EAST JERUSALEM – It was sunrise on the 22nd of April, 2022, when Walid al-Sharif, a 23-year-old Palestinian, had finished his prayers at the al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem. The grounds of the mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam, and it was the last place he would be conscious.
That Friday morning was one of the most sacred days during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Just before 6AM, Sharif and hundreds of other Palestinian worshippers started to protest against Israeli police, who were stationed at al-Aqsa’s Moroccan gate in a militarised zone that Muslims can’t access.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians make their way to the grounds every year. Some of them sleep over so that they can attend all the prayers, including those held at sunrise. Sharif was one of many young men who had spent days at the compound, and was also taking part in protests against Israeli police. Many of the protesters, including Sharif, were throwing stones at the gate.
They were angered because Israel’s specialist riot police unit, the Yasam, who were present at the compound that morning, had stormed the grounds of al-Aqsa several times in previous weeks. They had detained hundreds of Palestinians and, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, at least 175 worshipers had been injured during these raids. Meanwhile, far-right Jews were escorted by police safely onto the grounds of the al-Aqsa compound.
Israel has security forces stationed all over the Old City, a walled-off area in occupied East Jerusalem, including at every entrance of the al-Aqsa compound. Palestinians say that Israel is increasingly pushing them out of East Jerusalem, where the United Nations regards Israeli settlements as illegal under international law.
That morning on the 22nd of April, at 6.11AM, Israeli police stormed the al-Aqsa compound, immediately firing sponge-tipped bullets and stun grenades at protesters, journalists, and medics.
Sharif was running away from police when he fell to the ground seconds later. He never regained consciousness and 22 days later, he died.
Eyewitnesses told us he fell after he was hit by a sponge-tipped bullet. But Israeli authorities immediately released a statement claiming Sharif was “seriously injured when he fell to the floor,” and later outright denied that they shot him or caused his collapse, alleging that he died of a medical condition.
At least 57 Palestinians were injured that day.
VICE World News reporters were inside the al-Aqsa compound on the day Sharif was injured. It was only a few days later that we inadvertently discovered key evidence that would lead to an 11-month investigation into what actually caused his death, one that appears to contradict Israel’s version of events.
We shared our evidence with forensic experts and biomechanists who helped us analyse the moments before, during and after Sharif fell to the ground.
In our investigation, we managed to pinpoint the precise route of the sponge tipped-bullets fired by Israeli police and used accurate data to calculate the time range in which the rounds of bullets would have hit.
Palestinians say the initial denials are part of a deliberate tactic by Israel to obscure the reality around the killings of Palestinians in an attempt to avoid accountability. Last year, 182 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, but not a single soldier or police officer has so far been indicted.
After the shooting began, Sharif could be seen running away from Israeli police. When three shots were heard, he immediately fell to the ground. We then saw an unidentified man try to drag him to safety but fail due to hail of sponge-tipped bullets. Manufacturers class sponge-tipped bullets – which are made from a heavy synthetic rubber – as “non lethal”, but they can still cause serious injury and death, especially if fired at the head or from close range. Sharif was left lying on the ground, writhing in pain.
A Palestinian volunteer paramedic, Khader Qawasmi, was captured on video trying to approach Sharif, but he said he stopped after he was fired at and injured. Social media footage shows Qawasmi bleeding from the head, which he says was from a sponge-tipped bullet. “They were shooting randomly at people, in any spot where people were gathered, they didn’t care about age or gender,” he told VICE World News. “After I got hit, I wasn’t able to approach Sharif. I couldn’t stand, and I was bleeding and felt dizzy. I had to run away.”
At least 11 police officers approached and surrounded Sharif, who was clearly injured, and three of them dragged him away. No stretcher was used and no medical aid was provided at that time.
Israeli police storming the compound also surrounded a team of journalists, including the VICE World News team, who all clearly identified themselves as journalists before being fired at. At least eight journalists were chased away by police who fired sponge-tipped bullets and stun grenades directly at them, injuring two Palestinian reporters next to us.
Sharif’s brother, Abdelrahman al-Sharif, a security guard at the mosque, told VICE World News that the family has repeatedly tried and failed to obtain his medical records. “One of the injured casualties was my brother, and I didn’t know that he was injured until the afternoon,” he said. “I was rushing to get to the hospital, and when I got there, the situation was very tense. Police were present in large numbers. They wouldn’t let anyone in.”
After taking Sharif to the Moroccan gate, police told VICE World News they gave him CPR. He was then taken to Hadassah Har Hatzofim Hospital before being transferred to Hadassah Ein Kerem, where he remained. The hospitals have refused to release Sharif’s medical records to his family so It’s unclear how long it took for Sharif to be given medical treatment after being dragged away at 6.13AM.
Sharif was in a coma for 22 days before he died on the 14th of May, 2022.
His family refused to allow Israeli officials to carry out the autopsy. Abdelrahman al-Sharif was clear who he blamed for his brother’s death. “We don’t trust my brother's killers in the first place,” he said. “They want the right to open him up after he’s dead too? We already know they’d produce a fabricated autopsy report. They would’ve produced a report that exonerated them. We refused that.”
After his death, hundreds of Palestinian mourners escorted Sharif’s body through the al-Aqsa compound and on to the site of his resting place just outside the Old City. Police attacked the funeral procession with tear gas and more sponge-tipped bullets, claiming the crowd was disorderly. At least 70 Palestinians were injured. One mourner, Sharif’s uncle, Nader al-Sharif, even lost an eye. Six Israeli officers were also injured.
Al-Aqsa – known as Temple Mount to Jewish worshippers – is the holiest site in Judaism, and the site’s ownership has long been contested. Nearly a year on, voices of far-right Israelis openly declaring they want to convert the mosque into a solely Jewish holy site – contrary to the agreed decades-old status quo at al-Aqsa – are getting louder, emboldened by the election of Israel’s most far-right government in history. As a result of this, along with the continued forced evictions of Palestinians from their homes sanctioned by Israeli courts, Palestinian fury at the occupation is growing.
An Israeli police spokesperson told VICE World News: “It will be clarified that there is no finding indicating external damage to the deceased. The doctor who checked the deceased body determined in relation to the circumstances of the death that ‘from the tests performed and from the medical record, it can be concluded that the cause is not traumatic and the deceased collapsed due to medical reasons’.”
Israeli police ignored requests for further details and evidence of their claims including who performed the tests they refer to, what those tests were and whether they could provide any details of their internal investigation.
VICE World News also spoke to Chief Superintendent Wassem Ashkar, an Israeli commander of the border police in the Old City. He gave us a different reason for Sharif’s death, claiming that he collapsed because of an epileptic seizure. This was the only time such a theory was presented during our investigation.
Abdelrahman al-Sharif insisted that at the time of his death, his brother was healthy and did not suffer from seizures. “Even the hospital admitted that Walid didn’t have any health issues. That’s a claim that the police made. He was athletic. He went to the gym,” he said.
VICE World News has seen Sharif’s death certificate, which states that the cause of death was “brain death” and that he had suffered a heart attack secondary to a brain injury. Independent experts based in the UK and the US disagreed with the absolute statements from Israel that medical conditions caused Sharif to fall.
To work out what really happened that morning, VICE World News collaborated with forensic experts and biomechanics who examined all of our exclusive footage.
Jeremy Bauer, a biomechanist and forensic expert who has testified in court for police departments in the US and the families of people killed, concluded that Sharif could not have fallen due to a trip. The crucial tell, according to Bauer, is that he did not put his hands up to protect himself which suggests that he was already unconscious before he hit the ground. He also added that a medical condition was unlikely to have caused his fall as the time between consciousness and unconsciousness is too small. He flipped back and forth from one video frame to the next – in one frame Sharif is conscious and the next frame it appears that he's not. Bauer said that was too quick for the impact of a heart attack to take hold.
But we still needed to look more closely at the rounds being fired towards Sharif.
Visual investigators at Forensic Architecture, using digital modelling and sound tracking to look into human rights violations, were able to closely analyse our video using spatial and architectural techniques. We provided the group with footage of two Israeli police officers who were present at the Moroccan gate and appeared to fire at the same time as Sharif fell.
Forensic Architecture’s analysis confirmed the trajectory of the shots was in Sharif’s direction.
The investigators used Sharif’s location, the time the shots were fired and the velocity of similar rounds of sponge-tipped bullets to calculate the expected time the bullets would hit him.
They concluded that the timing of his fall is consistent with the timing of the shots: Sharif appears to start falling at 6:11:57AM – just .42 of a second after the first shot we hear in the footage, when Sharif was approximately 44 metres away. Forensic Architecture concluded he was likely hit by this first shot.
Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian-Israeli politician and trained medical doctor was one of the few people who saw Sharif when he was in hospital. He believes that Israel’s response is part of a cover-up.
“Isn't it strange that when the bullet was fired, the bullet fired by the Israeli police at Sharif's direction, coincided with his injury and his falling down? How strange that he had a heart attack at this particular moment,” he said.
The person in charge of security in al-Aqsa on the day Sharif was injured was Omer Bar-Lev, the then national security minister, who also oversaw all policing in Jerusalem.
He rarely gives interviews but sat down with VICE World News just days after he left office when he was replaced in Israel’s new far-right government. He told us that he had been briefed on Sharif’s situation and that he had also seen hospital medical records. In an explosive and revealing interview Bar-Lev admitted on camera, for the first time since the start of the investigation, that Sharif had in fact been hit by a sponge-tipped bullet fired, but denied that that was the cause of his death.
“Palestinians say he was killed by police and this is not true,” he said. “He was hit, yes, he was hit by the police but he died – whether he died, whether it, I don’t know, whether it was a heart attack or tension or whatever, he died several days afterwards in the hospital.”
He repeated this claim several times in the interview.
When VICE World News said that this was the first time any Israeli official had admitted to Sharif being shot, Bar-Lev slightly backtracked and said he’d have to confirm his statement. “I’m not sure that I remember correctly, but what I’m sure, because this was investigated largely, he died because of his medical situation, not because he was hit or another reason,” he said.
Bar-Lev also denied there were any injuries caused by riot police firing sponge-tipped bullets in al-Aqsa, claiming it all pivots on the “question of what you call an injury.” He added, “If someone fires a Palestinian or an Israeli-Muslim that was in al-Aqsa, fires fireworks at police and the policeman shoots him back in order to prevent that and in order to make him get back to the mosque, I don’t call that an injury, even if he hit him.”
Despite Bar-Lev’s hard-line approach during the interview, he warned VICE World News that the actions of the new Israeli government could trigger a full scale Palestinian uprising. In December 2022, he was replaced as National Security Minister by Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was previously convicted of inciting racism and supporting a far-right terrorist organisation. Since taking his position, Ben-Gvir has already called for police and soldiers to be given immunity from prosecution for actions taken while on duty and passed legislation that would strip Palestinians who live in Israel “convicted of terror” of their citizenship and allow them to potentially be deported to the West Bank and Gaza.
Ahmad Tibi, the Palestinian-Israeli Knesset member, said that the current Israeli political system persecutes Palestinians and prevents them seeking accountability for crimes.
“There is always the army version that automatically disavows responsibility,” he told VICE World News. “And there is the story of the Palestinian side. This is the method of occupation over the years. It is important for them to sow doubts about the Palestinian story.”
He added, “When you run a policy that separates Jews and Arabs, in the state, this is not democracy. It is a democracy only for Jews.”
All the evidence collected by VICE World News since last April points to Sharif being shot by Israeli police on the 22nd of April 2022. Despite this conclusion – which strongly counters the narrative presented by Israeli police – Sharif’s family tell us that they do not believe there will be any official ramifications or follow-up by Israeli authorities as a result.
Sharif’s younger brother, Mahmoud al-Sharif, 23, took VICE World News to his brother’s gravestone. It’s located just minutes away from the al-Aqsa compound in a Muslim graveyard that overlooks the walls of the Old City. Mourners had left photos of Sharif and fresh flowers at the grave. “When the Occupation kills someone, they don’t think of the family. The mother, father, brothers, sisters, and friends left behind. When they kill someone, they think it’s just another person who died,” he said.
“When we make mistakes, they put us in prison. Humiliate us, and do many things to us. So why aren’t they held accountable too? Why aren’t they punished?” he added, his tone defiant.
“They say they want to live in peace. Let us live in peace then too.”