The Life and Death of a Toy Terrorist

What exactly happened before a Hebron teen was shot dead by a border policewoman?

In the early evening on Wednesday of last week, they called him from home. The tea was ready, so what was happening with the birthday cake? That was the last phone call the teenager Mohammed Salaymah would get. He was celebrating his 17th birthday and it was one of his sisters who called him to hurry home with the cake he promised to buy. His 11th-grade classmates had marked the occasion the day before, and his picture with that cake, his last picture, adorned his Facebook page.

Mohammed left home around 6 P.M. to attend evening prayers at a nearby Hebron mosque. A short time later, however, an agitated neighbor knocked on the door of Mohammed's family's forlorn stone house urging his parents to run to the checkpoint for their son. Mohammed's father, Ziad, tore out toward the checkpoint, down the hill a short distance from the house. His wife followed, grabbing her son's jacket on the way out, convinced that he had been arrested by Israeli soldiers and concerned that he not be cold in detention.

Ziad got their first, to the sight of his son sprawled out on the road near the checkpoint. Blood was flowing from the boy's chest as a Palestinian doctor who lived opposite the checkpoint attempted to revive him. Apparently Israeli soldiers at the scene also tried to resuscitate him but those were his last breaths.

What happened at the checkpoint in the Old City of Hebron in an area under Israeli control? Was Mohammed really a terrorist as some Israeli media outlets quickly labeled him? Was he the unfortunate victim of someone who was a little quick on the trigger? The only thing that is clear this week is that a border policewoman shot two or three bullets at Mohammed from about four meters away. One entered his chest and the second his hip. But what preceded the shots, which rendered the policewoman the hero of the hour in Israel, is less clear.

A group of soldiers stood erecting a fence on Tuesday, maybe a lesson from what had happened there last week. A yellow iron roadblock prevents Palestinian cars from entering the settlers' quarter. Next to it stands a protected Border Police position overlooking the checkpoint. Security cameras mounted on a multi-story Palestinian building document everything happening here.

Up the road at home sits bereaved father Ziad Salaymah, leaning on a crutch. When he had tried to get into the Israeli ambulance transporting his son's body, Israeli soldiers shoved and hit him, injuring him and resulting in his being taken to the hospital. Ziad Salaymah had been injured in an accident six years ago, and now after Israeli soldiers hit his already disabled leg, he is bedridden. Five of the seven children of the family are hearing-impaired. Only Mohammed and his older brother Awad heard well. Awad had been sentenced to life in prison in 1991 for the murder of a settler and was released as part of the prisoner exchange last year that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Awad was exiled to the Gaza Strip.

Mohammed used to go through the checkpoint near his home, which the army calls Checkpoint 160, several times a day on his way to school and his sports club. His parents say he had never been arrested or gotten into any trouble. So what happened on that fateful evening last Wednesday? The few eyewitnesses to the incident refused to be interviewed Monday out of concern that it would be detrimental to them.

On Monday, the Israeli army released a video clip from a security camera positioned above where the shooting took place, in which Mohammed is seen attacking a border policeman. What happened before that? It's hard to know. It's doubtful that Mohammed would have gone there to deliberately attack the soldiers with his toy gun. No sane teenager in Hebron would have thought to do such a thing.

From testimony collected by a researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, it appears that the border policemen called for Mohammed to approach them, and then apparently they saw the gun, perhaps a toy gun or a cigarette lighter of the kind available in the Hebron market. His father said he had never seen the gun and thought it might have been a birthday present.

I saw pictures of the gun taken after Mohammed had been killed. In the evening darkness it looked real.

According to testimony, the police at the checkpoint confiscated the gun from Mohammed and then apparently a fight ensued in an effort by Mohammed to get the gun back. In the heat of the struggle, he was shot to death. The Israel Defense Force account of events is that Mohammed attacked the border policemen and the policewoman acted properly in shooting him. This is also how things look from the security video that the IDF released, but it was only a portion of the video. In the last intifada, at least, juveniles were killed with toy weapons in their possession.

Alex Levac