The photo on Facebook is dated May 27, 2014, exactly three months ago. Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, the president of FIFA, the international soccer federation, is warmly shaking the hand of a powerfully built young man in a Nike jersey. “Mr. World Soccer” told the young Palestinian player that he predicted he would have a professional future in the sport. A few weeks later, an Israel Defense Forces soldier fired one round of live ammunition at the promising athlete and killed him.
Friends of the dead man wrote a sarcastic letter to Blatter: “We thank you for the brilliant future you promised Mohammad … Here, this is the future you promised him.” The president of the Palestinian Football Federation, Jibril Rajoub, also fired off an official letter of protest to Blatter over the soccer player’s death.
But in Israel no one had ever heard his name; no one was aware he’d been killed, in the midst of the Gaza hostilities. Of course, a possible protest or show of solidarity by Israeli soccer officials in the wake of the killing of the Palestinian player was out of the question.
Thus ended the short life of the 19-year-old athlete Mohammad al-Qatari from the Al-Amari refugee camp, outside Ramallah. His life was truncated, his dream aborted. Qatari will not be a professional soccer player, like Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale, from Real Madrid, whom he revered and whose pictures he pasted on the wall next to his bed.
One M16 rifle bullet straight to the center of the chest, fired from about 70 meters during a protest demonstration against the war in Gaza, felled him.
His parents proudly show his training outfit. His official uniform, bearing the number 16, is being kept in the Al-Amari soccer club’s headquarters. The memorial poster shows him in the uniform, Kalashnikov in hand, Al-Aqsa Mosque in the background. His parents say it’s a computer collage done by his friends after his death, as is customary in the West Bank; they say he never held a weapon. At the moment of his death he might have been holding a stone, which he possibly intended to throw at the soldiers who were deployed at a distance, next to the gate of the settlement of Psagot.
The demonstrators were protesting the killing in the Gaza Strip. In one of his last photos, Qatari is wearing a T-shirt with the inscription, “We are all Gaza.”
Al-Amari is a squalid camp on the outskirts of the Ramallah bubble, with its jeeps, ritzy malls and packed restaurants, where people did not pause even when blood was spilled and destruction wrought in Gaza.
The bereaved father, Ahmed al-Qatari, 45, is a blacksmith who not long ago lost his youngest son, 9-year-old Yusuf, in an accident on the main road next to the camp. Now he has lost his firstborn, too. Still, Ahmed appears to accept these blows of fate with equanimity.
After nine years of schooling, Mohammad left to help support his family. At first he held odd jobs, but when he began to stand out in soccer, he was hired by the Joseph Blatter Academy in El Bireh, a soccer school adjacent to the international stadium. Mohammad was given office work and trained every day in the stadium.
On Friday, August 8, he woke up early, as always, and watched reports from Gaza on television. He went to visit a friend, came home to eat and went to work, together with his childhood friend Mahmoud Kutush. They arrived at the academy at midday; Mohammad served lunch to the soccer players. At around 4:30, when the two friends were ready to go home, they saw a demonstration opposite the entrance to Psagot, which overlooks the stadium and the academy. A few dozen young people were throwing stones at soldiers who were emerging from the settlement.
Together with another friend, Mohammad and Mahmoud decided to join them. They positioned themselves in the front row, across from two soldiers who had taken cover, one behind a garbage bin, the other behind a tree. The stone throwing went on for about 20 minutes.
Kutush relates that he did not hear a gunshot. He only saw Mohammad suddenly collapse onto the road. He and the other friend rushed over and tried to pull him to safety, but then three more soldiers appeared and started to fire teargas and live ammunition at them. Mohammad managed to call out to his friends, “Run!” Kutush and the others ran for their lives. Kutush was sure Mohammad had been lightly wounded in the leg. From his hiding place he saw soldiers advance and drag his wounded friend across the ground into the settlement.
After some time, a military ambulance arrived. Kutush saw a group of soldiers standing around Mohammad, who was lying on the ground.
Mohammad’s father was in a café near home when someone phoned him to say that his son had been wounded near Psagot. With his brother, he rushed to the site. Some young people who were still in the area told Ahmed his son had been taken into the settlement; he and his brother tried to enter but were chased off by soldiers at gunpoint. After about an hour, he relates, a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance entered the settlement, after a security check. The ambulance emerged minutes later. Ahmed asked the driver what happened to his son, but was told only to follow the ambulance to the government hospital in Ramallah. He could not see Mohammad inside.
A short time later, a physician emerged from the hospital emergency room. Wanting to know the truth about his son, Ahmed did not identify himself as the father. The doctor made do with saying, “Allah have mercy on him.” Ahmed understood.
B’Tselem human rights organization field worker Iyad Haddad arrived and asked that an autopsy be performed. After the requisite permission was received from the family and the authorities, a pathologist from Abu Dis was summoned and the autopsy was carried out. It showed that Mohammad was killed by an M16 bullet that penetrated his chest, tore the main arteries and did not exit. He died of massive bleeding.
Haddad, who served as a witness in the autopsy, says that Mohammad’s back and legs were badly scratched, apparently from being dragged across the ground by the soldiers. Haddad adds that it’s generally people who don’t often take part in demonstrations and stone throwing who get hurt, because they don’t know how to keep out of harm’s way, as experienced protestors do.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Office told Haaretz this week: “During a violent and illegal disturbance next to the entrance to Psagot, about 50 Palestinians threw stones at the settlement and at an IDF force that was posted there to secure the residents. The force responded with fire, from which one of the rioters was killed. The incident is now being investigated by the Military Police, after which the findings will be forwarded to the Military Advocate General’s unit, which will review them and make a decision.”
Afterward, we drove to the killing site in El Bireh, together with Kutush. A street of mansion-like homes ends at a yellow iron gate, an electrified fence and concrete blocks – marking the entrance to Psagot, stuck here at the edge of the well-off town of El Bireh. The street is peaceful and quiet. This is where they were standing, next to the stop sign. Here’s where the soldiers were, and this is where Mohammad fell to the ground. Only the scorched garbage bin hints at what occurred here. The well-appointed soccer stadium overlooks the street, and the Joseph Blatter Academy, an elegant stone structure, is located at the top of the next street.
Photographs from Blatter’s visit are on show in the lobby, which is draped with FIFA and Palestinian flags. A stone plaque in the handsome courtyard states that the academy was inaugurated on July 7, 2013, in the presence of President Mahmoud Abbas.
A huge poster that envelops the building ripples in the summer breeze and threatens to detach from it. The building has been wrapped in the poster for three weeks – it’s a memorial poster for the soccer player of the past who had a future, Mohammad al-Qatari. It wasn’t so long ago, just three months, that here, in the courtyard, Blatter, the soccer chief from Switzerland, and Qatari, the Palestinian soccer player, exchanged smiles.