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'Why did they shoot?': Israeli soldiers kill man who stopped attack

The family of Israeli Yuval Kestelman mourns in Kiryat Tivon, in northern Israel, after his death in Jerusalem
— Kiryat Tivon (Israel) (AFP)

When Yuval Kestelman saw gunmen firing at a Jerusalem bus stop, he acted swiftly to stop the attack -- but was killed by Israeli soldiers who likely mistook him for an assailant.

Kestelman, a former Israeli police officer, has been hailed as a hero for stopping the deadly shooting last week, later claimed by Palestinian militant group Hamas.

But for many Israelis, the 37-year-old's death has raised potent questions over the proliferation of weapons in society, particularly since Hamas's October 7 attacks, and over the rules of engagement for members of security forces.

As the attack unfolded, Kestelman stopped his car, drew his pistol, ran across the road and opened fire, killing the two Palestinian gunmen.

Moments later, he was lying on the ground, mortally wounded after shots by soldiers who appear to have mistaken him for a third attacker.

"He raised his hands, showed that he wasn't wearing explosives or anything, unarmed," his stepmother Tami Kestelman told AFP during shiva -- the traditional Jewish mourning period -- at the family home in the northern town of Kiryat Tivon.

"Why did they need to shoot him?"

Israel says soldiers are only authorised to use deadly force in life-threatening situations, but activists accuse troops of overstepping the rules when Palestinians are involved.

Liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, in an editorial, pinned the blame for Kestelman's death on "the mindset that a terrorist is 'a dead man' and that 'we must not allow a terrorist to leave an attack alive'."

The sight of armed security personnel is common across Israel, and they have multiplied in the wake of the unprecedented October 7 attacks that saw around 1,200 people killed and about 240 taken hostage by Gaza militants, according to Israeli authorities.

Over the past two months as Israel fights Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the army has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists, who often take their weapons with them during short breaks at home.

And authorities have been issuing weapons to newly formed civil defence units, while officials say applications for gun permits have skyrocketed following the Hamas attacks.

To Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government includes hardline politicians who have called on Israelis to carry arms, gun deaths "happen" when more people have weapons.

- 'Weapons in large numbers' -

Asked about Kestelman's killing during a news conference, Netanyahu appeared to play down his death as collateral damage in the greater effort to stop Palestinian attacks.

"The moment you give out weapons in large numbers, these kinds of incidents happen," the premier said.

"It very well could be that we will pay the price for this -- that's life."

Surveillance camera footage of the Thursday attack shows Kestelman charging across the Jerusalem roadway after the two attackers had emerged from a car and opened fire. He shoots at them and they both collapse.

The gunmen, Palestinians from annexed east Jerusalem, killed three people including a 73-year-old rabbi and a woman in her 20s.

The footage shows soldiers who had also intervened begin firing at Kestelman, who then appears to toss away his pistol and run.

An online video shows him kneeling on the road, his hands in the air, shouting indistinctly. Four shots then ring out and the man falls to the ground.

He was pronounced dead that evening.

One of the soldiers involved told Israel's Channel 14 that after hiding behind the bus stop, "we suddenly saw them (the gunmen) and shot them."

"We shot until they fell," said the soldier Aviad Farija, who lives in a wildcat settlement outpost in the occupied West Bank.

Police said a preliminary probe had found the troops "mistakenly identified and suspected Yuval, who acted with heroism and bravery to neutralise the attackers, as a third assailant".

As questions mounted, police has announced a joint probe with the military. Farija was arrested by military police on Monday.

- Seeking 'justice' -

Kestelman's death has prompted calls to reevaluate rules of engagement, with some drawing parallels with instances of Israeli forces killing unarmed Palestinians.

Opposition lawmaker Merav Michaeli cited the high-profile case of Elor Azaria, a soldier tried over the killing of a Palestinian attacker after he had already been incapacitated by troops in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Public figures, politicians and ordinary Israelis have defended the actions of Azaria, who had served a nine-month prison term for the 2016 killing.

"This is the legacy of the Elor Azaria case," Michaeli wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

"The country is awash with guns," she warned. "Today it's Yuval and tomorrow it's any one of us."

Benny Gantz, a former defence minister who joined Netanyahu's war cabinet, called the incident "a warning signal" whose lessons "will save lives in the future".

At the family home, Kestelman's younger brother Shaked -- his shirt rent in a mourning tradition and an M16 rifle over his shoulder -- said it was important "there will be justice, and that the truth comes to light".