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September 4, 2016

In Blog News

Israel clears soldiers involved in checkpoint killing of U.S. teen

Israel has faced a wave of checkpoint attacks carried out by Palestinians. Above, soldiers stand at the scene after a 34-year-old man was shot and killed near Ramallah. | AP Photo

Israel has faced a wave of checkpoint attacks carried out by Palestinians. Above, soldiers stand at the scene after a 34-year-old man was shot and killed near Ramallah. | AP Photo

Israeli authorities have told U.S. officials that they found no criminal wrongdoing by soldiers involved in the February killing of an American teenager whom the troops allege tried to stab them, and that Israel will not further pursue the case, POLITICO has learned.

The decision has upset human rights activists who question the description of what happened and who have long accused Israel of failing to hold its security forces accountable for the use of excessive force. Some U.S.-based activists have quietly been pushing the Obama administration and Congress to do more to shed light on what happened.

The incident in question took place on Feb. 26, when Mahmoud Shaalan, a Miami-born 16-year-old of Palestinian descent, went to a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The encounter came amid a wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks that have put Israel on edge.

According to past statements from the Israelis, Shaalan stabbed a soldier, and when other troops shot him, he kept trying to stab them before being shot further. But according to Israeli media, eyewitnesses told activists that Shaalan was shot in the back after getting into an apparent verbal dispute with Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint.

It’s unclear if there is audio or video footage to back up the claims on either side. A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces told POLITICO earlier this year that there was “one existing camera that belongs to the IDF, however, the camera did not capture the event because it was not in range.”

In any case, a State Department official confirmed late this week that after six months of looking into the case, Israeli officials had decided not to press further. “We have received an official response from the Israelis, and we understand that they have completed their investigation. We understand that they did not find any criminal misconduct and do not plan to proceed with a criminal investigation. We are studying their response,” the official said.

The State Department official insisted that the Obama administration considered the case a priority and that U.S. officials regularly raised it with Israeli leaders. However, the official declined to say what steps the U.S. would take next.

Shaalan’s relatives have maintained his innocence. They describe the late teen as a straight-A student far more focused on his studies than Israeli-Palestinian tensions. They buried him with an American flag as well as a Palestinian one, according to an account in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Informed Saturday morning about the Israeli decision, the teen’s uncle, Salman Shaalan, said the family had retained a lawyer and was looking at other avenues to seek justice. He said the Obama administration had not done enough to convince the Israelis to carry out a thorough investigation.

U.S. governments generally treat their relations with Israel in a very delicate matter, seeing as how important the country’s continued friendship is in a Middle East consumed by chaos. But President Barack Obama has had an unusually testy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The State Department and the U.S. should call for an independent or joint investigation — at least a joint investigation,” Salman Shaalan said, adding that his nephew was “a good kid” and “not capable” of a violent act.

Over the past year, Israel has faced a wave of attacks, many of them involving knives, carried out by Palestinians. The attacks have targeted Israeli security forces as well as civilians. Some call the surge of assaults the “stabbing intifada.”

Critics, however, say that in many cases, Israeli security forces have overreacted to what were often unclear threats. According to The Associated Press, Palestinians have killed 34 Israelis and two visiting Americans in attacks since September, while some 207 Palestinians have been killed in that time — most of whom Israeli identified as attackers.

An IDF spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday, which is the Sabbath in Israel.

Human rights activists reached by POLITICO, however, expressed frustration. Some noted that it’s relatively unusual for the Israeli government to punish a soldier for excessive use of force or even what appear to be extrajudicial killings. The rights activists added that even if the Israeli soldiers’ account is true, it’s impossible to be sure because Israeli officials won’t reveal their evidence or much about the process.

“The State Department knows that Israeli investigations are inadequate,” said Edith Garwood, a country specialist with Amnesty International USA. “They’re not independent, they’re not transparent. I’m not sure under what circumstances the U.S. government is prompted to carry out their own investigation, but it would appear to be this would be an example of where they should do so.”

Raed Jarrar, an official with the American Friends Service Committee, pointed to the reports of eyewitness accounts to say that “according to U.S. law, the Obama administration should immediately suspend military aid to the Israeli security unit responsible for this gross violation of human rights.”

Jarrar is working with an array of other rights groups to urge members of Congress to bring pressure on the Obama administration to look more closely into the case. He declined to name the lawmakers because the discussions are still ongoing, but Shaalan’s uncle said the family has spoken to Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who has promised to see what he can do.

POLITICO has in the past reached out to members of the Florida delegation about the case, but the general response was that they were waiting for the Israelis to finish their initial probe.