Ayham awoke and phoned his father, Hashem, who told his son that he would be home soon to finish building a new cage for the ducks in the garden. About 10 minutes later, an Israel Defense Forces sharpshooter fired a bullet into Hashem’s heart, killing him on the spot. The sharpshooter then took his rifle and left the balcony of the house from which he had shot Hashem, according to the family who own the apartment which the soldiers had taken over.
“The soldier completed his mission and got out,” says the family of the deceased.
Afterward, soldiers fired two more live rounds of ammunition, killing two more demonstrators who had assembled on the street below, in the center of Beit Ummar, a town between Bethlehem and Hebron. This happened three weeks ago, in the midst of the war in the Gaza Strip.
Hashem Abu Maria, 45 years old and the father of three, worked for the Geneva-based NGO Defense for Children International. He was a social worker who devoted his life to the protection of Palestinian children. On the day of his death, eyewitnesses and family members say, Abu Maria joined a solidarity march with the victims of the Gaza fighting, which set out from the main mosque in Beit Ummar. His aim was to protect the local children and prevent them from following their usual custom of throwing stones at the Israeli troops who raided the town.
He stood at the back of the group of protestors, not in front, shooing the children away. Some people heard him tell them, “Go home, this is dangerous. It’s not for you. You are children – demonstrations are for adults. Go home and play with your computers.”
That was the role he assumed in such protests. But a moment later, the sharpshooter’s bullet pierced his heart, exited from his back and struck another demonstrator, lightly wounding him. Abu Maria collapsed, then managed to lift himself up for an instant and call out, “They killed me,” before dying.
Two IDF soldiers in a jeep were at the entrance to Beit Ummar this week, too, when we got there. We drove past them in the car of Prof. Yusuf Abu Maria, Hashem’s brother, who teaches psychology at Al-Quds Open University. Also with us was Riad Arar, Hashem’s colleague at DCI.
Hashem Abu Maria was killed on Friday, July 25, on the main street of his town, next to the carpentry shop of the Al-Alami family. A photograph of their son, Tareq, is pasted on the door of the shop; he was killed in March 2004 while on his way to pick mint leaves from his garden.
The day Abu Maria was killed, hundreds of people turned out after the Ramadan Friday prayers to demonstrate against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. They threw stones and burned tires. That morning, recalls his widow, Samira, he had watched the news from Gaza on Al Jazeera and wept. His colleague, Riad Arar, relates that at work, too, Abu Maria constantly watched television broadcasts from Gaza. He also repeatedly wrote on his Facebook page, “Stop killing the children in Gaza.”
After watching the scenes from Gaza that fateful morning, he went out to the garden and spent some time looking at the view. He performed the ablutions ahead of the noontime prayers and arranged to meet at 4 P.M. with his brother Mahmoud – who himself was seriously wounded by IDF fire in the past – in order to continue building the duck cage.
We sit in the garden of the family’s handsome two-story home. With its grove of fruit trees and doves, ducks and peacocks, the garden was Abu Maria’s “kingdom,” his family says. Located at the western edge of Beit Ummar, the house has two kitchens and four bathrooms. It is perched on a hill with a view that almost goes as far as the sea.
Mourning notices now drape the house, together with banners of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the organization in which Abu Maria was active politically. His family say he loved life and loved his home. He wanted to take his son, Ayham, to the Friday prayers, but fortunately the boy was sleeping and his father decided not to wake him. Ten-year-old Ayham has two sisters: Majdal, 14, and Siba, 6. Before Hashem was killed he told Ayham on the phone that he was standing next to the carpentry shop, and that the demonstration would soon be over and he would return home. Just minutes later, on local television, the boy saw his father killed.
Immediately afterward, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Abdul Hamid Bregeith, a 32-year-old father of three, and Sultan Zaqiq, 29, a father of two.
The IDF Spokesman’s Office stated in response this week: “An investigation by the Military Police has been opened into the circumstances surrounding the incident, and upon its completion the findings will be transferred to the office of the military advocate general for examination. The incident took place during violent and illegal disturbances in Beit Ummar, during which stones and firebombs were thrown at IDF troops.”
Abu Maria’s family says that Beit Ummar is still in shock: Why did the Israelis kill Hashem, the residents ask. Did they deliberately target him – the man who all his life wanted only to protect children?
DCI, which placed a mourning notice in Haaretz, is now trying to conduct its own investigation and is demanding answers from the IDF about the killing of its employee. According to the organization’s website, Abu Maria was the coordinator of DCI-Palestine’s community mobilization unit, most recently focusing its efforts on Palestinian teens, and on monitoring and documenting violations of children’s rights in Hebron.
After his brother’s death, Yusuf Abu Maria watched the Israeli news broadcasts, expecting to hear something about the events in Beit Ummar. But there was nothing. Not one word, he says, about the killing of three demonstrators, one of them his brother.
A duck quacks in the garden of the house in which we sit, and a rooster crows. The family will finish building the duck cage without Hashem.