A firework is lit, a boy is shot. Israel’s use of deadly force against Palestinians is scrutinized

Rawiya Halhouli holds a photo of her slain son Rami Halhouli, in their house in Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem, Sunday, March 17, 2024. Halhouli, 12, was fatally by an Israeli police officer while launching a firework on March 12. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Rawiya Halhouli holds a photo of her slain son Rami Halhouli, in their house in Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem, Sunday, March 17, 2024. Halhouli, 12, was fatally by an Israeli police officer while launching a firework on March 12. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

JERUSALEM (AP) — A 12-year-old boy in east Jerusalem lights the fuse of a long firework and hoists it in the air. Then, just before it explodes and illuminates the night sky with a burst of red, he is shot in the chest by Israeli police and falls to the ground.

A clip of Rami Halhouli’s final moments last week has been circulating on social media for days. Human rights activists say it shines a light on the surge of Palestinians — including dozens of children — who have been killed without justification by Israeli forces since Oct. 7.

Halhouli’s family says the boy was struck by a bullet fired from the direction of an Israeli police watchtower looking over the Shuafat refugee camp. Halhouli, his brother and four friends, the family says, were lighting fireworks to celebrate the end of another day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month marked by dawn-to-dusk fasting.

Israeli police said the firework was directed toward its forces and endangered them. Open-fire regulations permit officers to shoot someone who is aiming a firework at another person in a life-threatening way. The Israeli government says the shooting is under investigation.

Ali Halhouli, the boys father, was at home when he heard the gunshot — and then his son crying out for his mother. “When I rushed out of here I saw him lying on his face,” he said.

Violence across east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank has spiked since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants staged a surprise attack on southern Israel and sparked a brutal war in the Gaza Strip.

At least 435 Palestinians from east Jerusalem and the West Bank have been killed by Israeli fire since then, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Many have been shot dead in armed clashes, others for throwing stones at troops. Some appear to have posed no apparent threat.

Around 100 of these 435 fatalities have been children under 18, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. In 60 of these cases, the group say there seems to have been no justification for the use of lethal force. These include cases where teens or younger children were hurling rocks or participating in protests.

“It’s clear there is a trigger-happy attitude among Israeli soldiers and border-police officers, and it affects Palestinian children too,” said Sarit Michaeli, a B’Tselem spokeswoman.

“Regarding the specific case in Shuafat refugee camp,” she said, “a young child was not posing any threat to a heavily armed border police officer.”

Halhouli, the youngest of seven siblings, was shot at around 8 p.m. last Tuesday outside his home on a garbage-strewn alleyway, his father said. He was roughly 60 meters (200 feet) from the Israeli police watchtower; video of the incident shows Halhouli pointing the firework in the rough direction of the watchtower, but not directly at it.

The police acknowledged the fatal shooting that evening, saying its forces returned fire after fireworks were launched at the watchtower. Throughout the night last Monday and Tuesday, Palestinian protesters from the camp had thrown Molotov cocktails and launched fireworks at Israeli forces, police said.

Standing at the spot where the shooting took place, Ibrahim Halhouli, a 16-year-old relative of the slain boy, said they now all steer clear of the alleyway.

“We are scared,” he said, looking up at the watchtower.

Shuafat, home to some 60,000 Palestinians, has long been a flashpoint.

It is a poor, densely packed neighborhood that lacks municipal services despite falling within Jerusalem’s city borders. It is the only Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem, and a number of militants involved in attacks on Israelis have come from the area. It is segmented from the rest of Jerusalem by a heavily manned checkpoint and Israeli forces regularly raid the camp to arrest suspected militants.

After the shooting, Ali Halhouli said his other sons took the body to a medical center in Shuafat where staff pronounced him dead. In desperation, the family found an ambulance to transport him to Hadassah hospital, one of Israel’s largest medical facilities, where doctors said the bullet had struck his heart.

“The boy is dead, you brought him dead,” Ali Halhouli said, recounting one of the doctor’s words. Soon after, a police officer arrived at the ward and said they needed to transfer the body to an Israeli forensic institute for an autopsy.

Ali Halhouli, 61, said he was left in limbo for days, contacted three times by different police officers, each of whom told him his son’s corpse would soon be returned.

On one occasion he was told he must keep the funeral to fewer than 40 people or face a fine. Funerals of slain Palestinians often escalate into violent protests. The body was eventually handed back to the family overnight Sunday and buried the next morning, he said.

Makhash, the Israeli Justice Ministry body that investigates police conduct, told the AP that the investigation into the officer who shot the boy is ongoing.

On-duty police officers and soldiers are rarely prosecuted for killing Palestinians. According to Israeli legal rights group Yesh Din, a police officer was last charged of murder in 2021 after shooting dead an unarmed autistic Palestinian in Jerusalem’s Old City. The officer was later acquitted in 2023, it said.

The day after Rami Halhouli died, a provocative, high-ranking Israeli official who oversees the police said the officer who shot him should be commended, not investigated. Itamar Ben Gvir, the ultra-nationalist minister for national security, also called the boy a terrorist, without offering any evidence.

“A 12-year-old boy a terrorist?” Ali Halhouli said, clearly hurt by the remark.

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This story was first published on March 21, 2024. It was updated on March 22, 2024, to make clear that the minister in charge of the police backed the officer’s actions in shooting at 12-year-old Rami Halhouli, and that the open-fire regulations were not cited in the statement provided by the police.

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