RAMALLAH, West Bank – Recent videos show Israeli troops shooting a wounded Palestinian at close range, pepper-spraying Palestinian medics, ramming a Palestinian with a jeep and threatening refugee camp residents with tear gas "until you die" unless they stop throwing stones.
Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups contend the images, many captured by amateur smartphone users, buttress long-standing allegations of excessive force — particularly amid a wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks in which top Israeli politicians and security commanders have encouraged forces to shoot to kill suspected assailants.
"There is a very clear message sent by those politicians and military commanders that this is how law enforcement should behave," said Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli group B'Tselem, which documents rights abuses.
Israel's army and police defended the actions shown in the videos, with the exception of an officer who was suspended over the tear gas threat.
"Our activities in all of the cases have been responses to Palestinian aggression," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman. Israel itself has released several videos showing its forces shooting stabbers.
Video footage is increasingly central in the competition over international opinion — a contest Palestinians say they often lost in the past when it came down to their word against that of the Israeli military or Jewish settlers.
In 2007, B'Tselem began distributing video cameras to Palestinians in West Bank hot spots, such as the Israeli-controlled center of Hebron, carved out for 850 Jewish settlers.
One of the first videos, showing a settler woman harassing a female Palestinian neighbor, went viral, Michaeli said. About 200 Palestinians have B'Tselem-issued cameras today.
With the rise in smartphone use — 10-fold over five years — the impact of such amateur images has only grown.
Take several controversial videos that have emerged in recent days.
One shows the aftermath of what Israeli police say was a stabbing attack of an Israeli soldier by 23-year-old Mahdi Mohtasseb last Thursday. The video begins with Mohtasseb lying face-down in a Hebron street — already wounded by Israeli fire, according to local activists.
A member of the Israeli security forces approaches and — as Mohtasseb slowly tries to lift himself — shoots him from about 15 feet (five meters). Mohtasseb is then shown lifeless and bloodied as Israel's paramilitary border police inspect the body.
Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri said Mohtasseb still posed a danger because he might have a gun or explosives and ignored calls not to move.
"He tried to get up" as a soldier approached, she said, adding that the officer who fired the fatal shot was "worthy of praise."
Shukri Mohtasseb, a cousin, said Mahdi Mohtasseb was planning on getting engaged and had no reason to carry out an attack. He maintained his cousin was unarmed, though he did not witness the incident.
"The soldiers ... could have arrested him because he was injured, but they killed him in cold blood," he said.
Israeli regulations permit security forces to use lethal force when they believe their lives are in danger — a subjective gauge, especially when Israelis are feeling so jittery.
Since mid-September, 11 Israelis have been killed and dozens wounded in Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, while 69 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including 43 who Israel says were involved in attacks or attempted attacks.
"We are faced with a reality of people walking down the street and pulling out a knife with lethal intentions," said Lerner, the military spokesman. "There are both means and intent on behalf of those attackers. That is why they have to be stopped, even at the price of lethal force."
Rights groups say Israeli troops are often too quick on the draw and are rarely held accountable.
Earlier this week, an Israeli military investigation cleared troops who killed 18-year-old Hadeel Hashlamoun at a Hebron checkpoint on Sept. 22 — a shooting London-based Amnesty International said was an apparent "extra-judicial execution."
The teen was behind a metal barrier, several yards (meters) from the soldiers, when she was shot dead, Amnesty said, citing a witness. It later turned out she held a knife under her robe, but never pulled it out, the group said.
The military says soldiers faced a "potentially life-threatening situation."
Photos show Hashlamoun facing a soldier with his assault rifle aimed at her. Video of the aftermath shows her body lying next to a metal turnstile, behind the metal barrier that separated her from the soldiers.
The Israeli watchdog group Yesh Din said soldiers face little risk of criminal charges over alleged abuses. Between 2010 and 2013, only 1.4 percent of Palestinian complaints led to indictments against soldiers, the group said. Lerner said military investigators are "completely independent" from the regular chain of command.
In one recent case, Israeli authorities said an officer was suspended after amateur video showed him patrolling the Aida refugee camp in a jeep, warning residents over a loudspeaker that if they kept throwing stones, "we will keep attacking you with tear gas. ... Everyone, until you die."
Camp resident Yazan Ikhlayel said he filmed the jeep on his smartphone after heavy clashes Thursday between stone-throwers and Israeli forces who he said fired dozens of tear gas canisters.
Ikhlayel said he was pleased with the suspension. "Now they know that any wrongdoing will be caught by smartphones and will be seen worldwide," he said.
But in another recent incident captured on camera, Israeli police defended troops, saying they used "reasonable force," in targeting medics and journalists with pepper spray.
The filmed confrontation begins with a firebomb hitting an Israeli jeep and bursting into flames on the hood and windshield. Moments later another jeep chases a group of Palestinians, slamming into one. Medics try to approach the injured youth but are pushed back by Israeli forces.
"This is pepper spray, go back," an officer shouts in Arabic, then begins spraying. Two medics fall to the ground, one groaning, and are carried away by colleagues.
Emirati television journalists Diya Hoshiya and Munther Khateeb said they were also hit with pepper spray. Video shows Hoshiya on the ground as a medic wipes his eyes. In another clip, Khateeb is seen being held in a chokehold by an officer, who Khateeb said pulled off his gas mask to spray his face.
Samri, the police spokeswoman, said that media and medical teams need to "act responsibly and follow police instructions" to prevent such confrontations in the future.
Michaeli, of B'Tselem, said the impact of amateur video should not be overestimated.
"If we have learned from past experiences, these soldiers are not facing any penalties," she said. "There is not going to be any real accountability."
Shooting of Mahdi Mohtasseb: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB0zV9RxH5k
Jeep ramming Palestinian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjwzBhInrm8&feature=youtu.be
Border police patrol threatening residents of refugee camp: https://www.facebook.com/YaZaN.E5lAyeL/videos/10206598210846351/?pnref=story
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah contributed to this report.