at Umar Qawasmi and asked his wife whether he was Wa’el Bitar. She said that he was not and showed the soldiers Umar Qawasmi’s ID card.
The soldiers left Umar Qawasmi’s house immediately after the shooting to go downstairs to Wa’el Bitar’s house. Wa’el Bitar had heard the shooting upstairs and came out of the house with his hands raised in the air, almost immediately after soldiers had ordered him to surrender. Wa’el Bitar was arrested and soldiers returned shortly afterwards to take Umar Qawasmi’s body.
At the scene of the shooting, Al-Haq’s field researcher saw that the bedroom wall, the far side of the bed, a cupboard and part of the ceiling were covered in blood. There were visible bullet holes in the cushion and cover of the bed. The investigation conducted by Al-Haq confirms Umar Qawasmi‘s wife‘s account of the facts: the shooting occurred from a distance of about 2.5 to 3 metres by soldiers who were standing inside the bedroom, next to the door. Neighbours who witnessed the raid reported seeing about 50 soldiers in the neighbourhood during the night and early morning of the operation.
An ambulance of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) collected Umar Qawasmi’s body from the Israeli police station in Givat Haavot settlement near Hebron later that morning. From a preliminary examination, the medical personnel of the PRCS found that Umar Qawasmi had six bullet holes in his head, two in his right arm and a few bullets had entered the right side of his chest. The right side of Umar Qawasmi’s face and skull were disfigured and mutilated by the bullets.
The statements of the Israeli military confirm that the killing of Umar Qawasmi was a mistake. On the same day of the incident, the Israeli army spokesperson stated that “the army regrets the incident and the central commander, brigadier Avi Mizrahi, ordered the commander of the division, brigadier-general Alon Nizan, to conduct a prompt investigation and to present its findings as soon as next week.”
The findings of Al-Haq‘s investigation demonstrate that Umar Qawasmi was the victim of an arbitrary execution by Israeli occupying forces, which constitutes a violation of both international humanitarian and human rights law. Under customary international humanitarian law, civilians are protected persons and must not be the target of attack and in case of doubt on the status of a target, the latter is to be considered a civilian. The intentional killing of civilians constitutes the war crime of wilful killing, which amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Those responsible for Umar Qawasmi’s death have, prima facie, committed the war crime of wilful killing, for which they are individually criminally responsible, and for which they must be prosecuted by an independent and impartial tribunal in accordance with the standards of international criminal justice.
Given that Umar Qawasmi (who was sleeping) did not pose any threat to the life of the Israeli military, the latter were under an obligation to confirm his identity and arrest him, rather than kill him. The use of lethal force may only be justified when strictly unavoidable in order to protect the soldiers’ life. The circumstances of the incident suggest that the Israeli army intended to summarily execute Wa’el Bitar and killed Umar Qawasmi in the mistaken belief that he was Wa’el Bitar; they therefore neither intended nor attempted to execute an arrest.
Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations
The Israeli government and judiciary continue to sanction the targeted assassination of Palestinian civilians, despite the illegality of such practices under international law. The Israeli government has officially been carrying out its policy of targeted assassination and extra-judicial killings since September 2000, the beginning of the second intifada. The policy has claimed, in the West Bank alone, the lives of approximately 314 Palestinians. Notwithstanding a decision of the Israeli High Court of Justice, which ostensibly places certain limitations on the military’s ability to carry out targeted assassinations – such as the requirement to assess the possibility of arresting the person first – the illegal practice continues to be carried out by the military and sanctioned by the government.
Conclusions and recommendations
Al-Haq strongly condemns the wilful killing of Umar Qawasmi, which is part of Israel’s illegal policy of targeted assassinations. Despite the Israeli military’s claim that it will investigate the matter, given the military’s track record of not investigating the killings of Palestinian civilians, it is very likely that no responsibility for this crime will emerge. The consistent disregard for Palestinians’ right to life is the result of endorsement at the political level of such violations, and of a climate of impunity created by the failure of the Israeli law enforcement and judicial systems to effectively address violations of international law committed by the military. Israel‘s use of operational debriefing and internal military investigation and prosecution mechanisms, is proof of the lack of independence and impartiality of the system, further confirmed by the lack of prosecutions of violations.
Al-Haq is processing its request to the Israeli Military Attorney General for a prompt criminal investigation and consequent prosecution of those responsible for the killing of Umar Qawasmi. Taking into account the fact that Israel has admitted this to be a case of mistaken identity, measures to bring justice to victims include not only the prosecution of the perpetrators but also compensation for the victims and their families. It should be recalled that amendments to Israeli law are underway (Amendment 8 to the Civil Wrongs (Liability of State) Law) to exclude the possibility of compensating innocent victims of Israeli military operations. In any case, the Israeli courts are likely to define this incident as an “act of war”, therefore no compensation would be granted.
In the likely absence of adequate investigations by the Israeli military that comply with international law standards, Al-Haq calls on the international community to ensure that those responsible for the wilful killing of Umar Qawasmi are held accountable through the mechanisms of international criminal justice and the use of universal jurisdiction in national courts.
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