18 Aug 2014

Was Salem Shamaly’s killing a war crime?

Gaza resident Salem Shamaly – “the man in the green shirt” – was killed, apparently by a sniper, during the latest conflict with Israel. His family believes it has a case for a war crime prosecution.

Clambering over scattered concrete blocks strewn with discarded shoes, broken furniture and scraps of clothing, we eventually stopped by a collapsed house. A tattered Palestinian flag fluttered from the roof. Pointing towards a layer of pulverised debris, we were told that this was the place where Salem Shamaly was fatally shot dead.

Known to some as “the man in the green shirt”, the killing of the 23-year-old Palestinian has become one of the most notorious episodes of the war in Gaza. Around the world many expressed horror after his shooting and death were captured on video and posted online.

An Israeli activist has told Channel 4 News that he had taken testimony from three Israeli soldiers who said they had witnessed Shamaly’s killing. The soldiers told him it was known by Israeli soldiers in the area that Salem was an unarmed civilian.

What we have now uncovered in Gaza appears to tally closely with the soldiers’ testimony.

Last steps

Salem had been with a group of international and local activists at the time of his death and I went back with them to Shejaiyah to retrace his last steps.

It was Gaza activist Mohammed Abedullah who captured that video on his phone. He told me he had never met Salem before that day. But after coming across him by chance on the street during a ceasefire, they agreed to help him try to find his relatives in the Shejaiyah neighbourhood, which had been pummelled in a heavy bombardment.

In the video, Salem and the activists can be seen helping some injured civilians before the group then moved on and reached the street where Salem was trying to locate his relatives. In another part of the video he repeatedly calls out for those relatives but there is no response. There is no sign of anyone in the surrounding houses or the streets, nor of any Israeli soldiers or military activity, except for the sounds of drones above. The group then moved nearer to the house.

When we visited the same street, it was immediately apparent that it now looks very different to that day because of subsequent heavy bombing in the area. But the activists insisted they could still recognise where they were.

When we reached the spot where they say Salem was killed, they pointed out the high-visibility vests they’d left behind. They said this was clear indication we were in the right spot.

Salem Shamaly

Unarmed civilian

As we surveyed the scene, the group told me that as they were walking past an alleyway between some now destroyed houses close to where we were standing, the first of four shots suddenly rang out. The group was split in two, with Salem on one side of the alleyway with Mohammed and a British activist, Rina Andolini. In the video, Rina can be heard saying: “Yalla, I am now scared.”

One by one, the activists detailed how Salem was shot after he stepped outside again. As he moved into the alleyway he was hit by a bullet. The activists explained how Salem was hit first in the left thigh by a shot – the second of four. The moment is not caught on camera. he fell to the ground and in video he can is seen struggling to get up.

Another shot rings out some moments later. The activists say that is the shot that killed him. The actvisits insisted that the Israeli soldiers who they allege shot him must have been able to clearly see he was an unarmed civilian.

Looking up from the position in the rubble where Salem’s body lay, we noticed a house that was clearly visible down what was the alleyway. We could see that a cross had been painted on the wall of that house. We were told by locals that Israeli soldiers marked the house after occupying it.

We went over to have a look. I was taken inside the house by a young man called Hatem. The rooms were trashed and Hebrew writing was dawbed on the walls. Standing at the windows that we had seen from the other side, we found sandbags. It appeared that the house was an ideal vantage point for a wide view of the area.

All around us, buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes. And looking back to where we had been with the activists you can clearly see the place where Salem was killed. It was immediately apparent that anyone shooting from this building would have had a clear line of fire towards where Salem was shot.

Hatem showed me what he believed to be a sniper’s position. Bullet casings were scattered all around.

He also showed me the house next door. It too was badly damaged and around the rooms evidence of the presence of Israeli soldiers, including discarded uniforms. On one wall “Long Live Israel” was scrawled alongside several stars of David. On other walls there maps of the area. Elsewhere we found names of soldiers scribbled in what seemed to be shift rotas.

Clearly the troops were here for some time. All of these details may be important evidence in any investigation into what happened to Salem.

War crime prosecution

The family now believes it has a strong case for a war crime prosecution. We went to meet Mohammed al-Qatawi, a cousin, and he showed me pictures he took after Salem’s badly decomposed body was eventually retrieved six days after his death.

A bullet entry wound is clearly visible in his pictures. This week al-Qatawi met a United Nations investigator and the family want to take the case forward.

The family has also been encouraged by talk of the Palestinian Authority signing up to the international criminal court – a move that could allow their case to be taken up.

The Israeli military told us allegations surrounding cases like this are taken seriously and that they will be reviewing this case.

But even with all the available video and other potential evidence, finding justice for Salem will be no easy task. Hundreds of cases of unlawful killings in Gaza have brought against Israel in recent years – but they’ve gone nowhere.

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