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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rorschach in Hebron: Grainy Footage Fails to End Arguments Over Fatal Shooting

Video of a fatal shooting last week at a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, released by Israel's military.

When the Israel Defense Forces released 49 seconds of grainy, black-and-white video this week, showing some of what happened at a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron before the fatal shooting of a Palestinian teenager by an Israeli officer, a military spokesman expressed confidence that the security-camera footage proved that the killing was justified.

As The Lede reported last week, the officer who shot and killed Muhammad al-Salameh on his 17th birthday said that the boy had subdued her partner and pressed a real-looking toy gun to his head, leaving her no alternative but to fire. An I.D.F. spokesman, Capt. Barak Raz, said that the video left no doubt that the young female officer had acted correctly.

Looking at the footage posted on the I.D.F.'s Arabic-language YouTube channel, though, some Palesti nian activists and skeptical Israeli journalists asked why the video had been edited, omitting part of the encounter, and seemed not to match the initial account provided to the Israeli media by the officer who fired the fatal shots.

Parsing the clip on the Israeli news blog +972, the journalist Noam Sheizaf observed that the video appeared to show that the boy who was killed did throw the first punch in a fistfight with an officer at the checkpoint. But, he added, that officer seemed to have broken free of the boy before any shots were fired by the second officer, identified in Israeli media accounts as N.

It is hard to tell what's going on â€" Muhammad and a soldier can be seen exchanging blows, and it seems that the Palestinian is the first to try and hit the soldier (0:33). The alleged gun cannot be spott ed, but the clip â€" which is slightly edited (0:24) â€" is very dark. The second soldier comes out to the street and when the soldier and the Palestinian are away from each other, she shoots Muhammad (0:48). Unless the teen was indeed holding a gun, the soldiers don't seem to be under threat at that moment.

A Palestinian blogger, Abir Kopty, argued that the video appeared to show that the fight between the young Palestinian and the officer at the checkpoint was also different in several respects from all of the accounts provided to the Israeli media by the military.

The army claims that at one point Salaymeh was pointing a gun at the soldier, in another he knocked the soldier down and pointed a gun at him, and in a third version that he placed the gun at the soldier's temple. The video does not show any of these versions. It seems like Salaymeh was fist fighting with his hand s without any gun.

Another Israeli journalist, Larry Derfner, catalogued the questions not answered by the clip:

We don't know if Salameh pulled a realistic-looking cigarette-lighter gun during the fight, which was N.'s stated justification for shooting him; you can't see such an object in the video, although again, the video is dark and not very distinct, as if done in “night vision.”

We don't know what happened just before Salameh went up to a border policeman and attacked him with his fists â€" there's a cut in the 54-second video at 0:24. We also don't know why the I.D.F. waited four days before making the video available to the public.

Although no one doubts that the video was recorded during the encounter, ques tions have been asked in the past about the Israeli military's use of editing in footage uploaded to YouTube.

Mr. Derfner also reported that a Palestinian witness told the Israeli rights group B'Tselem “that the border policemen saw Salameh approaching the checkpoint with a gun that looked real, and either confiscated it or tried to, and that Salameh was shouting, ‘It's mine, it's mine' during the fight, and was either trying to grab the gun back from the border policeman or stop him from taking it.”

Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, told The Lede in an e-mail that a witness “told us that Salameh had the gun-shaped lighter on him (not drawn). The checkpoint is near his family home. The Border Police officers discovered the gun, tried to or did indeed confiscate it, which sparked an altercation, and he managed to get it back. Tha t's when he was heard shouting ‘mine.' Our witness described a fight between Salameh and the officers, in which they exchanged blows, and was then shot.”

She added:

The fight is seen in the security camera footage but the confiscation is not. The footage released is an incomplete film though, a sequence was cut out of it. I haven't seen an official explanation of what was cut and why. It seems like a very odd decision to me, releasing edited footage is only bound to spark more controversy instead of quashing it.

Video of the tense scene at the checkpoint just after the shooting, which includes a brief glimpse of the dead boy's body, was posted on YouTube by B'Tselem last week.

A second Palestinian witness, who arrived at the checkpoint shortly after the shooting, provided B'Tselem with photographs of the young man's body and the toy gun. The boy's father told reporters from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he had never seen the toy gun before but that it might have been given to his son that day as a birthday present.

A toy gun on the ground near the spot where a 17-year-old Palestinian was fatally shot by an Israeli officer last week in the West Bank city of Hebron. A toy gun on the ground near the spot where a 17-year-old Palestinian was fatally shot by an Israeli officer last week in the West Bank city of Hebron.

While reports said the boy had been shot in the chest and a hip, no bullet wounds were visible on the front of his body in the photograph taken by the witness at the scene.

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.