Suspect in West Bank bar mitzvah hike attack freed due to police fault

Due to flaws in the identification process, a military court ordered the release Thursday of the primary suspect in a November stone-throwing attack on a group of Israeli settlers in the West Bank village of Qusra.

In ruling in favor of Muhammad Wadi’s petition to the Samaria Military Court of Appeals, Judge Ronen Atzmon wrote that police had failed to conduct a live identification lineup or even a photo array before bringing charges.

While a picture of the defendant was shown to one of the assault victims, who identified Wadi as his attacker, the complainant was not asked to pick him out of a group of random people.

In addition, Atzmon wrote that the chaperone pegged Wadi after being shown a “dark photo” of him and after the settler already knew that the Qusra resident was under arrest.

The indictment against Wadi for attempted murder remains, but Ronen wrote that “it is difficult to say whether there is a chance that the appellant will be convicted” due to the botched procedure.

IDF medics tend to an Israeli chaperone attacked by a group of Palestinians outside of Qusra on November 30, 2017. (courtesy).

On November 30, a group of several dozen Israeli youths, chaperoned by a pair of fathers, had embarked on a tour of the northern West Bank to celebrate the bar mitzvah of Elitzur Libman.

They departed the Migdalim settlement and continued past Qusra, southeast of Nablus. There, dozens of Palestinian residents began throwing rocks at them, according to the group.

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One of the armed chaperones opened fire, killing 48-year-old Mahmoud Za’al Odeh.

Qusra residents claimed that Odeh had been working in his field when he was shot and that the rock-throwing Palestinian mob only arrived at the scene later.

Last month, police said in a statement that an investigation into the clash has so far reinforced the claims of the settlers, who maintain that residents from Qusra launched an attack on them.

The army said the hikers did not coordinate their trip ahead of time or get permission from the military to enter the area, as required by protocol.

Israeli settlers and Palestinians clash in the northern West Bank on November 30, 2017. (courtesy)

The incident significantly raised tensions between settlers and local Palestinians.

Responding to last week’s appeals court decision to release Wadi, the attorney for one of the assaulted chaperones acknowledged that police had made mistakes in the identification process, but claimed that still did not warrant the release of the defendant.

“The detainee who was released was one of the most dangerous people there, and he was identified with 100 percent certainty by the victims,” Chaim Bleicher, from the right-wing Honenu legal aid group, told The Times of Israel.

For his part, Wadi’s attorney Muhammad Zahalka praised the court’s decision, calling it “brave and correct.”

Palestinian men throw stones toward Israeli soldiers and settlers at the entrance to the northern West Bank village of Qusra on December 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

“We are checking whether it is possible to have the entire indictment dropped,” he said.

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The Israel Police’s Judea and Samaria District, which led the investigation, deflected the court’s charges that it had mishandled the probe. “The investigation of the events in Qusra was conducted in a professional and thorough manner, despite limitations and professional constraints,” it said Sunday in a statement.

The police division claimed that it had carried out the identification process under the supervision of the military prosecution, which hadn’t voiced misgivings about its conduct.

“The investigation was conducted with the close supervision of the military prosecution regarding identification arrangements and other activities carried out in the framework of the investigation,” the statement said.

Wadi was not the lone suspect to be detained following the November incident. On December 25, security forces arrested seven Qusra residents in connection with a stone-throwing attack.

Several of the suspects were wanted for involvement in the confrontation, while others were accused of taking part in rioting that followed the deadly incident, or for incitement, the IDF said in a statement. In all, at least 20 other Palestinians were arrested in the case.