His Son, the Shaheed

Anwar Alami remembers the exact date he began to work for the Civil Administration: July 17, 1983, exactly 25 years ago. A Palestinian who lives in the village of Beit Ummar, north of Hebron, Alami has spent over half a lifetime among the Israeli soldiers and civilians who serve at the army base near the settlement of Beit El. About two and a half weeks ago, at an interview in his home, he told us in fluent Hebrew that he sees the Israelis from the base "more than I see my wife and children." But he did not know whether he would see his colleagues again, or whether he could continue to work as the accountant in charge of distributing salaries to the other Palestinian workers. This uncertainty is related to someone Alami will never see again: his son Mohammed, aged 15, who was killed 10 days earlier by Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

It is hard to imagine a more tragic, more Kafka-esque situation than the one in which Alami finds himself. As one of the few Palestinians still working in the Civil Administration, he has been regarded by many of his fellow villagers as a kind of collaborator with the occupation. But since his son was killed by IDF fire and became a shaheed, or Islamic martyr, whose death Islamic Jihad threatens to avenge, his father's life and status have changed as well.

Immediately, as part of a routine response in such cases, the Shin Bet security services denied Alami the right to enter Israel. Thus, the shot that took the life of his son has turned the father from a dedicated and loyal employee of an IDF body into a potential security risk whose future is unclear. Some of his fellow employees, he discovered, are fearful of the urge for revenge that he may be harboring if he returns to work among them.

The heads of the Civil Administration decided to arrange a meeting with Alami to examine his mood and determine whether he could come back to work. A few days before the planned meeting, he expressed diplomatic optimism. "I hope they'll help me with this thing," he said. "If they don't let me work now, that would be a greater disaster, but whatever they decide in the administration is all right. Whether I return to work or not, my behavior will remain the same until my dying day."

Beit Ummar, a village that lies along Highway 60, between Hebron and Bethlehem, has a population of 13,000. At the entrance to the village there is a military guard post, a concrete pillbox from which the soldiers can see everyone who enters and exits. They also have a view of the highway that connects Gush Etzion and Hebron, the main traffic artery for settlers in the region. An old metal sign in Hebrew warns passersby not to enter the area controlled by the Palestinian Administration. The main street in the village is dusty and full of potholes, and very few people walk along it.

Musa Abu Hashhash, a researcher from B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, came to the village in order to collect testimony about the death of Mohammed Alami. "Where is the house of the latest shaheed?" Abu Hashhash asks one of the residents. In the "Alami neighborhood," named after the hamula, or clan that lives there. The house is easily located, and immediately several of Anwar Alami's relatives come out to greet the guests. "Anwar is running errands," explains his brother Ibrahim.

In Ibrahim's house, on the wall next to the door there is a sampler in English, with the motto: "God Bless Our Home." Alongside it is a picture of a young girl - "That's my daughter who died of cancer," says the owner of the house - and a poster of the latest shaheed, his nephew. The heavy green and white sofas and armchairs in the living room fill up immediately. It's a regular work day, but the unemployment rate is high, and in any case, the media interest in the dead family member is now more important than work. Many of the village residents are farmers, but one of the visitors explains that because it's impossible to send merchandise to Israel, the farmers are unable to sell their entire crop, and a substantial portion of it rots and is thrown out.

Among those seated in the room is Mohammed's older brother, Ala, a 23-year-old accounting student at the Al-Quds Open University. Like most members of his age group, and unlike the previous generation of Palestinians, Ala has never worked in Israel, not even visited, and does not speak Hebrew. In general, he speaks little and only nods occasionally in confirmation of the words of others.

Ahmed Awad, a village resident who serves as a muezzin and an occasional local journalist, pulls out the video camera he carries with him regularly and displays pictures of military jeeps that enter the village daily. At that moment, the bereaved father enters the room. Wearing a white button-down shirt and black pants, with stubble on his face, he smiles sadly, sits down, takes out a red L & M cigarette and lights it.

In a calm, quiet voice, in nearly perfect Hebrew, Alami talks about himself and about the events leading to the death of his son. He is 49 years old, a native of Beit Ummar, married to Sabha. Aside from the two sons, one living and one dead, they also have four daughters; the youngest is seven. "One of the girls is doing her high school matriculation this year," he begins. "Mohammed, her brother, wanted to make a party for her and asked to paint the house. I told him I had no money. But he was earning money, because it's school vacation now and he did carpentry with a neighbor of ours, every day from 8 A.M. until 10 P.M.

"We began painting on Thursday. The first night we painted until 2 A.M. and the neighbors thought we were crazy. On the second night we stopped painting at about 10 P.M. and said we would make supper. I told Mohammed to get bread from the mini-market near the house. We waited for the bread and then we heard shouts. They said 'There's one who's wounded.' We didn't know it was Mohammed. We went to ask what was happening, and when we approached the people said 'Here, his parents are coming.' I couldn't believe it. He went out for only five minutes. But I said, 'That's it. Walla, there's nothing to be done.' He died on the spot and the next day we had the funeral.

"Now, when they ask me what happened, I have no answer. The papers wrote that the person who was killed threw a Molotov cocktail. No such thing happened. Even if someone threw one, it wasn't my son. Before he died, every time there was a demonstration in the village, every time there was a casualty here, as far as my son was concerned, nothing happened. Besides, after it all happened, they spoke to the owner of the mini-market, and he said that Mohammed had bought the bread."

Awad joins the conversation and tells us what happened that evening. "A friend of mine called me and said the soldiers had detained five people. I went down toward them, slightly beyond the junction at the entrance to the village. The detainees were blindfolded and their hands were tied behind their backs. I stood next to the store and asked a soldier 'Why are you detaining them?' He laughed at me and got angry.

"At the time, nobody was throwing anything, there was no demonstration. Afterward, the soldiers advanced a little further and created a roadblock with their jeep. We heard that they were looking for a stolen car, but I don't know, because they come here almost every day and don't tell us why they're entering the village. The presence of the soldiers in the village is a provocation, and that's why the children begin to throw stones. That day they closed off another road leading to the village and didn't let anyone enter or leave. Everyone who entered they took to the wall and examined. There were about five or six children who started to throw stones, and then we heard two shots. Mohammed was the one who was wounded, just 20 meters from his house. They took him to a doctor in the village, but he died on the spot. He was just painting his house. He was wearing shorts and flip-flops."

Alami adds: "At the moment that he went to bring the bread there were some 'problems.' I don't know what happened, but according to the autopsy report he was hit in the back from behind and the bullet exited in front."

What mortal danger?

According to internal IDF reports, the incident occurred when an IDF force fired two bullets at a boy who was about to throw a Molotov cocktail at them. An IDF spokesman, who refused to tell Haaretz which unit was operating in the village, gave a somewhat different version: "Two Molotov cocktails were thrown at an IDF force during activity in the village of Beit Ummar for the purpose of preventing disturbances and protecting the traffic arteries. When the force discovered those who threw the Molotov cocktails it fired at them. The incident was investigated in accordance with the army's instructions. The investigation revealed that the force, which was in mortal danger, acted according to the army's orders and as it was expected to do."

The wording of the response raises the question of what mortal danger faced the members of the force, and whether they fired only after the Molotov cocktails had already been thrown. In any case, two days after his son was killed, Alami phoned his place of work in the offices of the administration in Beit El. The secretary answered. "I told her I wanted a two-week leave of absence because my son had died," he said. "My boss was abroad, but later I spoke to him and he said that he was sorry and that after the leave we would see how I could return to work."

The fact that Alami's son was killed by IDF fire became known to the heads of the administration only later, and they apparently didn't know just how to react. Only a few of his Palestinian friends who work for the Civil Administration came on condolence visits or telephoned. Apparently they were afraid, because the security services keep track of visitors to families of shaheeds. Condolence calls might cause them trouble later on.

Did your Jewish friends from work contact you?

Alami: "No. They didn't speak to me."

But your bosses know what happened.

"They know, but it's a difficult situation. Sometimes you can't even talk."

Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Paz, a former head of the Civil Administration, is not personally acquainted with Alami. But he expressed a certain surprise when we spoke to him of the way in which the administration is dealing with the case - particularly by comparison with the treatment of similar incidents during his term at the administration.

"The relative of an employee of the Civil Administration who lived in Bethlehem was severely wounded by soldiers in an incident in which she wasn't involved," says Paz. "She was hospitalized in Israel, and then the Shin Bet refused to allow this employee to enter Israel to visit her. We waged a battle over that, as well as about the payment of his salary during the time he was with his daughter. In the end he couldn't stop thanking us for the medical care and for our behavior towards him. It's not exactly the same story, but I don't understand why Alami is having a hearing."

Regarding the immediate reaction of the Shin Bet, Paz says: "That's an automatic response in order to stay on the safe side: A first-degree relative of someone killed by our forces, whether or not he is a terrorist, immediately becomes 'a preventee' because of the motivation to take revenge. But that does not replace good judgment. If you know the person, then you have to take the automatic response of the Shin Bet and limit it in light of your familiarity with him and with his commitment."

Paz believes that the hearing for Alami in the Civil Administration was set for positive reasons. "From my acquaintance with the people in the administration, I assume that this is an act that was done in order to placate the Shin Bet and enable his return to work, rather than the contrary. If the Shin Bet comes and says 'There is solid information that the man is planning to take revenge,' then it is justified not to allow him to enter Israel and perhaps not to continue working either. If he doesn't say that, and the people who know him say that they trust the man, there is no reason not to allow him to continue to work and even to remove his 'preventee' status."

'It's a job'

There have been three wars, two intifadas, the Oslo Accords and thousands of dead and wounded since Anwar Alami returned from studying accounting in Jordan at the age of 24 and was hired to work in the Civil Administration. "A cousin of mine was working there at the time," he says. "He told me they were looking for workers, and since then I've been there."

The Civil Administration, which is in effect a military unit, was established in 1981 by then defense minister Ariel Sharon. The administration was given the responsibility for running the civilian networks that provide services to the Palestinians in the territories: education, health, employment, granting various permits, and so on. The head of the administration, at present Brig. Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, is subordinate to the coordinator of government activities in the territories and operates according to orders of the head of Central Command, who is in charge of legislation in the territories.

Since 1993, in the wake of the Oslo Accords and the transfer of the cities in the West Bank to the control of the Palestinian Authority, the activity of the administration has been greatly curtailed. Its tens of thousands of Palestinian employees went for the most part to work for the PA. Today the administration directly employs slightly over 100 Palestinians, who deal with issues related to, for example, water, land and agriculture in areas that are under Israeli security control. Some of these workers receive a salary directly from Israel, and others have their salaries paid by Israel from money it deducts from the taxes it transfers to the PA each month.

Alami, who began to work at the administration about two years after its establishment, was responsible, in the years before the Oslo Accords, for paying the salaries of almost 30,000 Palestinian workers. Recently his responsibility has shrunk to paying the salaries of only a few dozen employees, but he is considered one of the two most senior Palestinian employees remaining in the administration.

"It takes me two to two and a half hours every day to get to work," says Alami. "At 5 or 5:30 A.M. I'm already on the main road. I take a taxi to Bethlehem, cross checkpoint 300 to Jerusalem, from there travel to the Qalandiya checkpoint, cross in the direction of Ramallah and from there arrive at Beit El. I walk 600-700 meters from the place where the taxi lets me off every morning, and do the same after work. At the entrance to the office I have to pass through a machine that checks me. I have no problem with that. I understand that it's a matter of security. Every day I work from 8 A.M. until 2:30 or 3 P.M. They told me that I can leave the base with the ride that transports the soldiers and the workers, but often I work later and don't make it."

His long years at this job has included difficult periods: the intifadas, suicide attacks in Israel, the killing, wounding and imprisonment of thousands of his people, including residents of his village. During the second intifada alone, 10 residents of Beit Ummar were killed, eight of them from his own extended family. Did these events affect his work and his relations with the Jewish employees? "No," he says definitively. "There's a separation. It's work, and what's at work stays at work and what's outside is outside. I never felt that there was a big difference between me and my Jewish friends, or my boss. I really felt comfortable. The PA asked me many times to come to work for them, but I didn't want to."

Why?

"I was satisfied, and they also wanted me to stay on."

In the village, how do they feel about the fact that you work on an Israeli military base?

"It's complicated, I won't tell you it isn't. There were times when it was very hard. At first things weren't so good; they would look at me, they would say: 'You work at headquarters, you work with the soldiers, with the Israelis.' People ask, 'How can you still work there?' The moment that people hear 'Beit El' they're afraid. I went through a very rough period here, but thank God, in the end people understood that it's a job, a living. I'm not tossing out the plate from which I eat. I received many benefits from the administration and I'm very grateful to them for that. They know it, they've known me for 25 years."

His brother Ibrahim adds: "Eighty percent of the people in the village are not stupid. They understand that it's just a job. If you look at the settlements, who are the people who are building there? It's also Palestinians. There's nothing to be done, it's a job."

Paz is not convinced that the Palestinians consider administration employees collaborators. "It also depends on the period," he says. "The Civil Administration is sometimes seen as the essence of impurity, a symbol of the occupation, but sometimes it is also seen in the opposite way. Sometimes you hear Palestinians saying that the administration is the only place where people listen to them. As it happens, both are true."

How do the Jewish workers relate to their Palestinian colleagues?

"It depends whom you ask. Some of the Jews have been working for decades with Palestinians. For some, that makes them hate them more, for others the opposite is the case."

He wants to carry on with a normal life

When Ala Alami awoke from his sleep last Sunday morning in the room he shared with his brother, his father was already on the way to a meeting arranged for him with the deputy head of the administration, Col. Ben Hur Ahavat. In the Alami brothers' room, on their two adjacent youth beds, there are still some stuffed animals. "He was still only a child," smiles Ala in embarrassment when I wonder to whom they belong. Opposite the beds is a computer. "He liked to play with it a lot, mainly car races," says Ala. Above the computer hangs a picture of an attractive girl, Nancy Ajram, a famous Lebanese singer. There are no religious or nationalist symbols in the room, or indeed in the house. They did not even hang up the poster of their dead son, which is pasted up all over the neighborhood. In general, aside from framed needlepoint pictures of serene landscapes, the walls of the spacious family home are very bare.

During the interview, Anwar Alami - except for saying that he is convinced his son was not involved in a confrontation with the IDF - is careful not to blame anyone. He does not conceal his desire to return to his job, and seems to fear that one wrong word could harm his chances.

On Sunday, his trip to the meeting in Beit El took longer than usual. Because he is not permitted to enter Israel now, he had to get there by traveling through Palestinian areas only, rather than by the usual route, which involves traveling through Jerusalem. As he sat before his bosses, he was asked what would happen if he returned to work, how he would be able to function among soldiers, knowing that his son had been killed by the IDF. He replied, he said, in the same words he said to us. "I believe that God gave and God took away and now life goes on. I have other children, and I want to carry on with a normal life. That's what's left for me, and all I want is to live in dignity. I will remain until the end the same Anwar I have been all these 25 years."

The meeting ended inconclusively; the administration needs more time to consolidate a decision. "They told me to stay on leave for another week and then they will inform me what's happening with me, whether I'll continue with the usual job, or perhaps they'll transfer me," says Alami. Another week has passed, but he has yet to receive a reply from the administration. For now, he continues to think positively, but fear is beginning to creep into his voice. "Do you think there are problems?" he asks.

The Civil Administration's response: "After the death of his son, the Civil Administration responded to the request of Abu Sara (Alami) and allowed him to take a leave of absence, which continues to this day. Recently senior members of the Civil Administration met with Mr. Abu Sara and discussed his situation with him. The final decision will be made in cooperation with the relevant security factors."