Israeli troops in Hebron shot dead an elderly Palestinian civilian on Friday in a case of mistaken identity as they searched for a Hamas prisoner freed a day earlier.
The Israeli army expressed regret over the killing, with a spokesman admitting the 67-year-old man was an innocent civilian who lived in the same house as the wanted Hamas operative.
The shooting took place inside an apartment building in the heart of the southern West Bank city as troops were searching for one of five prisoners released from a Palestinian jail in Hebron on Thursday.
The dead man was identified as Omar Kawasme, with relatives saying he was an uncle of Wael al-Bitar, one of the Hamas prisoners being sought by Israel.
Speaking to AFP, the dead man’s son, Rajaeh Kawasme, said troops had entered the house while his mother was praying and his father was asleep. They had locked her in another room, then opened fire on his father in his bed.
“They murdered him in cold blood with 13 bullets in the head without even checking his identity,” he told AFP. “After they killed him, they asked for his identity card.
“They thought that Bitar lived in this apartment so they shot my father without confirming his identity.”
An AFP correspondent at the scene said the shooting took place in a bedroom on the building’s first floor, with the bed drenched in blood. Bitar’s home is on the ground floor.
The army admitted Kawasme had been mistakenly killed by troops who were trying to find Bitar, a member of Hamas’s armed wing whom Israel says was involved in planning suicide bombings.
“During this morning’s arrest operation, a Palestinian man who was present in one of the terrorist’s homes was killed. The IDF (army) regrets the outcome of the incident,” a statement said, adding an investigation had been opened.
“There is no indication that he was involved in any terror activity at any stage and therefore we regret the incident,” a spokesman explained, saying the killing of Kawasme was “definitely not intentional” as he was “not a target.”
The army said it had re-arrested all five Hamas prisoners overnight, including Bitar, whom they said had planned several suicide attacks, including one which killed an Israeli woman and wounded 10 other people in 2008.
The pre-dawn killing prompted a furious response from the Islamist Hamas movement which rules Gaza, with a spokesman blaming the Palestinian Authority of president Mahmud Abbas.
“Hamas holds the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank responsible, along with the occupation, for this crime,” Sami Abu Zuhri told a news conference.
“We call on the Palestinian Authority to immediately stop political arrests and to give the resistance a chance to protect the Palestinian people in the West Bank.”
The Hamas men had been arrested on “security grounds” by the Palestinian Authority, which is controlled by the secular Fatah movement, a bitter rival of Hamas. The two sides regularly trade barbs over the thorny issue of prisoners.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat condemned Israel’s actions in Hebron, but also rejected Hamas’s accusations. He said the freed prisoners — all of whom were wanted by Israel — knew that they were responsible for their own safety.
“We condemn the Israeli actions in Hebron today and we also condemn the statement made by Sami Abu Zuhri. We refuse everything because it only shifts the responsibility away from Israel,” he told AFP.
“Hamas had been told, along with the prisoners and their families, that the Palestinian Authority was only keeping them in custody to prevent their arrest by the Israelis,” said, adding their release had been ordered by the courts.
Kawasme was buried in a Hebron cemetery shortly after Muslim weekly prayers, with thousands attending the funeral, an AFP correspondent said.
At the same time, several thousand people rallied in Gaza City, with protesters waving green Hamas flags and shouting: “The Palestinian Authority is collaborating with the Zionists” and “No to political arrests!”
Relations between Fatah and Hamas have been particularly tense since the Islamists routed their secular rivals in bloody battles in Gaza in 2007.
Since then, Hamas has held Gaza, while the Palestinian Authority has been confined to ruling the West Bank, with both sides engaging in a series of tit-for-tat arrests of the other side’s members.