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Introduction: Recently, my family and I were in Israel-Palestine. We spent Christmas in Palestine and then drove north to Nablus. There we witnessed the aftermath of the Israeli targeted killing of three Palestinians. We met the affected families and I wrote down my impressions of the Israeli operation in the form of a report (supplemented with photographs). Later I found out that the American government is questioning the Israeli government on the operation, and therefore I have made the report available to Congress and the State Department. However, I really think that the impressions of an ordinary American citizen should be seen by other Americans.
Much planning had gone into our family vacation in Israel-Palestine. We could spare only the last two weeks of 2009, and so had developed an uncompromising itinerary for each day, allowing a mere half-day to recover from jet lag from our trip from California. After devoting most of the first week to visiting holy places in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Jericho, we were, in the words of our 17-year-old, quite “churched out.” We are a typical American family in at least one regard: we have two other children (ages five and two), and we are all blessed with limited attention span. Absorbing detailed references to the Old and New Testaments in the places we visited was beyond our capabilities. Our hired tour guide and driver, Issa Habash , had long ago taken notice of our monumental ignorance and had given up on reciting chapter and verse from the Bible.
On December 26, 2009 we headed north from Bethlehem, where we had celebrated Christmas. Entering the city of Nablus, we stopped briefly at Jacob’s Well, just enough time to use the facilities and for a photo-op of my wife drawing water from the fabled well. Our plans for the rest of Nablus were somewhat vague; Issa suggested we take in an ancient Samaritan synagogue, but everyone else rebelled against this idea. My wife was more interested in seeing a soap factory or a store with the legendary spices of Nablus. As a former academic, I was keen on touring the an-Najah National University, which is the largest one in Palestine. I had even made a tentative arrangement with a local, Ala Abdessalam, to show us around. Ala is affiliated with the university but also functions as a coordinator for human rights groups and youth exchange programs operating in Nablus.
When we left Jacob’s Well, it was a little after eleven in the morning. We called Ala on his cell-phone and were told that he was no longer available for the tour. Apparently the Israeli Special Forces had killed some people in a pre-dawn operation in the Old City, and Ala was busy taking pictures and interviewing people. However, if we were up to the challenge, we could tag along while he went about his business. He said that it might even help him to have international observers with him.
We agreed to this proposal, albeit with some nervousness. Until that point we had not encountered any trouble in the Palestine Territories—to the contrary, the people we had met were extremely friendly and ready to debate political issues involving Israel, Palestine, and the United States quite openly. Still, we were uneasy about visiting the neighborhood where people had been killed that very day.
Ala met us at the outskirts of the Old City. He was accompanied by two other volunteers. All of us, including Issa, got down from the van and set off on foot. Our intrepid five-year-old led the way, taking his stuffed toy cat along for security (see Figure 1). Soon, a mentally challenged man joined the group and started yelling at us. Ala assured me that the man was harmless (“Isn’t there someone like this in every village?” was his comment.) Noticing my wife’s anxiety, one of the volunteers linked arms with our five-year-old and the two marched along happily.
Ala explained that there had been three distinct “termination” operations conducted by the Israeli Special Forces. The operations had been well coordinated, taking place between 2:00 and 4:00 AM, in three different houses within 2 kilometers of each other. Ala had already taken down preliminary testimony from the neighbors. In accordance with Muslim customs, the funerals had to be done promptly, and so Ala had to break off his interviews. He warned us that there would be a lot of mourners in each house that we visited.
At the first house, we were met by two neighbors, a young man and an older woman. Ala rattled off questions and translated briskly from Arabic to English for the benefit of my wife, our 17-year-old and myself. I asked an occasional question.
The man who had been killed was named Ghasan Abu Sharakh. He had been living in the house with his mother. At around 3:00 AM, the neighborhood was awakened by commotion in the streets. A convoy of about 30 jeeps had appeared suddenly, along with a Hummer and a bull-dozer. Some 70 soldiers and at least one dog had spread around and a few soldiers had quickly entered the house.
“Nobody took pictures?” I asked. It seemed remarkable to me, in this age of ubiquitous cell-phone cameras, that it had not occurred to anyone to film the whole thing.
Ala explained patiently to me that if you were anywhere near an Israeli raid you did two things. First, you made sure that you did not have a camera; if the Israelis found one on you they would beat you senseless. Second, you visited a toilet as soon as you could—if you were rounded up you might not get to use the potty for a long time.
The old lady continued the story. Ghasan had been sleeping upstairs when the door of his house had been blasted open (see Figure 2). When he came downstairs to the door, he was immediately shot in the face. His mother, who was right behind him, had watched her son’s head explode and spill blood all over the room (see Figure 3). The old lady was sure that the Israelis would have shot the mother too if she had been the one to come to the door first.
I took some pictures and tried to think of meaningful questions to ask. My wife held on tightly to the two-year-old. The old lady asked us to enter the house and go upstairs to the living area. Ala assured my wife that it was alright for her as a foreigner to not wear a hijab; he told her to simply pay her respects to Ghasan’s mother when we met her.
There were many people inside the house. A local TV station was interviewing the mother. A groan emanated from the assembly when the mother related something (see Figure 4). Ala translated for us: “… the soldiers kept putting bullets into my son’s body even though his face was completely gone.”
Somehow a path opened up as people made way for us to reach Ghasan’s mother. Holding on to the two-year-old, my wife kneeled down and held the woman’s hand. Ala moved up to translate, but my wife was having difficulty forming words. It did not matter—grief has a universal language and whatever needed to be said by one woman to another in this situation had already been communicated.
Outside the house, Ala informed us that the mother had also lost her elder son in a similar way three years ago.
“Will there be an investigation?” I asked. “An autopsy?”
Ala shrugged. “What’s the point? Everyone knows the cause of death and who did the killing.”
“In any case Muslims do not like autopsies and embalming. Martyrs are to be buried in their own clothes soon after death.”
I took out my notebook and scribbled in all the details I could remember. A Scottish youth volunteer joined us at this point. He already knew Ala and also seemed to be familiar with the neighborhood. He said that he had been living in Nablus for a month. I asked him if he kept a diary or a journal. He glanced at my notebook said that it was best not to keep a written record: “The Israelis will read it at the airport and put you on a black list if they see any pro-Palestine sentiments.” Really?
Only a few details differed in the second killing. Raed Surkaji had been an activist some seven years before, and had been sent to an Israeli prison. He had been released eleven months ago, as part of a negotiated arrangement between the Palestine Authority and Israel. Since that time he had been living in Nablus. This fateful morning he had been sleeping with his pregnant wife when the Israeli soldiers arrived and knocked down the door of his house. He too had been shot in the face through the glass (see Figure 5) when he went up to the door.
Raed’s wife told Ala that she had pleaded with the soldiers to stop, but they kept shooting her husband long after he had died. They told her that she should be happy that they were letting her live. The commander came running up from the alley and pumped more bullets into the chest of the corpse. Then they had all left, laughing and shouting victorious slogans.
Ala said that he had come to the house earlier that morning. At that time, the room had not been cleaned and there was flesh and brain substance all over the place. He pointed to two soap bars that still had some grisly matter on them (see Figure 6).
When I approached Raed’s wife, she pointed to her foot. Ala told me that when she walked out of the room glass shards had pierced her foot. She was unable to walk and had to be carried to the hospital for treatment. I had composed something to say to her, but when I looked into her eyes, I too found that I could not speak, just like my wife in the previous house. I touched her foot silently. But this time my wife managed to get out some words: she told Raed’s wife that she was sorry for her loss. Ala translated and the woman said “she was honored that we cared.” We were quite overcome with sadness when we left.
Outside, Ala wanted to go to the third house right away. He told us that this case was different—the man who was killed had worked in the Palestine Authority security service. Therefore he had had a pistol with him. He had hidden himself in the cellar when he heard the noise outside, but it had mattered little; he too was killed as swiftly as the others.
“How far is the house?” I asked Ala.
“Only a kilometer away.”
I looked at my wife, and she shook her head. We had seen enough.
We discussed the day’s events over a late lunch. The first and most obvious question was why the three men had been killed. On this question, Issa and Ala had different opinions.
Issa thought that the operation was Israeli retaliation for some crime that the three men had committed. An Israeli settler, Meir Avshalom Hai, from the nearby settlement of Shavei Shomron had been killed in his car on Christmas Eve. The al-Aqsa Martyr Brigade had already claimed responsibility for the killing. Issa was positive that the Israelis would have had evidence connecting the three people to the killing of the settler.
Ala was skeptical. He said that neither Ghasan nor Raed was armed, and even the Israelis would not claim that they possessed deadly weapons. According to the family and the neighbors, the men did have active links to al-Aqsa. “These killings were random,” Ala declared. “These guys were simply no use alive to the Israelis,” he said.
I could not accept the idea of random killings by the Israeli government. Since December 26, I have read all I could find on the Nablus operation, though I am handicapped by having to limit myself to English sources. News reports in Israel and Palestine are susceptible to the spin from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, which makes it difficult to piece together even simple aspects of the truth. For example, Ala had told us that a “large number of people” had attended the funeral of the three people on December 26, but estimates of this large number varied from “a few thousand” to “about 10,000” to “well over 20,000,” depending on whether you read the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Al Jazeera, or the Ma’an News Agency. (The first one is pro-Israel, the last is pro-Palestine, and the other two are somewhere in-between.) Another detail on which there is no agreement is the spelling of the names of the people killed. This may well be a problem of transliterating Arabic names; I myself have rendered the names the way Ala spelled them out for me.
Much more disconcerting than these discrepancies in inessential details is the wholesale disagreement among the news sources on crucial facts, such as: the location where the men were killed (inside the house, upstairs, downstairs), whether they had been armed, whether they had been given a chance to surrender, whether taking prisoners was an option, etc. The following is a small selection of key points in the news reports I read.
The Ma’an News Agency mentions that the second man, Raed, was shot not only in front of his wife but also in front of his two children. This detail did not emerge in our meeting with Raed’s wife, but perhaps it was true and she did not consider it important to mention her children. The new report also indicates that the first man, Ghasan, was taken outside his house and shot. This does not match the physical evidence we saw in the house and I have puzzled over how the report could have gotten it so wrong. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing; could it be that the downstairs area where Ghasan was killed is not considered to be part of the house proper?
Al Jazeera notes that “the three men targeted by the Israelis had been disarmed under security measures taken by [the Palestinian Authority President] Abbas's police force.” The inference we are asked to make is that this was a cold-blooded execution of unarmed men.
The Jerusalem Post states that the Israelis soldiers came from the Judea and Samaria Division’s Special Forces unit and the Kfir Brigade’s battalion under the command of Col. Itzik Bar. The Post is unequivocal that the three men killed were Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigade operatives, and claims that the Israelis recovered two M-16’s and two pistols in the third man’s hideout, contradicting the Al Jazeera version. It also claims that Raed “left his house holding his wife in front of him” and the IDF troops “acting on information that he was armed, opened fire, killing [Raed] and wounding his wife in the leg.” This certainly does not match the physical evidence of destruction in the house that we saw ourselves, nor does it match Raed’s wife’s testimony. If I had to guess, I would say that this version of events is an Israeli attempt to spin the killing as an operational decision rather than a pre-meditated execution. Also according to the Jerusalem Post, “the troops entered Ghasan’s home, which was filled with other family members, located him and shot him dead as well. No one else was hurt.” In these sentences one can see only the mildest form of retrospective rationalization—it seems more humane than the account we ourselves had heard of Ghasan being shot dead in front of a single person: his mother.
Western sources such as BBC are disappointing; they simply stitch together reports based on what the Israeli forces or the Palestinian Authority said, without any attempt at independent verification. Fox News is an exception: it gives a revised Israeli version offered for American consumption: “The forces surrounded the homes of the three … Lerner, the army major, said all three turned down a chance to surrender. Lerner confirmed that none of the wanted men returned fire, including Subeh [the third man], who had two pistols and two assault rifles on him … Asked why soldiers opened fire, Lerner said troops "had to operate under the assumption that they (the suspects) are dangerous."” However, Fox makes it clear that it has not bought this explanation. It notes that “the relatives of [Ghasan] and [Raed] said they were killed without warning.”
Where does this leave us? My wife and I have talked about this experience over and over, and have been led to a modest but inexorable conclusion: whatever we heard in translation in the two houses was the simple truth. We may be gullible American tourists, but there is a different, more compelling reason for our conclusion—real grief is difficult to fake. We cannot conceive of a reality in which Raed’s wife and Ghasan’s mother would be so depraved as to portray the deaths of their loved ones other than how they actually happened, just in order to suit some twisted ideology. Therefore we believe that the Israeli forces did execute two unarmed men in cold blood and keep putting bullets into them long after they had died.
This conclusion is troubling when combined with what the news sources actually agree on. All reports generally accept that the “termination” operation had been authorized at the highest levels of the Israeli government. Indeed, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, had praised the commando operation in Nablus, and said that Israel would “continue to defend aggressively and respond to every attack against Israeli citizens and every rocket strike.” This high-level sanction makes the operation more chilling. Even if Netanyahu had conclusive evidence linking the three men to the killing of the Israeli settler, there should be better accountability and due process in a law-abiding nation. The three men could easily have been arrested, given the overwhelming force that the Israelis had against them. Why was it necessary to raid the houses and kill unarmed men with great brutality in front of their family, and then walk away with impunity? Surely this cannot be the way of civilized countries.
As we continued our travels through other cities in Israel, I discussed the Nablus killings with various people. When I brought up the disturbing question mentioned above, I was surprised by the similar answer that I got independently from two persons who occupy relatively high positions. Disclosing their job description will be tantamount to disclosing who they are, so I will avoid that; in any case, it is their response that is revealing. One of them put it this way: “It’s important for the Israeli government to show that it’s always in control. It’s not so important to be right. It’s not so important to kill the real perpetrators, but it’s very important to send a message. The message is that retaliation for any aggression will be swift, overwhelming, and precise. It’s irrelevant if the real culprits in the killing of the Shavei Shomron settler got away.”
Al Jazeera and Haaretz mentioned that the US government has “questioned” Israel over the operation. As American citizens, my wife and I intend to offer our account to the State Department and to our Congressman, along with the photographs I took. We will do this as a matter of civic duty, but we are not good witnesses. What we saw and heard came after the fact, and may have lost many details in translation. The best witnesses are people like Raed’s wife and Ghasan’s mother. If the US government or UN observers or human rights organizations wish to interview them, they will find a compelling story. From our experience, they are not afraid to talk. Whether it will help in bringing about peace is a different matter.
By Vijay Raghavan, Ph.D. (email@example.com)
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