Israeli military admits killing Palestinian toddler by mistake, closes initial investigation

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Ramallah governor Laila Ghannam, with a white scarf, carries the body of 2 1/2 year old Palestinian toddler Mohammed al-Tamimi upon his arrival at the Palestine Medical Complex, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, June 5, 2023. The Palestinian toddler who was shot by Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank last week died of his wounds on Monday, Israeli hospital officials said. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

JERUSALEM – The Israeli military admitted Wednesday that it had shot and killed a Palestinian toddler in the occupied West Bank by mistake earlier this month — a rare acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

After an initial investigation into the killing, the Israeli military said it would reprimand one of the officers involved in the killing. The military said it hadn't yet decided whether to proceed with a criminal investigation into the child's death.

Rights groups contend the Israeli military does too little to investigate and punish its soldiers for the killing of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, creating a pattern of impunity.

The death of 2-year-old Mohammed al-Tamimi after he was wounded by Israeli gunfire near his village of Nebi Saleh set off an outpouring of grief and anger.

His 44-year-old father, Haitham al-Tamimi, dismissed Israel's move to investigate the killing as a “cover-up." The initial results, he said, added insult to injury.

“Of course we were not expecting justice, but this report feels to us like a crime on top of the original crime,” he said. “This is all they have to say when my son is killed in cold blood, when his life is cut off before I could discover what kind of person he'd become."

In announcing the results of the initial investigation Tuesday, the Israeli military described a scene of considerable confusion following a suspected Palestinian shooting attack near a Jewish settlement.

The military said that soldiers stationed at a lookout near the Palestinian village of Nebi Saleh heard a burst of gunfire, but didn't know where it came from. At the sight of a “suspicious” car, a commander assisting the search fired several times into the air, the military said, in violation of army orders.

The sound of gunfire carried to a nearby guard post, the military said, surprising a soldier who claimed he thought the shots were fired by two people getting into a car just down the road. Believing that car to be the source of the gunfire and those passengers to be the fleeing militants, the soldier followed orders and opened fire toward the vehicle, it said.

Inside were 2-year-old Mohammed and his father al-Tamimi.

Al-Tamimi, a chef in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, said he had just buckled up his son for a ride to visit his uncle when the bullets struck. He was also shot and treated at a Palestinian hospital for moderate shoulder wounds. Mohammed died of his wounds in an Israeli hospital four days later.

The family is still in shock, al-Tamimi said. His only other son, 7-year-old Osama, wakes up with nightmares about his younger brother's killing nearly every night.

The Israeli military said it reprimanded the commander who initially sparked the confusion by firing into the air against army orders. The officer wasn't demoted, but a reprimand remains on a soldier’s personal record and can affect chances of promotion. Further consequences for the soldiers involved in the shooting could follow if the Israeli military decides to open a criminal investigation.

Recent investigations by the Israeli military — including into the high-profile deaths of prominent Palestinian-American Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh and Palestinian-American Omar Assad — did not result in criminal prosecutions. Israel says that it thoroughly investigates all claims of wrongdoing and does its best to prevent civilian deaths.

“I express my sorrow for the harm that was caused to civilians and the death of the toddler,” said Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox, the commander overseeing the West Bank region. “We will continue to learn and improve.”

Surging Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the occupied West Bank this year has killed 123 Palestinians in 2023 alone, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Nearly half of them are affiliated with militant groups, though the Israeli military says that number is much higher. Palestinian attacks on Israelis during the same period have killed 21 people.

The Israeli military said Wednesday that four soldiers who were lightly wounded in a Palestinian shooting attack in the northern West Bank the previous day were recovering well.