A disputed Israeli army account of the fatal shooting of a Palestinian woman this week at an Israeli checkpoint has raised fresh questions about the conduct of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.
The incident was the latest of several lethal episodes that have punctuated a period of mounting Israeli-Palestinian tensions, fueled by clashes last week between police and Arab protesters at a contested holy site in Jerusalem.
On Thursday the Israeli security cabinet authorized tougher measures against violent Palestinian protests in Jerusalem. The steps include granting police greater leeway to use live ammunition against stone-throwers, setting minimum four-year sentences for hurling stones, and imposing stiff fines on parents of young offenders.
In the West Bank city of Hebron, where several hundred Jewish settlers live among nearly 200,000 Palestinians under heavy army guard, the killing on Tuesday of an 18-year-old Palestinian woman at a checkpoint near a settlement enclave underscored the simmering tensions.
On the previous night, a Palestinian had been killed near the city in what the army said was the detonation of an improvised explosive device he tried to hurl at troops. Tuesday was the eve of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a time when Israel routinely steps up security measures.
Veiled and covered from head to toe in a black cloak, the woman, Hadeel Hashlamoun, entered the Israeli checkpoint separating Palestinian and Israeli-controlled areas of the city.
According to an army statement, the woman set off a metal detector, and when she ignored orders to halt and pulled out a knife, soldiers fired at the ground and then at her legs.
“The perpetrator continued, and at this point, recognizing a clear and present danger to their safety, the forces fired toward her,” said the statement, attributed to a military official. The army released a picture of a knife on the ground at the scene of the shooting.
Hashlamoun was taken in critical condition to a hospital in Jerusalem, where she died a few hours later, a hospital spokesman said.
A photo of the confrontation posted on Facebook by Youth Against Settlements, a Hebron-based Palestinian activist group, show Hashlamoun standing and facing a soldier across a metal barrier as he aims his rifle at her. Another photo shows the woman on the ground after she was shot.
Fawaz Abu Aisheh, 34, a computer programmer at Hebron city hall, said in a telephone interview that he witnessed the incident on his way to work. He appears in some of the images circulated by Youth Against Settlements.
In a detailed account, Abu Aisheh said that after he heard soldiers shouting at Hashlamoun in Hebrew to move back, one of them approached her and fired a bullet at the ground.
Abu Aisheh said the soldier moved a plastic barrier and directed the woman, whose hands were hidden under her cloak, to walk out of the area, and she moved a few yards away from the soldiers.
Ignoring Abu Aisheh’s pleas to hold off so he could translate for the woman, soldiers ordered her to put her hands up on a wall and fired two more bullets into the ground near her, he said.
“She was frozen liked a column,” he recalled. “She didn’t move. Even if she had a knife, she didn’t threaten the soldiers.”
A soldier dropped to one knee and fired at the woman’s left leg, and after she fell, fired another shot at her right leg, Abu Aisheh said.
“He stood up, stood close to her and from about one meter away started shooting directly at her stomach and chest, without even trying to arrest her,” Abu Aisheh added. “The other soldiers started yelling at him, ‘Enough, enough!’.”
Video images taken after the shooting show Hashlamoun lying motionless on the ground before being dragged aside by soldiers, one of whom took her pulse.
Abu Aisheh said that about 10 minutes after he left the scene, he saw a Palestinian ambulance blocked from approaching the area. The woman was later evacuated in an Israeli ambulance.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that its investigation of the incident showed that soldiers at the checkpoint had “acted disproportionately,” continuing to shoot Hashlamoun, who held a concealed knife, after she was wounded in the legs and no longer posed a threat.
Under standard army procedure in cases of fatal shootings of Palestinians, the incident will be investigated by the Military Police, an army spokeswoman said.