Israeli soldiers seeking to arrest a Hamas militant in the southern West Bank city of Hebron early Friday mistakenly shot and killed a 65-year-old Palestinian man, prompting charges that the troops used excessive force.
Units of the Israeli army simultaneously raided several homes in Hebron to arrest five members of Hamas, an Islamic movement opposed to Israel. The Palestinian Authority had released the men from its own prison only the day before on order of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hebron medical sources said Omar Kawasmi was dead when he was taken to a hospital with multiple bullet wounds, mainly to the upper part of his body. They said he was hit by at least 14 bullets.
Kawasmi’s family members said the soldiers raided their building about 3:30 a.m., apparently seeking to arrest Wael Bitar, a member of Hamas. Bitar is married to Kawasmi’s niece and lives in an adjacent apartment.
The Israeli army said in a statement that Kawasmi was killed during the attempt to arrest Bitar and that the military “regrets the outcome of the incident.” Brig. Gen. Nitsan Alon acknowledged to reporters that the slain man was “uninvolved in terror,” Reuters news service reported. The army said it has opened an investigation to be concluded as early as next week.
Later Friday, the Israeli army said one soldier was killed and four were injured in a clash with Palestinian militants along the central section of the border with the Gaza Strip. A military spokesman called it a case of “friendly fire” in which an Israeli mortar shell being fired at Palestinians deviated from its course and struck Israeli soldiers.
Border skirmishes have become more frequent recently, including a clash last week that left two Palestinians dead.
In the Hebron shooting, family members said the soldiers issued no warning before bursting into Kawasmi’s apartment.
“The soldiers broke into our building and into my uncle’s apartment and went straight into his bedroom shooting him while in bed,” said Bitar’s wife, who identified herself only as Um Muhammad.
Kawasmi’s wife called out her husband’s name after the shooting, which made the soldiers realize that they had hit the wrong person, she said. “They were surprised he was not Wael.”
When the soldiers realized that they had killed the wrong person, they left the building and called on Bitar to come out. He did, said his wife, holding his hands up and unable to walk since he had been on a hunger strike in the Palestinian prison for more than 40 days until his release.
The soldiers arrested Bitar and took Kawasmi’s body away, but later returned the body to the Palestinians.
Thousands of people later turned out for Kawasmi’s funeral.
The soldiers also arrested four other Hamas activists, all from Hebron, who had been held in the Palestinian prison without charges for more than two years. They went on the hunger strike demanding their freedom after Palestinian authorities resisted a Palestinian Supreme Court order for their release.
The statement by the Israeli military said Bitar was “a senior member of the Hamas armed infrastructure in the Hebron region.” It also said Bitar was the assistant of Shehab Natshe, who planned a suicide bombing in the Israeli town of Dimona in 2008, in which an Israeli woman was killed and 10 other civilians were injured.
The statement also said Bitar had “planned several suicide attacks that were eventually thwarted.”
In December 2009, Israeli soldiers were criticized in a similar situation for shooting to death three Palestinians suspected of killing an Israeli settler. The troops said the men, who lived in different homes in Nablus, all were shot because they resisted arrest. Witnesses said the men were never given the chance to surrender peacefully.
On Friday, Palestinian Authority officials condemned the Israeli operation in Hebron. However, Sami abu Zuhri, spokesman for Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, said at a news conference in Gaza City that the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ rival, shares responsibility with Israel.
“Hamas believes the Hebron crime is an Israeli escalation,” he said, accusing the Israeli army of “executing” Kawasmi.
Abukhater is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.