Israeli authorities have held the body of a Palestinian man, Ahmed Erekat, for more than ten weeks after officers killed him seemingly without justification at a checkpoint, in violation of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said today. Video footage shows Erekat’s car crashing into a checkpoint in the West Bank on June 23, 2020, knocking over an Israeli officer, and then Israeli forces shooting him after he emerged from his car in circumstances in which he no longer appeared to pose an imminent threat to life.
Israeli authorities have held Erekat’s body ever since and said in a September 7 court filing that they would not return it to his family. The filing follows their reported decision on September 2 to continue withholding the bodies of dozens of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in what they consider security incidents, many unaffiliated with any political or armed group, in large part as leverage to secure the release of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers evidently held by Hamas authorities, unlawfully, in Gaza.
“After fatally shooting Ahmed Erekat without apparent justification, Israeli authorities have unlawfully held his body hostage for more than ten weeks,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “Preventing Erekat’s family from burying their son in a dignified manner is cruel and without legal justification.”
Israeli and Hamas authorities should return the bodies they hold to their families for burial, Human Rights Watch said. The wrongful actions of one party don’t justify the wrongful actions of the other.
Israeli officers fatally shot Erekat, 26, just before 4 p.m. on June 23 at the Israeli “Container” checkpoint, on the main West Bank road separating the central and southern West Bank. Erekat was a resident of the nearby town of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. His family said he had spent the afternoon running errands in preparation for his sister’s wedding that evening.
Footage released by Israeli authorities shows Erekat’s car, as it approaches the checkpoint, sharply swerve into a booth where several Israeli officers stood, knocking one of them to the ground. The officer, who quickly got up, had light injuries, said Micky Rosenfeld, the Israeli police spokesman.
Israeli authorities characterized the incident as a car-ramming attack. Erekat’s parents reject this characterization, telling Human Rights Watch that they believe their son lost control of the car, possibly as the result of a malfunction.
Footage shows that officers did not shoot Erekat when the car swerved into the checkpoint, but only after he emerged seconds later. Rosenfeld told media outlets that Erekat “got out of the car and approached officers, who responded by shooting,” but the footage shows that officers fired at Erekat as soon as he emerged from the vehicle and was apparently moving away from the officers. Even if the officers believed Erekat had intentionally rammed the checkpoint, once he emerged from the car, intentional use of lethal force against him would be justified under international human rights law standards only as a last resort to prevent an imminent threat to life, Human Rights Watch said.
Israeli authorities did not indicate that Erekat was armed, or whether they are investigating the killing. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Israeli border police to solicit more information and their perspective on Erekat’s killing and the decision to withhold his body but has not received a response.
Israeli authorities for decades have used excessive force against Palestinians in policing situations when lesser means could have been used. Less than a month before the Erekat killing, on May 30, Israeli border police fatally shot an unarmed 32-year-old Palestinian man with autism, Eyad al-Hallaq, while he was on a morning walk to a center for people with special needs in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Officers said, according to media reports, that they saw al-Hallaq carrying a suspicious object and ordered him to stop, but he fled. They followed him into a gated open-air enclosure holding garbage receptacles where he had sought refuge along with his caregiver and, as the caregiver told local media, shot him to death at “point-blank range.”
The officer’s commander later said that the officer ignored his order not to shoot and that al-Hallaq was in “a closed place with no way to escape from it. He didn’t attack or do anything. He was definitely not standing. He didn’t endanger me in that situation.” Israeli authorities are investigating the incident, though they have not released any footage, despite a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that there were at least 10 functional cameras in the area.
Shortly after shooting Erekat, Israeli forces cordoned off the area around the checkpoint. Footage from shortly after the shooting appears to show Erekat bleeding, but still moving. Israeli Border Police said medics arrived at the scene within minutes and provided Erakat with medical attention but declared him dead shortly thereafter.
Palestinian paramedics who requested anonymity told Human Rights Watch that they arrived at the checkpoint in an ambulance about 15 minutes after the shooting in response to an emergency call, but that Israeli forces blocked them from the scene. After they waited about 10 minutes, they said, the officers ordered them to leave. They did not see other medics providing Erekat with medical attention.
Erekat’s father, Mustafa, told Human Rights Watch that he rushed to the scene upon hearing about the incident, but when he identified himself, an officer told him to “go away.” After he waited for about an hour and a half, a senior officer again refused to allow him to see his son and told him, “If any of the officers had died or been injured, I would be demolishing your house now.”
More than 80 days after the killing, Israeli authorities continue to hold Erekat’s body. The authorities initially told the Erekat family that they would hand over his body the day after the killing, but, hours later, they called back and informed the family they would hold on to the body for “political considerations,” according to a petition filed to the Israeli Supreme Court calling for the return of Erekat’s body by the human rights group Adalah on the family’s behalf. On September 7, the Israeli government said in a filing to the Supreme Court that it intended to continue to hold the body. Mustafa Erekat said that his family’s “days and nights have been turned upside down” awaiting the return of their son’s body.
Israel currently holds the bodies of 67 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since 2015, according to the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC). In 2017, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the state has no legal basis to withhold bodies. It reversed course in 2019 and upheld the government’s policy to withhold bodies of individuals affiliated with Hamas and those who had killed or wounded Israelis.
On September 2, according to Adalah, the Israeli security cabinet decided not to return the body of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, regardless of their political affiliation or lack thereof. Authorities reportedly justified the withholding of the bodies as a deterrent and leverage to secure the release of Israelis unlawfully held by Hamas authorities in Gaza.
Withholding bodies contravenes the customary international humanitarian law requirement to “endeavor to facilitate the return of the remains of the deceased upon request of the party to which they belong.” Deliberately and unlawfully punishing the families of the deceased, who are not accused of any wrongdoing, constitutes a form of collective punishment, another serious violation of international humanitarian law. It can also amount to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of the families of the deceased, a violation of international human rights law.