Twilight Zone / Straight to the Heart

Palestinians constantly sneak into Israel to find jobs paying meager wages. Some are beaten and imprisoned. This week a 37-year-old father of five was shot to death

In the afternoon, while everyone was waiting for the body to arrive from the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine, I asked the bereaved brother, Hasan Kawazba, to tell me about his last conversation with Izz a-Din, during what were the final moments of his life, just before he was shot to death by an Israeli Border Policeman.

Kawazba- Alon Ron
Alon Ron

Hasan tried to stifle his sobs - a hardscrabble Palestinian worker does not cry in the presence of strangers. But there was no mistaking the ravages of that terrible night: the eyes red from sleeplessness. The downcast, sweat-drenched face. The suppressed rage. "I told him to hurry up, to run faster," he said, and burst into uncontrollable crying.

If only his hefty brother had been a little faster, in another minute he would have been saved, as Hasan himself was. And what did you two talk about on the way, I asked, in the van? Hasan gave me a look of utter contempt: "What did we talk about?! We tried to sleep and hoped our way to work would be safe this time." Again the stricken look.

Late last week, Izz a-Din returned from a lengthy illegal stay in Israel. Fear of the danger entailed in stealing across the border had kept him in Jerusalem for three full weeks without coming home. This pattern had gone on for years. On Saturday nights, a little after midnight, he and hundreds of other workers from the village of Sa'ir, east of Hebron, were taken in a van to a spot near the separation fence around Jerusalem. They waited in the dead of night for an opportune moment, then with the aid of a rope climbed over the four-meter-high barrier for another week of work in the city.

Residents of Sa'ir say that 700 to 1,000 workers from their village alone enter Israel in this way every week. They find what shelter they can in skeletons of buildings, abandoned homes and in the hills around Jerusalem, living in constant fear. If they are lucky, they find work at one of the housing projects in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; if they are lucky, they are not caught. Many are injured while dropping from the rope. If caught, they can expect beatings and humiliation at the hands of the Border Police, or in some cases detention, a trial, imprisonment, a fine and expulsion - until the next time around.

Such is the life of thousands of shabahim, the colorless acronym for "people illegally present." This is the face of the widely touted "economic boom" in the West Bank. It's a dog's life, all for a grinding day's work and paltry pay of NIS 100-200. This is how we are lulled into a false sense of security, with deceptive declarations that the separation fence protects Israel from terrorism. If they so desired, terrorists, too, could enter Israel the same way.

And this is how Izz a-Din, 37, a father of five, whose youngest child is a year old, lived his life, stealing into Israel every few weeks with some of his brothers. Half a year ago he was caught, served a month in prison and was released after paying a fine of NIS 1,000. Izz a-Din continued to enter the country illegally - he had no other choice - until early this past Sunday morning, before the crack of dawn.

When we arrived in Sa'ir this week, a few hours after a Border Policeman fired a bullet into Izz a-Din's heart, the villagers were already sitting in the mourning tent, not far from the dead man's home. In their eyes was a grim, implacable look. Among them was the bereaved father, Saleh, 57. The preparations for the funeral were under way. On the wall of the lean-to huge mourning posters had been hung by Fatah, the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, all with photos of the dead man, announcing his death "from bullets of the Zionist occupation in Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine."

But Izz a-Din and his brothers were not involved in politics. They are a working-class family whose income derives solely from employment in Israel. They are 13 brothers and eight sisters from the same father and his two wives. Four of them, hard, muscular laborers, again entered Israel last Saturday in search of jobs, along with dozens of fellow villagers.

They reached the concrete wall in the Al-Azzariyeh area, waited for an opportune moment and hustled over the wall. It was a little after 2 A.M. After dropping down on the other side, they moved quickly up the road toward A-Tur. Suddenly a white Border Police car appeared and a policeman got out. The workers ran for their lives, every which way. Hasan Kawazba jumped over a fence and hid; his brothers were already far away. Only Izz a-Din tarried. The policeman may have ordered him to stop, but in any case he tried to flee. No worker will easily give up a week's pay.

From behind the fence Hasan heard a single shot. He was certain it was a bullet fired into the air. A cousin, Ghanam Kawazba, later reported in his testimony to Musa Abu Hashhash, a fieldworker for the human rights organization B'Tselem, that he saw the policeman shoot Izz a-Din from a distance of between five and 10 meters.

We are now in the home of the father of the family, not far from where Izz a-Din lived, listening to Hasan, the brother who was closest to the event. Tempers have not yet flared here; everything is pent up and repressed in this hilly village on the edge of the desert.

Hasan says he saw the Border Policeman, an Ethiopian, emerge from the Hyundai and chase his brother. He saw no more since he was behind the fence. No one, he says, imagined that the policeman would use live ammunition. If the security forces did not catch his brother they would undoubtedly catch one of the other dozens of workers scattered in the area. That's what usually happens.

After hearing the shot, Hasan came out of his hiding place and saw his brother lying on the road, face down. Two Border Policemen turned him over on his back. They tried to calm Hasan, saying his brother was only wounded in the shoulder. Hasan shouted at them to call for an ambulance. In the meantime, more forces arrived on the scene; the other workers started to return, having also heard the shot. Hasan quickly saw that his brother was dead. He began to scream, in helpless rage, and was prevented by the policemen from approaching the body. Finally they handcuffed him and bundled him into their car. He was taken into custody and released a few hours later.

At the same time, one of the other workers called two other brothers, Abed and Ashraf, who were by now some distance away, on his cellular phone, and informed them that Hasan had been arrested; he avoided breaking the news of Izz a-Din's death. The two hurried back and as they approached, Hasan shouted to them through the window of the police car that Izz a-Din had been killed. They too were prevented from approaching the body.

For more than three hours the stunned workers, including the bereaved brothers, waited at the site, with policemen and soldiers blocking access to the body, until first light, when all clearly saw the body, before it was removed. All the workers hurried back to the village.

This week, the three brothers told me they would soon sneak into Israel again in pursuit of work: "Even if they will kill 10, we will continue - we have no choice."

Logic - and the testimonies of the eyewitnesses we spoke to - rule out the possibility that Izz a-Din tried to grab the Border Policeman's weapon, as he claimed in his interrogation. It's more likely that Izz a-Din just tried to get away. It is also hard to understand why the policeman pursued a worker with his weapon cocked.

The observer at the autopsy, performed at the Institute of Forensic Medicine, was Dr. Danny Rosin, a surgeon who belongs to the Physicians for Human Rights group, who attended at the behest of the family, B'Tselem and PHR. A Palestinian pathologist was supposed to be on hand, but missed the autopsy because he was delayed for hours at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, although his participation was authorized by the Justice Ministry's department for investigation of police officers.

Rosin reported to the family that the cause of death was shooting at closed range. A bullet had entered the chest cavity through the right shoulder and tore open the main artery from the heart. Izz a-Din had thus been shot from the side. The Justice Ministry department is looking into the incident and began to hear testimonies this week.

The preparations for the funeral were completed. A convoy of cars decorated with olive leaves, containing all the members of the dead man's family, set out for the Tarqumiya checkpoint in order to receive the body. A truck with blaring loudspeakers drove through the streets. At home, the widow, Fathiya, tried desperately to cope with her loss. In the mourners' tent Izz a-Din's three eldest children - Hamzi, 12; Kusay, 10; and Mohammed, 7 - posed for a picture together against the background of a photo of their dead father.

"What happened to Dad," I asked Hamzi.

"Dad is a shaheed," he replied in a whisper.