After a trial that lasted nearly four years, Ben Deri, a former member of Israel’s paramilitary border police force, was sentenced to nine months in jail on Wednesday for firing live ammunition through the chest of an unarmed Palestinian protester without having been ordered to do so.
Deri’s light sentence, the result of a plea bargain, outraged the family of his victim, Nadeem Nawara, who was just 17 when he was shot and killed by the officer during a protest in the occupied West Bank village of Beitunia on May 15, 2014. Nawara had been taking part in a demonstration against the founding of Israel in 1948, an event the Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” suffered by their community that year, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven from their homes by Jewish forces.
The conviction comes as Israeli snipers have been given license to fire at will into crowds of Palestinian protesters in Gaza — shooting more than 1,500 in recent weeks, 40 of them fatally — suggesting that Deri’s crime, in the eyes of the state, was not that he killed an unarmed boy, but that he did so without permission from a superior officer.
Disgust at the sentence was shared by rights activists who argue that the open-ended Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which Deri was helping to enforce that day, has led to the widespread abuse of Palestinian civilians living under military rule. The sense of injustice was amplified by the fact that the fatal shooting was captured on video, from multiple angles, by a Palestinian carpenter’s security cameras and a CNN producer.
Six months after the shooting, Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research agency led by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, produced a detailed analysis of the video evidence on behalf of the rights group Defense for Children International concluding that the fatal shot had been fired by the border police officer later identified as Deri.
The security cameras also recorded the killing of a second boy, Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh Abu Daher, 16, who was shot in the back while walking away from the Israeli security forces, but there was no footage of the Israeli position at that time.
Fakher Zayed, the carpenter whose cameras recorded the killings, also witnessed the shootings. He told Defense for Children International that he distinctly heard four live gunshots fired during the protest. A third boy, Muhammad ‘Azzah, 15, was hospitalized with gunshot wounds, but survived.
When the security camera footage was initially released, Israeli military officials, analysts, and bloggers insisted that the video surveillance footage looked fake; the Israel Defense Forces, which directed the work of the border police that day, claimed no live ammunition had been used against protesters. B’Tselem, an Israeli group that monitors human rights in the occupied territories, then obtained and posted hours of the raw video online, showing first Nawara and then Abu Daher collapsing to the ground after being shot. There was no sign that any of it had been altered.
After Nawara’s death, his father found the bullet that killed him lodged in the backpack he was wearing, disproving Israeli claims that no live ammunition had been fired at the protesters during the demonstration. The protest was marked by intermittent exchanges of tear gas and stones between the security forces and the protesters, but security camera footage showed that the boys were not throwing rocks when they were fatally shot.
Prosecutors initially charged Deri with manslaughter, accusing him of having intentionally loaded live rounds disguised as rubber-coated steel bullets into his rifle before he fired at Nawara. During the protracted court case, however, the prosecution failed to overcome doubts raised by Deri’s lawyer, who argued that the officer might have accidentally swapped out the less-lethal rubber bullets for live ammunition.
A subsequent video report by Forensic Architecture, which looked in detail at how the officer’s rifle worked, suggested that was unlikely.
The prosecutors, however, relented, and an amended indictment described the killing as accidental. Deri then pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of negligent manslaughter, claiming that he had fired the live ammunition he loaded into his gun by accident, after first failing to check that his magazine contained blanks and then not placing a rubber-coated bullet into an extension of the rifle’s muzzle, which is the only way to fire so-called less lethal projectiles. That charge carries a maximum of three years in jail, as opposed to the 20-year sentence prosecutors originally sought for deliberate killing.
Explaining the reduced sentence of just nine months, Judge Daniel Tepperberg described Deri as “an excellent police officer who was conscientious about orders.”
“You could get a harsher punishment for texting while driving,” Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, wrote in Hebrew on Twitter.
The outcome of the trial angered but did not shock Siam Nawara, the boy’s father. “We are not surprised by the ridiculous sentence,” he told Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper. “As soon as the plea agreement was signed we knew that this was the direction.”
Brad Parker, a lawyer and advocacy officer for Defense for Children International – Palestine, told The Intercept that he shared Siam Nawara’s dismay. “Despite clear and overwhelming video, spatial, and sound forensic analysis showing Ben Deri intentionally killed Nuwara, he was charged with the lesser crime and a willful killing was whitewashed into an accident,” Parker said in an email. “The lenient sentence announced today is not surprising and illustrates how pervasive and entrenched denial perpetuates impunity even where video evidence shows Israeli forces intentionally killing children.”
Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture, also called the sentence a travesty. “If indeed it was an error, as the sentence suggests, then there needed to have been a series of consecutive and improbable errors: a bullet needed to have erroneously entered Deri’s gun; Deri would have needed to forget to load rubber-coated steel ammunition into the end of the extension before shooting; and these two consecutive errors would have needed to happen twice — once when Nawara was killed, again when Abu Daher was shot dead, and possibly a third time when Muhammad ’Azzah was wounded on the same stretch of asphalt a couple of hours earlier,” Weizman wrote in an email. “This is extremely improbable, and Forensic Architecture’s conclusion is that the killing was intentional.”
“That against all evidence the Nakba Day killing is being denied,” Weizman added, “is a reflection of the way that the Nakba itself — that is the intentional displacement of Palestinians during 1948 — is being institutionally and routinely denied in Israel, against all evidence.”