JERUSALEM (AP) - Security-camera video showing two unarmed Palestinians crumpling to the ground during a lull in a stone-throwing clash with Israeli soldiers revived allegations by human rights activists Tuesday that the troops often use excessive force.
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said the images back its findings that troops killed the teens without cause by firing live rounds from more than 200 meters away. The soldiers were in “zero danger” at the time, said Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said, “It was a life-threatening situation, so the officers acted accordingly.”
He said he hadn’t seen the video, but alleged the images had been manipulated through editing.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a senior spokesman, said preliminary findings show forces fired only rubber-coated steel pellets, a standard means of crowd control, and did not use live fire.
The United Nations and the U.S. State Department called on the Israeli authorities to conduct a transparent investigation.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco told the Security Council’s monthly Mideast briefing: “It is of serious concern that initial information appears to indicate that the two Palestinians killed were both unarmed and appeared to pose no direct threat.”
At issue is a clash between Israeli troops and Palestinian stone-throwers May 15 near the West Bank town of Beitouniya, a few hundred meters from an Israeli military base, Ofer. On that day, Palestinians marked the anniversary of their uprooting in the war over Israel’s 1948 creation by holding marches and protests in the West Bank and Gaza.
Starting around midday, several dozen Palestinian youths burned tires in a main street and threw stones toward Israeli troops, according to witnesses and B’Tselem.
Troops fired rubber bullets, but also four live rounds, said resident Fakher Zayed, who said he witnessed the confrontation from his balcony. Four security cameras mounted on Zayed’s building captured the events on the street below.
The security footage first surfaced late Monday when a local advocacy group, Defense for Children International Palestine, released excerpts that it said showed the two fatal shootings. B’Tselem later obtained the unedited footage, which was also given to The Associated Press, and said there was no indication the images had been tampered with.
In the first incident, clocked by the time stamp at 1:45 p.m., a figure with a backpack walks from the left side of the street toward a group of Palestinians standing near a building wall on the other side. Suddenly, the figure falls to the ground. Those near the wall rush to him and he is carried away.
There was sporadic stone-throwing for several minutes before the incident.
In the second incident, clocked at 2:58 p.m. at the same location, a Palestinian walks from the wall toward the middle of the street. After a few steps, he falls to the ground. There was no stone-throwing at the time. AP footage from the day of the incident showed the evacuation of the second victim, who was wearing a green flag of the Islamic militant group Hamas like a cape and had thrown stones earlier.
The security camera video does not show a source of gunfire or a shooter in either incident. The AP cameraman who was present during the confrontations said the video is in line with what he witnessed.
The bodies of the slain teens were taken to Ramallah Hospital. They were identified as Nadim Nawara and Mohammed Abu Dhaher, both 17. B’Tselem later said Abu Dhaher’s actual last name is Salameh.
The head of the emergency department, Dr. Samir Saliba, said at the time that both were killed by live fire to the upper body. He said Nawara was shot in the chest and the second teen in the right side of his back. A third Palestinian was shot and seriously wounded in the chest, Saliba said.
B’Tselem obtained copies of the medical reports.
Nawara’s family said it retrieved his backpack with a bullet hole and a spent bullet. The family said it has not decided whether to hand over the bullet to military police investigators.
B’Tselem noted that army rules of engagement bar the use of live rounds at a time when the lives of soldiers are not in danger. Michaeli, the rights group spokeswoman, said the investigation “indicates that the soldiers fired live ammunition at the upper bodies of these youths in conditions where there was no feasible justification for using lethal force against persons.”
Michaeli said the circumstances “raise the suspicion of willful killings.”
The Israeli military said in a statement that soldiers faced a violent protest. The military said the “video clip which was released today has been edited and doesn’t document the full extent of the event nor does it reflect the violent nature of the riot.”
For nearly three decades, since the first Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem - lands captured in the 1967 war - confrontations between stone-throwers and Israeli soldiers have been common. In recent years, Beitouniya has been one of the trouble spots.
B’Tselem and other human rights groups have alleged that Israeli troops often use excessive force in putting down Palestinian stone-throwing protests.
Bill Van Esveld, a researcher of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the incident “certainly fits into a pattern.” He said that in cases of fatal shootings he has monitored, “there are more than a handful of cases where live ammunition has been used without any apparent justification.”
Lerner, the army spokesman, dismissed the allegations.
“We are charged with and committed to safeguarding human life and we address the threats with necessary force when required,” he said.
Lerner said military police carries out investigations and after-action reviews “in any activity we carry out.” He said an investigation into the deaths of the two Palestinians is continuing.
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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