Palestinian Witness Accounts Have Different Take on West Bank Stabbings

Palestinian eyewitnesses say the stabber at the gas station on Route 443 was shot dead when he was sitting down 20 meters away from the soldiers.

Amira Hass
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Israeli policemen and soldiers stand near the body of a Palestinian following a stabbing attack near the Jewish settlement of Beit Horon in the West Bank, near Jerusalem August 9, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amira Hass

About a quarter-hour after Anas Taha at the Khawaja gas station on Route 443 last week, soldiers killed him. They shot him from a distance of twenty meters as he was sitting on the ground, after they fired in the air twice and after he yelled “Allahu Akbar.” This, according to an eyewitness who spoke to Haaretz.

It was the first of four incidents in 10 days in which, according to army and Border Police spokesmen, a Palestinian was shot after stabbing or otherwise assaulting an Israeli in the West Bank. Three of the four Palestinians were killed. Three of the four Israelis were soldiers stationed at checkpoints: a soldier at Beit Ghur (Beit Horon) on Route 443, between Modi’in and Jerusalem, and two Border Police officers at the Za’atra (Tapuah) junction, south of Nablus. What are called in Israel “atmosphere attacks,” carried out by lone attackers inspired by the tense mood in the West Bank, and not by an organized armed cell, are perceived very differently by Palestinians. As they see it, at any time a soldier at a checkpoint can decide that he is being attacked and can kill a Palestinian. Palestinians don’t buy the idea that teenagers are carrying out copycat stabbings of Israelis, especially soldiers. In their opinion, the soldiers are quick on the trigger because they are hysterical.

On Monday Mohammed al-Atrash, a young man from Kufr A-Ra’i village, south of Jenin, was buried after being at the Za’atra checkpoint. According to Israeli reports, he had tried to stab another officer. After the funeral, relatives said there were witnesses who saw Atrash being removed from a taxi, that the officer had provoked him and that he didn’t even have a knife. A spokesman for security forces in the Palestinian Authority, Adnan Damiri, said the Palestinians were not presented with any evidence of stabbing attempts in the two incidents at Tapuah Junction. He added that the Israel Defense Forces both kills and investigates itself.

But at the gas station on Route 443, which is owned by a Palestinian family from Na’alin, there are Palestinian witnesses who saw Taha, 21, holding a knife. The workers at the station did not know either the assailant or his victim when at around 7:30 P.M. they heard shouting near the falafel stand at the eastern side of the station. The noise drew their attention to a man lying on the ground and a second man standing over him. A station employee who did not want to be identified — I will call him H. — was next to a gas pump when he heard the shouts.

“I thought maybe some laborers were arguing. Neither man addressed us,” H. said, objecting to Ben-Moyal’s report that station employees had laughed during the incident. “We didn’t realize what was happening and we certainly didn’t laugh.” H. said. He said that the man on the ground suddenly got up and began running, chased by the man who had been standing over him. H. saw something in the hand of the second man, a knife or perhaps an iron rod. A second Palestinian worker at the station told Haaretz he clearly saw a knife in the man’s hand.

Ben-Moyal escaped. One witness saw him get into a car driven by someone else, near the falafel restaurant. Taha stopped near an iron gate erected by the IDF, at the edge of the forecourt. An army base was set up behind the station two months ago, and since then a surveillance balloon has floated above the area. The road is closed to Palestinian vehicles; the workers reach the station through an underpass below Route 443.

According to H., Taha stood at the gate for five minutes, turning his head from left to right, then walked toward the highway, stopped at the entrance to the station and sat on the ground. H. said that around 10 minutes later, soldiers showed up near the falafel restaurant and were told that the suspect in the stabbing was on the far side of the station. The soldiers walked toward him, stood on the forecourt and shouted something H. couldn’t hear clearly. According to H., they fired into the air twice, at a distance of around 20 meters. Still sitting on the ground, Taha shouted “Allahu Akbar,” and the soldiers shot him dead.

When no I.D. was found on the body, a number of local council heads from surrounding villages were summoned in hopes that one of them could identify the deceased, but no one came from Qatana, Taha’s village, so he remained unidentified. Taha’s family didn’t know anything about what had happened. His mother told Haaretz that he went out that morning to do some casual work at the Qatana municipality. When she returned home that afternoon she was told Taha had come back, showered and left again. At 10:30 P.M., people called and told her his picture was on the Internet, as the person who was killed at the gas station.

H. said he had the impression that the young man had wanted to die. “He had enough time to flee but he didn’t.” Taha’s mother said her son was happy and made people laugh. “He planned to save money and get married, like everyone else.”

Taha was released from an Israeli prison two months ago, after serving five months for throwing stones at the Qalandiyah checkpoint. He worked at the A-Ram quarry at the time, and passed the checkpoint every day. Family members say that he didn’t throw rocks, that it was simply easy to apprehend and accuse him.

“That’s what we asked the Shin Bet security service officers who came to the house with a big military force at 4 A.M. Tuesday. We asked them why they didn’t just arrest him,” his father said. “They told us he was dangerous, that he yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ and was holding a knife. I told them that if the situation were reversed I wouldn’t kill. They tried to find out what drove him to do it, and we said that we had no idea.”

In a response, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said, “the terrorist tried to murder an Israeli citizen by stabbing him. The circumstances of the event are under investigation and when the investigation is completed a decision will be made.”

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