A system that makes that the rule rather than the exception is its own indictment. by the Forward

Welcome to the occupation, where making a mistake can be a death sentence

The circumstances of Ahmed Erekat’s killing are in deep dispute. This is one of a number of pieces The Forward is running on his death. For another point of view, click here.

Najah Erekat did not know that on the day of her daughter’s wedding, guests would show up not to celebrate with her but to commiserate for the loss of her son.

Ahmed Erekat was 27 when he was killed last Tuesday, his own wedding scheduled for a few weeks from now. Family members said he had rented a car to pick up his mother and sisters from a beauty salon in Bethlehem. As he approached the Wadi al-Nar roadblock in Abu Dis, his car veered off the road towards the checkpoint, hitting and lightly wounding an Israeli soldier. Concluding that this was a “car-ramming attack,” Israeli police opened fire and shot him. Ahmed died of his wounds shortly thereafter.

Like an incantation, the words “car-ramming attack” absolve everyone involved in Ahmed’s killing. Invoke those words, call him a terrorist, and you no longer need an investigation or examination of the circumstances that led to Ahmed’s death. Case closed.

It’s true that Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank have been subject to car-ramming attacks in recent years, often by despairing young Palestinians. Like the knife attacks from a few years ago, these have occurred at checkpoints and led to horrible tragedies. But members of Ahmed’s family say it extremely unlikely that Ahmed — a successful business-owner about to get married — would undertake a suicidal assault on the day of his sister’s wedding.

Instead, Ahmed’s family believes that he lost control of his vehicle. They think what happened was just a run of the mill car accident, which was interpreted as a terrorist attack by Israeli police unused to giving Palestinians the benefit of the doubt.

The truth of Ahmed’s motivations will be buried with him. Given that these kinds of attacks do happen, one can understand being on high alert. But we cannot excuse what happened at the checkpoint, in which Ahmed was summarily executed — while running away from the scene, posing no threat to anyone’s life.

The spokesman for the Israeli police, Micky Rosenfeld, initially said that Ahmed “got out of the car and approached officers who responded by shooting.” But footage released later clearly shows him running away from the officers, not towards them. Ahmed is seen opening the car door immediately after the accident and trying to run away in the opposite direction of the Israeli soldiers. He was instantly shot in the back several times, after which he fell to the ground.

In other words, at a time when he posed no threat, Ahmed was executed on the spot. Lethal force was the first resort against a man trying to flee. The Israeli officers could have easily apprehended him, questioned him over what happened, and acted accordingly. Instead, they were quick to shoot him as a precautionary measure, as legal scholar and Ahmed’s cousin Noura Erakat put it, which is all too often the case when it comes to Palestinians. As others pointed out, the episode violated Israel’s own rules of engagement of using lethal force only when strictly needed to protect life.

This system whereby Israeli soldiers appoint themselves judge, jury and executioner over Palestinian lives is a horrifying if all too common abuse of civil rights. Even more appalling is that according to a complaint by the Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry and the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department, the officers refused him first aid after he was shot, and even closed off the road to prevent him from getting medical treatment. Noura Erekat, the legal scholar and Ahmed’s cousin, said they let him bleed alone for an hour until he died in front of other Palestinians stuck at the checkpoint, including his own father, Abu Faisal, who begged the soldiers to let him reach his son.

He was not even a human to them anymore.

I’m not arguing for freely ramming cars into Israeli soldiers. I am arguing for a system that doesn’t immediately presume guilt and summarily execute people for things that may be as mundane as losing control of their cars, which should not be a death sentence.

And I’m arguing against the system that creates these sites of friction, tension, and suspicion in the first place. For this entire tragedy wouldn’t have happened if there was no militarized Israeli checkpoint in the first place between two adjacent Palestinian cities. Such checkpoints that divide Palestinian cities in the West Bank into caged cantons are sites of constant and systematic indignities, humiliation, and even death for the Palestinians forced to pass through them.

A single wrong move at these “death traps,” as we Palestinians call them, is enough to end one’s life, and not just Palestinian lives. In 2017, a 19-year-old Israeli Jewish man was killed at the Hizmeh checkpoint between East Jerusalem and the West Bank when he ran towards soldiers with a knife. In Palestinian society, we call it “suicide by army:” If you want to end your life, head to the Israeli checkpoints.

The response to this should not be more checkpoints but fewer. There’s no added value to humiliating Palestinians every day, cutting us off from one another and making our lives harsher at those Israeli checkpoints. Whatever the expected gain might be of those barriers, it’ll always be outweighed by the violence and hostility they provoke, leading to despair, death, and more conflict.

Of course, Israelis have a right to safety and security, just as Palestinians have a right to security, freedom and dignity. What Israel doesn’t have the right to do is execute people for making a mistake and then trying to run away. A system that makes that the rule rather than the exception is its own indictment.

Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist for the Forward from Gaza. His work has also appeared in Haaretz and Vice. Find him on Twitter @muhammadshehad2.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Welcome to the occupation, where making a mistake can be a death sentence

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