US-Funded Israeli Unit Responsible for Abuses, Including Indiscriminate Killing of 14-year-old Boy
(Washington D.C., July 6, 2023): The U.S. State Department should subject YAMAM, Israel’s National Counter-Terrorism Unit, to the Leahy Law vetting process and sanction the unit by adding it to the list of security forces ineligible to receive U.S. assistance and cooperation, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) in a referral presented to the government.
DAWN’s review of YAMAM’s record found that undercover agents from the unit committed two extrajudicial killings and two indiscriminate and reckless killings, including of a child in Jenin in March 2023, constituting gross violations of human rights under the Leahy Law and war crimes under the Rome Statute.
“Agents from the Israeli YAMAM unit acted as judge, jury and executioner when they shot and killed two Palestinian men in broad daylight in Jenin on March 16, 2023, a textbook example of an extrajudicial killing by Israeli forces who are used to operating with impunity,” said Adam Shapiro, Director of Advocacy at DAWN. “If the State Department does not apply the Leahy Law in this case, the law may as well not exist.”
On March 16, 2023, four YAMAM undercover agents supported with intelligence by the Shin Bet, Israel’s spy agency, carried out a broad daylight attack in the middle of a Jenin residential street, targeting and killing two Palestinian men, Nidal Khazem, 28, and Yousef Shreim, 29, who were allegedly involved in attacks on Israeli soldiers. In addition to the two targets, Israeli agents killed 14-year-old Omar Awadin, and another civilian, Luay Al-Zughair, who were both shot when the Israeli agents fired in the direction of the targets in the crowded street. Video footage shows that Khazem was hit by the opening hail of bullets, while Shreim managed to run before the YAMAM agents shot and killed him. Video footage then shows one Israeli agent shooting Khazem in the head at point blank range after he was already lying prone face-down on the ground, a clear cut case of an extrajudicial killing.
Video surveillance cameras from the area also show that the streets were crowded with civilians, including Awadin, who was riding his bicycle. According to the Washington Post’s forensic review of surveillance footage, the Israeli agents fired in the direction of the two targets when they hit Awadin in the back. Another Palestinian civilian, Abdallah Abahrah, went to check on Awadin, who was lying on his back on the ground. Abahrah and another bystander took the boy to the Jenin Government Hospital, but he was dead when he arrived, according to the hospital report. The Israeli agents also killed a fourth man, Luay al-Zughair, 37 years old, in the raid, apparently as the undercover agents opened fire on a civilian crowd as they drove out of the area.
“This brazen extrajudicial execution and reckless attack in the heart of a residential neighborhood of Jenin is a direct challenge to the United States and the rules based order that President Biden touts,” said Shapiro. “The U.S. has the tools to stop Israeli execution squads; unless the State Department takes action, Israel will continue to escalate its attacks, leaving more and more dead Palestinians in their streets, like this week’s incursion into Jenin.”
DAWN called on the State Department to impose Leahy Law restrictions on the YAMAM unit to prohibit the unit from receiving U.S. military assistance. The Leahy Law authorizes the State Department to restrict military assistance to a foreign military unit when it “has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights (GVHR).” The sanctioned unit may resume receiving U.S. support only when the State Department finds that “the government of such country is taking effective steps to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice.”
The Leahy law is explicit that the “U.S. government considers torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, and rape under color of law as GVHRs when implementing the Leahy law.” According to Section 3(a) of the 28 U.S.C. §1350, the Torture Victim Prevention Act, an extrajudicial killing is defined as “a deliberate killing not authorized by a previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”
Investigation and Finding of Gross Violations by YAMAM in March 2023
A detailed investigation of the March 2023 attack by the YAMAM unit documented the extrajudicial killings of two men and the wanton recklessness that killed two others in Jenin’s civilian neighborhood, which legal experts concluded were gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.” On May 26, 2023, journalists Imogen Piper, Meg Kelly and Louisa Loveluck published an investigative report in the Washington Post. The journalists “synchronized 15 videos and reviewed dozens more from March 16, including CCTV footage from surrounding businesses, some of which took nearly a month to surface. They also spoke to nine witnesses and obtained testimonies from four others to produce a 3D reconstruction of the raid.” According to their findings, there were at least 16 civilians in the area as the agents fired more than 20 shots, including the bullet that killed 14-year-old Awadin.
The joint Israeli Army and Shin Bet statement claimed that the undercover agents “neutralized the two wanted men while they were armed,” but the video footage presented by the Washington Post does not corroborate that claim, and Israel has provided no evidence the men were armed or posed a threat to the life of the agents. The two men did not open fire or visibly possess any weapons in the video footage. Armed Israeli agents shot both men, as well as Awadin, in the back, and one Israeli agent shot Khazem in the head at point blank range after he was already lying prone face-down on the ground.
In response to the Washington Post’s questions about 14-year-old Awadin, the Israeli police stated that “the subject of your inquiry took an active part in the violent riot while endangering the lives of the troops.” Addressing that response, the journalists wrote, “It’s unclear what riot they were referring to, but the visual evidence reviewed by The Post showed no such riot before the shootings took place.” Following the incident, video footage shows residents in the area throwing objects at the Israeli undercover agents’ vehicle before fleeing when the Israelis fire indiscriminately at the crowd.
The Washington Post journalists also consulted experts in international law to analyze the video footage and reconstruction of the scene and offer their opinions on the incident. The experts included: Philip Alston, U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions between 2004 and 2010; Michael Lynk, U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories between 2016 and 2021; Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer; and Roni Pelli, an Israeli attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
According to Alston and Lynk, the killings of Khazem and Shreim were “extrajudicial killings” and “profoundly unlawful.” Sfard and Pelli both suggested that the killings were likely permissible under Israeli law, if only because there is wide latitude allowed by Israeli courts for the use of lethal force. The experts assessed that neither targeted man appeared to present any threat, and that both could have been arrested.
International guidelines on the use of force in policing situations restrict the use of lethal force except as a last resort to meet an imminent lethal threat. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials stipulate that law enforcement officials shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms “only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.” Further, the principles state that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.
The YAMAM unit appears also to be guilty of the war crime of wilful killing, Article 8 (2) (a) (i) of the Rome Statute, in relation to the agents’ killing of Omar Awadin and Luay al-Zughair.
The YAMAM Unit
The YAMAM Unit (Hebrew: ימ”מ, an acronym for Centralized Special Unit יחידה מרכזית מיוחדת, Yeḥida Merkazit Meyuḥedet), also known as Israel’s National Counter Terror Unit (I.N.C.T.U.) (Hebrew: היחידה המיוחדת ללוחמה בטרור), is one of four special units of the Israel Border Police. The unit conducts military and counter-terrorism operations, including undercover operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). The unit is deployed in the OPT to conduct undercover and special operations raids and attacks, often alongside Israeli military units. While Israel created the unit to take responsibility for hostage rescue, since the 1990s it has deployed the unit in counter-terror operations in the West Bank and Gaza. In recent years, it has become the main unit conducting counter-terror operations inside Palestinian cities in the OPT. The YAMAM Unit has no other police duties, only special operations.
According to media reports, YAMAM is in-demand by other countries for joint training. Former Israeli Minister for Public Security, Gilad Erdan, told Vanity Fair journalist, Adam Ciralsky, that in his first month as minister, he “got requests from 10 countries to train together.” In the 2018 article, Ciralsky also interviewed John Miller, Deputy Commissioner of the New York Police Department and Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security under President Trump, both of whom acknowledged joint training with YAMAM. Ciralsky accompanied the then-YAMAM commander, “N,” to meetings in the U.S., including with the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Enforcement Bureau.
“While the YAMAM Unit may have a global reputation for effectiveness in counter-terrorism operations, this incident in Jenin demonstrates that the unit’s tactics fall short of international standards for human rights, due process and use of lethal force,” said Shapiro. “These extrajudicial killings are the result of the reckless disregard for collateral casualties by this Israeli unit and the culture of impunity in Israeli military and security forces.”
DAWN calls on the U.S. Department of State to apply Leahy law vetting on the YAMAM Unit and to sanction this unit by adding it to the list of security forces ineligible to receive security assistance and training – including for U.S. police forces to participate in YAMAM-led training and consultation – until the Israeli government takes “effective measures to bring those responsible to justice,” as stipulated in the Leahy law. DAWN also calls on the ICC to investigate this incident as part of its ongoing investigation of war crimes committed by Israeli and Palestinian forces since 2014.