Reconstructing the death of a Palestinian demonstrator via video analysis
Each Friday in Palestine, a number of nonarmed demonstrations are held against the Israeli occupation. The following case deals with what the Israel military calls “nonlethal munitions”—here, tear gas canisters— shot at unarmed participants in these protests. The village of Bil’in, located on the western slopes of the West Bank, is at the heart of these struggles. In 2004, the wall was built on the village lands in a way that allowed the expansion of the nearby settlement of Modi’in Illit. In 2007 the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the dismantling of the wall in this area and its relocation to a less invasive path. While the military avoided implementing the court ruling, demonstrators continued to protest the injustice of the wall and that of the occupation as a whole.
On April 17, 2009, Bassem Abu Rahma was shot and killed in Bil’in during a demonstration against the separation wall that was being built on the village lands. Abu Rahma was hit with a tear- gas canister shot from across the wall which in this area, at the time, was a system of fences. He was standing on the eastern side of the separation wall when the munition struck him in the chest, causing massive internal bleeding which led to his death.
The report produced by Forensic Architecture and SITU Research was initiated at the request of attorney Michael Sfard, who acted for Abu Rahma’s parents, and the Israeli Human Rights organiza- tion B’Tselem. They asked us to examine a host of available data (including videos and photographs taken on the day of the event) in order to ascertain whether the shot that killed Abu Rahma was aimed directly at him. The report focused on establishing the probable angle at which the munition that killed Abu Rahma was discharged. The purpose was to refute assertions made by the Israeli military that the round in question struck a wire in the fence, causing it to change direction and hit the victim, thus unintentionally leading to his death.
As in many contemporary sites of demonstration across the West Bank, in Bil’in there was an abundance of video cameras present. The event was recorded in three sequences of video footage from three different digital cameras (two handheld and one on a tripod). Within the video footage there exists much spatial information. On obtaining the videos we synced them by aligning distinct elements in the sound track. We then traced the movement of each of the three cameras on a digital model of the terrain whose general contours we obtained from maps and satellite images and whose detailed features we have harvested from examining the video files. Having each person, object, or specific feature represented from two or three separate vantages allowed for a triangulation and the approximation of their location in space.
Fractions of a second directly preceding the impact, one of the videographers, David Reeb, an Israeli artist and political activist, was standing within a meter of Abu Rahma. At 05:44:07, a single frame—whose duration is a one twenty-fourth of a second—captures faint traces of the movement of the projectile from the area where the soldiers are deployed west of the wall, through the fencing system that composes the wall in this part, to the area where the demonstrators are located east of the wall. Fractions of a second later, it strikes Abu Rahma, who is standing directly to Reeb’s right and is seen falling to the ground, twisted in pain.
The single frame extracted from David Reeb’s video was used to reconstruct the path of the munition in a virtual model of the scene. After locating the position of the camera and Abu Rahma, the line illustrating the trajectory was extrapolated into the space behind to form a plane bounded by Reeb’s camera and the edge of the video frame. This virtual plane defines all possible flight paths converging on Abu Rahma. When extended outward beyond the separation barrier, a zone containing the probable firing position is determined. Based on the known positions of the Israeli military soldiers at the time, the maximum angle of fire was determined to be 5 degrees. The passage of the munition seen in Reeb’s cone of vision supports the conclusion that, contrary to the Israeli military statements, the weapon was being aimed well below the allowable 60-degree limit, with the likely purpose of killing or maiming the demonstrator.
Our report identifying the place and angle from which Abu Rahma was shot and the trajectory of the munitions was presented by advocates Michael Sfard and Emily Schaeffer on March 28, 2010, along with other testimonies of participants. On July 11, 2010, fifteen months after the April 17, 2009, killing of Abu Rahma, the military prosecution opened a criminal investigation, which it previously refused to do. On September 10, 2013, despite the report, the government announced that the military had decided to close the case, citing “lack of evidence” for an indictment, and insisting it did not know the identity of the shooter. The military asked the court to reject the claim, close the file without any indictments, and offered B’Tselem the opportunity to appeal its decision—a process that has been initiated but might take years to reach a conclusion.
Forensic Architecture team
SITU Research team
- Bradley Samuels
- Therese Diede
- Robert Beach
- Michael Sfard Law Office (Michael Sfard, Emily Schaeffer)
- B’Tselem (Sarit Michaeli)
Abu Rahma report [PDF]
Bil'In: video summary of our investigation
Video analysis of the flight of cartridge
Video analysis from the other angle