Activist seeks trial of Israeli soldiers

Nearly two years after being shot in the face by Israeli occupation soldiers, American peace activist Brian Avery has returned to Israel to seek justice.

    American Brian Avery (L) was badly wounded in April 2003

    Avery, 26, plans to petition the Israeli High Court of Justice on Monday to launch an investigation into the shooting which left his face horribly disfigured.


    He is also seeking financial compensation for his extensive medical treatment.


    On 5 April 2003, Avery was in the West Bank town of Jenin to meet colleagues when two Israeli military vehicles fitted with mounted machine guns approached them. Avery - who was in Jenin to help Palestinians suffering under a military curfew and was wearing a fluorescent vest marked with the Arabic, Hebrew and English word for "doctor" - raised his arms in the air.


    A few seconds later a bullet ripped through his face, shattering his nasal bones, left eye, the whole left cheek area, and the upper and lower jaws. 


    Shot in the face


    "The vehicle drove up to about 30 metres to where we were, [then] they just opened fire and I was shot through the face and knocked to the ground.  [They] fired a large number of rounds, and when they finished shooting they just drove off," Avery told in a phone conversation from Tel Aviv.  

    Witness said machine gun fire
    from a military vehicle hit Avery



    An initial Israeli internal command inquiry after the incident exonerated the soldiers in question of any wrongdoing, claiming that it was Palestinian fire that hit Brian.


    Five witnesses, however, disputed the Israeli account of events.


    The investigation did not seek the testimony of any of the witnesses, nor of any Palestinians, according to Avery's Israeli lawyer, Michael Sfard.


    Avery plans to use the written testimony of at least five witnesses who say the shooting occurred when the soldiers were not in danger and could clearly identify Avery and his colleagues as unarmed volunteers.


    The witnesses also said there was no gun battle at the time and therefore no crossfire, as claimed by the Israeli army.


    Avery never received an apology for the incident, and no police investigation was carried out.


    Tank opens fire


    Lasse Shmidt, 36, a Danish citizen who currently teaches English at the American University in Jenin, was standing next to Brian at the time of the shooting.


    "I know that is not true [that it was a Palestinian bullet]. I was standing right next to him and was the first to examine his destroyed face, as he was face down on the street. The only shots came from the Israeli machine gun, and we six internationals were the only people nearby," he said.


    "... bullets started hitting the pavement in front of us and flying through the air close to our faces"

    Peace activist Lasse Scmidt

    "Like the rest of us, Brian held his hands up in the air as the tank slowly approached us. We expected it to pass us as they normally did, apparently not paying any attention to a group of international peace activists. But this time, bullets started hitting the pavement in front of us and flying through the air close to our faces. Without notice or warning, the tank started shooting."


    Under the Israeli army's own rules of engagement, soldiers are not permitted to fire warning shots with mounted weapons.


    They may fire warning shots with light hand-held weapons and must aim away from the people they are warning.


    Field command inquiry


    Sfard says the Israeli military conducted a routine "field command inquiry", which did not reach any decisive conclusion who shot Brian and under what circumstances.


    Such inquiries frequently come to the same blanket conclusion - that the person in question fell victim to "crossfire" or that "Palestinian militants" were to blame. 

    Tom Hurndall was shot and killed
    by Israeli sniper fire in Palestine


    Only six days after Avery was shot and injured, British International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist, Tom Hurndall, was killed by an Israeli sniper in Rafah. 


    The internal command inquiry ruled that Tom was shot because of the presence of a Palestinian fighter in his vicinity.


    After extensive lobbying from his family, a criminal investigation of the military police was launched and found that the soldiers had lied in the initial investigation.


    So far, says Sfard, all demands for a military police investigation into Brian's case have been dismissed. He says by not investigating, the Israeli military is in effect granting impunity to occupation soldiers.


    "The idea of human dignity and respect for human rights demands that any injury to human life or body by officers or state officials will be at least investigated.  Not investigating is as if saying 'we don't give a damn about your injury'. 


    "A person has a right to know - if he was not armed, he was not engaged in hostilities or combat, and he was shot nonetheless, even though he was wearing a fluorescent jacket marked in three languages. He has a right to know who did it and why," Sfard said.


    "The soldiers must be indicted and must pay for the crimes they have committed.  If a society would let soldiers get away with such crimes, [and] we have at least five witnesses who all testify to that, eventually we will bring about many more causalities like that." 


    Systematic targeting


    Avery was unable to seek legal recourse until late last year due to the severity of his injuries. 

    Avery (L) underwent extensive
    reconstructive facial surgery



    In the middle of a series of reconstructive surgeries, he has had to rebuild the bones with transplants, and is in the process of replacing his cheek. 


    He has also suffered permanent visual damage to his left eye, and cannot breathe through one side of his nose. Avery also has difficulty talking.


    Avery says he would ideally like to see someone convicted for the crime that was committed. 


    If nothing else, he says, his petition will bring much-needed attention to the systematic targeting of foreign activists in occupied Palestinian territories.


    "The fact that they ignored our demands for investigations was disappointing but not totally unexpected given track record of Israeli justice system. Given how they treat most Palestinians, I'm pretty fortunate that I have an optimistic possibility for this process," he said. 


    In a seven-week period in 2003, Britons Tom Hurndall and James Miller and American Rachel Corrie - all unarmed and clearly marked civilians - were killed by Israeli forces in the southern Gaza Strip refugee camp of Rafah.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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