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JERUSALEM – When Ali Nimr drove drunk at night past Israeli police operating in his Jerusalem neighborhood, the officers sprayed the Palestinian's car with gunfire, fearing he was an attacker, according to his indictment. Nimr's brother-in-law, in the front seat next to him, was killed.
Now Nimr is on trial for negligent homicide in his death.
The fatal shooting of Mustafa Nimr illustrates the sometimes murky circumstances in which dozens of alleged Palestinian assailants have been shot over the course of a year of violence.
In every instance, Israeli police and troops have said they opened fire only after Palestinians posed a life-threatening danger to them, usually by attempting to stab them or ram them with a car. But Palestinians say this explanation has been used to cover up numerous cases in which Israel either used excessive force to halt assailants or needlessly killed people who were not attackers.
"Should a man who is making a turn, even while speeding, in his own neighborhood in the dark of night know there is a hidden squad there manning a checkpoint and shooting at people?" asked Waseem Dakwar, who is defending Ali Nimr in the trial, which began Thursday.
Relatives say the Nimrs were only out to get a late-night slice of pizza in Jerusalem's Shuafat refugee camp when they were shot on that September night.
Even the police's account of that evening has changed.
Initially, police described it as foiled car ramming attack. They said security forces had been searching for weapons in Shuafat, a hardscrabble neighborhood plagued by criminal gangs, when they opened fired at a vehicle that ignored warnings to stop and sped at them.
But several days after the incident, a video of the incident shot by a bystander surfaced, appearing to show police shooting while the car was stopped. The video suggested that officers had continued shooting after the targets no longer posed a threat. The gunfire riddled the car with holes and shattered the windshield, instantly killing Mustafa and wounding Ali Nimr.
Police have not commented on the video, but a day after it aired on Israeli TV, they appeared to change their story.
Instead of describing Nimr as an attacker, they said that through his behavior, he "caused the death of the deceased who was with him in the vehicle." They launched an investigation against him on suspicion of manslaughter, negligent homicide, driving without a license or insurance, and driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
Police also quickly returned Mustafa Nimr's body to his family. In the cases of alleged attackers, police often hold on to their bodies for weeks or even months to prevent their funerals from turning into "an exhibition of support for terrorism."
Ali Nimr was subsequently charged with negligent homicide. In his indictment, obtained by the AP, Israeli authorities allege he barreled his car through an improvised checkpoint, ignoring shouted warnings, making officers believe he was trying to ram them before they opened fire on his car. Nimr tested positive for methamphetamines and confessed to being drunk at the time of the incident, according to the document.
Mustafa Nimr's girlfriend, Khen, was driving behind him on the night of the shooting. She is a Jewish Israeli and declined to give her last name for fear of harassment by Jewish hardliners. The couple were visiting from their home in a Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv.
She said police were dressed in dark clothes and gave no warning before they shot.
"Just suddenly we heard gunshots," she said. "They could have shot at the car, and not at the man."
In court Thursday, Nimr pleaded guilty via attorney Dakwar to the traffic violations, but rejected the charge of negligent homicide. Dakwar said police shot at the car indiscriminately and without cause.
During the session, Nimr and his mother were removed from the courtroom after they began shouting. Nimr demanded he be released from jail, where he has been held since he recovered from his wounds in September, and said the state was trying to frame him.
If the same drunk driving incident had happened elsewhere, the police reaction would likely have been different.
Shuafat is a slum where services like trash pickup, firefighting and traffic police have been suspended for fear of violence. Police rarely patrol the camp unless in heavily armed groups. Any unusual driving can be interpreted by jittery police as an attack, and several residents of Shuafat have been involved in recent attacks on Israelis.
On the night of the incident, police said Israeli officers were searching for illegal weapons in the camp.
The shooting came after a year of violence.
Dozens of Palestinians, mostly acting alone, have killed some 36 Israelis in shooting, stabbing and ramming attacks. At least 222 Palestinians have died by Israeli fire in that period. Israel says most were assailants, but Palestinians and Israeli rights groups have accused security forces at times of unnecessarily using lethal force. Even the U.S. State Department has suggested that Israel has used excessive force in some instances.
Proving such cases, however, has been difficult. In some cases, it is hard to find witnesses, and even when videos emerge, they can be inconclusive. Israel says it investigates every incident, and the military has opened more detailed probes into several incidents.
In the most prominent case, Israeli Sgt. Elor Azariya is on trial for fatally shooting a Palestinian attacker who had already been subdued. The shooting, also captured on video by a local resident, has bitterly divided the nation, with supporters, including leading politicians, saying Azariya acted properly while critics, including military commanders, say he violated army procedures and ethics.
In another high-profile case, Israeli prosecutors announced last Wednesday that they would not file charges against two civilian security guards who shot and killed two Palestinian siblings at the Qalandiya checkpoint near Jerusalem in April. The prosecutor's office said the guards acted in self-defense.
The death of Mustafa Nimr has left his family reeling. His brother, Fahed, said Nimr was happily engaged to his Israeli girlfriend and working as a cook. On Nimr's last night, he sat with his fiancé and family in Fahed's home.
"A man comes from another city to visit family," Fahed Nimr said. "And he was slaughtered."
Follow Daniella Cheslow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dacheslow and Mohammed Daraghmeh at www.twitter.com/MohammedDaragh1.