West Bank strike: Israel accused of targeting civilians in deadly attack

Clockwise from top left: Rami, Hazza, Ahmad and Alaa Darweesh
Image caption,Some of the Darweesh brothers were on their way to work; Hazza (top right) had a hospital appointment

Israel is accused of having targeted a group of Palestinian civilians with no links to armed groups and who posed no threat to Israeli forces, according to witnesses in the occupied West Bank.

Seven men – four of them brothers – were killed in an Israeli air strike early on 7 January, as they sat around a fire next to the road through al-Shuhada village, 10km (six miles) from the city of Jenin.

The BBC has spoken to relatives of the men killed, witnesses in the area at the time, and a paramedic at the scene. All provided strong evidence that the men were not members of armed militant groups, and that no clashes with Israeli forces were taking place in the location at the time.

Khalid al-Ahmad, the first paramedic to arrive that morning, is convinced the men were doing nothing wrong.

“One of them was wearing slippers and pyjamas,” he told the BBC. “Don’t you think that someone who wants to resist [the Israeli occupation] would at least wear proper shoes?”

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has linked the strike to a military operation hours earlier in Jenin refugee camp, in which a female soldier was killed.

Grave of the four Darweesh brothers
Image caption,The men are buried not far from al-Shuhada village

The IDF directed us to a statement it released at the time, which said that “during the operation, an aircraft struck a terrorist squad that hurled explosives at the forces operating in the area”.

Footage from both the IDF and a nearby CCTV camera does not show any clear evidence of confrontations with Palestinians in al-Shuhada at the time of the strike.

The four brothers – Alaa, Hazza, Ahmad, and Rami Darweesh – were aged between 22 and 29 years old. They were Palestinian emigrants who had returned from Jordan a few years earlier with their mother and five siblings.

They had Israeli permits, allowing them to cross into Israel for agricultural work each day. These permits are often difficult to obtain and are rapidly withdrawn from anyone Israel sees as a security threat – or as linked to someone who is.

The three men killed with them were members of their extended family.

Permits for two of the brothers, seen by the BBC, were issued in September 2023 and valid for several months. The borders with Israel have been closed to Palestinian workers since the Hamas attacks in October.

The paramedic, Khalid al-Ahmad, said that after 20 years working in Jenin, he was used to scanning trauma sites for weapons or explosives, as a basic safety routine.

“I would tell you if there were weapons there,” he said. “Honestly, these were civilians. There was nothing relating to the resistance – no bullets, no weapons. And there was no Israeli presence at all.”

Armed Palestinian groups – usually quick to claim any members killed by Israeli forces – have been silent about these seven men, with no statement describing any of them as “martyrs” for their cause.

At their funeral, their bodies were wrapped in the flags of Palestinian groups, including Hamas. The bodies of those killed by Israel are often wrapped in the flags of movements supported by friends or family members – even when the deceased are not supporters themselves.

Relatives and neighbours all told us the men had no connection with militant groups – as did the head of Jenin’s main hospital, Wissam Bakr, where the bodies were brought that morning.

Ibtesam Asous
Image caption,Ibtesam Asous had not expected all four of her sons to die

“They are not armed, they are not fighters,” he said. “Normally, it’s clear from the people if he’s a fighter with one of the militant groups. These seven? No, no, it’s sure, all of them are civilians.”

It was at the hospital that the men’s mother, Ibtesam Asous, saw her sons’ bodies.

“They were all gone,” she said. “I expected that one of them might have been martyred, but not all four of them. I was shocked when I saw that they had all been killed.”

We asked the Israeli army to explain why this group of men was targeted.

A spokesperson replied that soldiers had begun pursuing the “terrorists who murdered an Israeli citizen” and that the air strike targeted “a terrorist squad that hurled explosives at the forces operating in the area, putting them in danger”.

Hours before the air strike in al-Shuhada, a 19-year-old border policewoman, Shai Germai, was killed when her vehicle hit an explosive device during clashes with Palestinian fighters in Jenin Camp.

Afterwards, the army convoy withdrew from Jenin through al-Shuhada, where the Darweesh brothers had gathered with their three distant relatives, near an all-night coffee shop popular with agricultural workers and customers for the nearby dawn vegetable market.

Night-vision drone footage provided by the IDF shows small flashes followed by an explosion as vehicles pass along the road – a heat pattern that could be produced by a petrol bomb. The video does not have a date-stamp or time-stamp.

The army also provided similar footage of its air strike on the location – but the two pieces of video are cut and edited together, making it impossible to tell how much time passed between them.

We asked the IDF to clarify the timings of both events. It replied that it would not be providing any more comment or information.

The timing is important, because of the circumstances needed under international law to justify using lethal force.

The UN’s human rights body described the situation in the West Bank at the end of last year as “alarming and urgent”.

“Israeli forces have increasingly used military tactics and weapons in law enforcement operations,” a statement from its spokesperson said in November. “Law enforcement is governed by international human rights law, which prohibits the intentional use of lethal force except when strictly necessary to protect life.”

Ibtesam Asous, the men’s mother, said she had seen a change in the methods used by Israeli forces in the West Bank since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October.

“They are acting just as they used to,” she said. “The only thing that changed is that, before, the army would shoot a guy in his leg. But now it’s bigger – now they are bombing with rockets and killing as many people as they can.”

According to UN figures, last year was the bloodiest on record in the West Bank: 492 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces – 300 of them since the Hamas attacks in October, including 80 children.

Almost all were killed with live ammunition.

Twenty-eight Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed in the West Bank by Palestinians last year – including three since the attacks in October, two of whom were soldiers.

Attacks have also been carried out by Palestinians inside Israel, including one earlier this week that killed one woman and injured 17 other people.

Two witnesses who were in the coffee shop that morning told us that the army convoy left al-Shuhada between 04:00 and 04:45 local time (02:00-02:45 GMT), before the air strike took place, and that there were no clashes with local people.

“The soldiers passed four times and nobody approached them,” one said. “When the [vehicles] were fully outside the village, they bombed. Young men, sitting near a fire to stay warm, were hit with a rocket.”

Another man told the BBC it was around an hour between the army leaving the village and the air strike happening around 05:00, and that many people in the coffee shop – including him – had left in between the two events.

Hand of the four brothers' mother on graveside photo of one of her sons

Khalid al-Ahmad, the paramedic from the Palestinian Red Crescent, remembers the Israeli army withdrawing from Jenin Camp in the early hours of the morning, and says it was “almost 5am” when he was called to the village after the strike.

The director at Jenin Hospital confirmed that the bodies had arrived there at around 05:15.

CCTV footage from a nearby camera, part of which was filmed on a mobile phone by an unknown source, shows the 30 seconds immediately before the air strike, during which a car passes down the same stretch of empty road, apparently without incident. There is no time-stamp visible in the recording.

A group of people – the Darweesh brothers and their relatives – can be seen standing and sitting around a fire. Then the air strike hits.

Some of the brothers had been going to work, their mother said, while Hazza had been heading to an early morning dialysis appointment at Jenin Hospital.

He was worried that the military operation would block the road, she said, and wanted to leave early.

The hospital kidney unit confirmed that Hazza Darweesh had a regular 7am appointment for dialysis that day, and showed us his name on the schedule.

A video taken by the brothers’ uncle, Youssef Asous, shortly after the air strike shows bodies strewn across the ground.

The experienced Jenin paramedic, Khalid al-Ahmad, said he despaired of ever being able to forget the scene.

“They were kids without weapons,” Youssef said. “If they had weapons, I would have seen them. There were only the chairs they were sitting on.”

“At the end of the day, anyone Palestinian is a target – if you are an armed person, then you are targeted; and if you are a civilian, then you are also a target.”

We put all the allegations in this report to the IDF spokesperson, who repeated that the army had nothing more to add.

Ibtesam Asous, the mother of the four visiting the site of the strike
Image caption,Ibtesam Asous visited the site of her children’s deaths

Ibtesam Asous visited the site of the attack for the first time this week – her other children had tried to stop her coming, she said, but she had to see it for herself.

“I wanted to come and imagine where each of them was sitting,” she explained, gesturing to different points on the ground as traffic thunders by.

“Alaa was there; Ahmad, Rami and Hazza were here. I wanted to see exactly where my sons were. It helps.” https://gimanalagiyakan.com/

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