Probe into Palestinian teen’s death deeply flawed, documents show

Investigators failed to see security camera footage of East Jerusalem incident before it disappeared. Haaretz has obtained the files of the investigation in Ayyash’s death, from which it emerges that both the police and the department investigators hardly did a thorough job.

By Nir Hasson | Haaretz | May 4, 2015 |

Milad Ayyash, 17 of the East Jerusalem village of Silwan, was killed four years ago by a single bullet fired during violent demonstrations near a Jewish-occupied building in the village, known as Beit Yonatan. The investigation of his death was conducted by the Jerusalem Police and the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers, but both ended up closing the case on grounds that the responsible person “was unknown.”

Haaretz has obtained the files of the investigation in Ayyash’s death, from which it emerges that both the police and the department investigators hardly did a thorough job. None of the policemen at the scene, including two who had testified they had shot live fire from their weapons, was questioned under caution; a security guard testified that he had seen the shooting on security cameras but the video was never located; and the questioning of a resident under caution was stopped after only a few minutes with no explanation, even though another person questioned had mentioned him as someone who seemed interested in what the security cameras had caught only moments after the event.

Ayyash was killed on Friday, May 13, 2011. That was the day that year that Palestinians marked the Nakba — the “catastrophe” that befell them when the State of Israel was founded — and rioting broke out in Silwan. One of the focal points of the violence was Beit Yonatan, a structure in the village in which several Jewish families live. Palestinian youths threw rocks and firebombs at the building. According to eyewitnesses, during the afternoon five live rounds were fired from the direction of the building, one of which hit Ayyash in the stomach. The following day he died of his wound.

Following his death a double investigation was launched; the police questioned the Housing Ministry security guards who were posted at Beit Yonatan, as well as the building’s residents, while the Justice Ministry department questioned the policemen who were involved in the incident. In August 2012 the files were closed because no violator could be identified. It was only after another year-and-a-half, in April 2014, that the family received final notice that the case had been closed. Two months ago the family, with the help of attorneys Gaby Lasky, Limor Wolf Goldstein and Neri Ramati, representing B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, appealed the decision to close the case.

In the appeal they point to a series of apparent defects in the investigation. For one thing, the Justice Ministry department never questioned any of the policemen who were stationed at the scene as suspects, only as witnesses, including two policemen who admitted to using their weapons. Second, their testimony in many instances contradicted what had been recorded in the operational logs for that day, yet they were never asked about the contradictions. At the lawyers’ request, the contradictions will not be detailed here, because it could taint the investigation if it is ever reopened, but they related to, inter alia, the use of weapons, the events that preceded the shooting and the way they reported the events to their superiors afterward.

According to the appeal, the police investigation was also conducted negligently. Thus, although one of the security guards said that he was almost certain he had seen the shooting of Ayyash caught on the security cameras, the video is not in the file. The security guard told a detective that he was sitting in front of a screen broadcasting scenes from the security cameras when he saw a figure, “Slip/fall on the ground, as if something had happened to him; the gang that was with him took him … afterward I understood that what I had seen on the cameras was correct.”

Nevertheless, the police never located the video documenting the shooting. In the file there is a memo stating that the City of David security officer should be asked if the film from the security camera had been saved, “but based on the material we received, the police and the investigation department never bothered to find out if the documentation indeed existed,” wrote Lasky in the appeal.

Moreover, “No attempt was made to examine the visual documentation from the security cameras installed on the adjacent Beit Hadvash,” she wrote. “This is a gross investigative failure that demonstrates the negligent fashion in which both these bodies conducted their investigation.”

According to the files, on the day of the incident there were eight families in Beit Yonatan, as well as several guests who had come for Shabbat. But of the dozens of people who were in the building at the time, the police questioned only four residents and two security guards. Only three of the residents were questioned under caution.

The questioning of one of them shows how seriously the investigators related to the incident. According to the transcripts of the questioning, after the subject was warned, he told the detective, “I understand the suspicion against me and I understand that I have the right to consult with an attorney before the questioning begins. Therefore, I want to consult with an attorney.”

Afterward, it’s written, “The questioning was stopped at 15:27. It was resumed at 16:08.” But at that stage, the suspect refused to answer any questions, and that’s where his questioning ended. According to the file, he was never questioned again.

From the appeal it emerges that this was an extremely serious failure, because this suspect’s name came up during the questioning of one of the security guards. “Did any of the Beit Yonatan residents look nervous to you?” the security guard was asked. He replied, “I saw [suspect’s name]. He wanted to check the cameras.”

B’Tselem says that the investigative material is rife with serious blunders, accompanied by foot-dragging. “Beyond the failure to locate the gunman, there are serious doubts raised about the readiness of the authorities to seriously investigate the incident. In such a serious case, in which a teenager was killed by Israeli gunfire, and particularly if there is a suspicion that the gunman was a policeman or a security guard, but even if it was a settler, there’s a need to conduct a vigorous, high-quality investigation. What happened was the opposite,” the group said.

Said Ayyash, Milad’s father, says that he isn’t surprised by the results of the investigation. “I have no faith in the Israeli justice system or in the police. They cover up all instances in which settlers are involved, that’s the policy. As far as I’m concerned the Israeli government is guilty; it encourages settlers to settle in the heart of Arab neighborhoods, it funds them and guards them, so the government is guilty.”

Ayyash, a former security prisoner, worked for many years translating Israeli literature and newspaper stories into Arabic, and his Hebrew is impeccable. “Milad was the live wire at home; he filled my whole life and his mother’s. Since he died his mother and I haven’t been able to shake off our deep depression,” he said.

The Justice Ministry’s police investigation department said, “In response to your inquiry, the appeal in question was filed only a short time ago and has yet to be received by the State Prosecution’s appeals department.” The Jerusalem Police did not respond by press time.