By TIA GOLDENBERG
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Seconds after Palestinian gunmen began shooting up a busy Jerusalem bus stop last week, Yuval Castleman raced toward the scene and opened fire on the attackers — only to be shot and killed by an Israeli soldier who apparently suspected he was also an assailant.
The shooting of Castleman, who in security camera footage is seen kneeling, raising his hands and flinging open his shirt to indicate he isn’t a threat, underscores what critics say is an epidemic of excessive force by Israeli soldiers, police and armed citizens against suspected Palestinian attackers.
“He took all the necessary steps so that he could be properly identified,” Castleman’s father, Moshe, told Israeli Army Radio on Sunday, “and they kept shooting at him.”
Castleman’s shooting mirrors previous incidents where Israeli security forces or civilians have opened fire on attackers who no longer appear to pose a threat, or on suspected assailants or unarmed civilians deemed to be threats.
The incident comes as tensions have been inflamed by the war between Israel and Hamas, with Israelis on edge and bracing for further attacks. It also coincides with a drive by Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to ramp up the number of gun-toting civilians.
Palestinians and human rights groups have long accused Israeli forces of using excessive force, killing attackers who no longer posed a threat and even harming innocent people mistaken for attackers and then skirting accountability.
Early Thursday, as the entrance to Jerusalem was swelling with traffic, two Hamas militants exited their car at a bus stop and opened fire on waiting commuters, killing three. In security camera footage, Castleman is seen running from the other side of the busy highway, brandishing his gun and shooting at the attackers. Soldiers are also seen opening fire.
Castleman, a 38-year-old lawyer who was on his way to work, is seen appearing to flee the gunshots. He then kneels, raises his arms and opens his shirt before he is shot.
His family is demanding to know how the heroism of their son culminated in his killing.
Israeli authorities are investigating the incident and police said initial findings showed one of the soldiers “mistakenly suspected” Castleman was an attacker. Castleman, a resident of a Jerusalem suburb, had previously worked in the Israeli security forces, according to his father, and used his own gun against the attackers. He was shot in the jaw, chin and stomach.
The Israeli military issued a statement Sunday expressing sorrow for Castleman’s death. It said the soldier suspected in the shooting was questioned under caution — a step that often precedes criminal charges.
The soldier, identified by Israeli media as reservist Aviad Frija, told Israeli Channel 14 TV that he was active among “hilltop youth” — a term used to refer to radicalized Jewish teen squatters on hilltops in the occupied West Bank who have been known to attack Palestinians and their property.
Frija was not asked about Castleman’s shooting. But he boasted about killing the attackers, saying doing so was every soldier’s goal.
Hilltop youth are politically aligned with Ben-Gvir, a disciple of a racist rabbi, who as the minister in charge of police has been leading a drive to proliferate arms among civilians by loosening the criteria for acquiring a gun permit. Ben-Gvir said Thursday’s attack proved his policies were needed.
“Weapons save lives. We see this time after time. Everywhere there are arms, citizens, police, soldiers save lives,” he said at the scene, without referring to Castleman. Ben-Gvir has also pushed for a national guard force he says is meant to fill in gaps where police are spread thin. Critics say it would amount to his own personal militia.
Asked about the shooting on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he supported Ben-Gvir’s policy to increase access to weapons even if it meant civilians like Castleman could be killed.
“The presence of armed civilians many times saved the day and prevented a bigger disaster,” he told reporters. “It could be that we will pay a price for it. That’s life.”
Netanyahu rival-turned-wartime ally Benny Gantz called for an investigation into the proper use of guns and the regulations surrounding their use.
“That’s not ‘life,’ but a warning sign,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter.
After an uproar over his comments, Netanyahu reversed course on Sunday, calling Castleman’s death a “terrible tragedy.”
“He is an Israeli hero,” Netanyahu said. He promised a thorough investigation and said he had called Castleman’s father to offer condolences.
Thursday’s incident had echoes of previous ones that have shed light on Israeli open fire rules. Most infamous was the 2016 shooting death by an Israeli soldier of a badly wounded Palestinian assailant as he lay on the ground.
The shooting by Sgt. Elor Azaria, which came as Israel was battling a low-level wave of Palestinian attacks, divided the country. While Israel’s top generals pushed for the prosecution of a soldier they say violated the military’s code of ethics, large segments of the public, including politicians on Israel’s nationalist right, sided with Azaria. Even Netanyahu, in a nod to his nationalist base, gave only lukewarm support to his military.
Similarly, in 2015, after a deadly Palestinian attack at a bus station in the southern city of Beersheba, an Eritrean man was shot and beaten to death by a mob after being mistaken for an assailant. Two men charged with the death were acquitted, with the court siding with their claim that they believed he was an attacker.
Critics said Thursday’s incident was especially severe because Castleman took what they said were clear steps to prove that he was not an attacker.
“It was an execution,” wrote Shelly Yacimovich, a former leader of Israel’s liberal Labor Party, on the Ynet news site. “Against the law, against open fire regulations, the sanctity of arms. Immoral. And all that would be true even if he was a terrorist.”
Moshe Karadi, a former police chief, said he believed the background of the soldier who allegedly shot Castleman influenced his thought process. “The finger is lighter on the trigger there than in other places,” he said, referring to the West Bank, where settler violence has flared during the war.
Karadi said Ben-Gvir’s crusade to arm more civilians would lead to untrained and unqualified arms carriers. He said greater access to guns would spark increased violence against minorities and women and lead to more incidents like Thursday’s killing of an innocent civilian.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst, said the incident reflected a reality that Palestinians have long lived with. She said how Castleman died — arms raised, knees to the ground — didn’t surprise her given the heightened tensions since the war, coupled with what Palestinians see as the systemic use of excessive force and a drive to have more Israelis carry arms.
“It was really just a question of time until someone was gunned down in that way,” she said.