A Palestinian Shooting That Doesn’t Alarm the Israeli Army

A Palestinian was killed in the West Bank, allegedly by his brother, then the victim’s home was shot at. But Israeli security forces haven’t acted in the second case, despite their authority to do so

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Mohammed Bkheis with his two little sons and younger brother in front of the the wadi where Mohammed's father Ahmed was murdered, December 2019.
Mohammed Bkheis with his two little sons and younger brother in front of the the wadi where Mohammed's father Ahmed was murdered, December 2019.Credit: Amira Hass

On October 21, Ahmed Bkheis, 48, was killed while tending his small herd in a wadi below his house on the outskirts of the town of Samua in the southern West Bank. The suspect is his 64-year-old brother, Mohammed.

The Israel Police arrested Mohammed less than a day after the killing, and about three weeks ago he was indicted at Be’er Sheva District Court. The charges include illegal possession of a gun.

This family tragedy didn’t begin with Ahmed Bkheis’ murder and isn’t ending with it. About two weeks after the killing, someone fired a rifle at Bkheis’ home and the home of another of his brothers, Nader. Both incidents occurred at night.

Later, in the light of day, two men were seen near the homes, openly flashing weapons. Relatives of Ahmed and Nader identified them as sons of the murder suspect.

The shooting is a reminder of the extent to which the division of the West Bank into various areas of Israeli and Palestinian security and administrative authority – an artificial and temporary division (due to have ended in 1999) that has become permanent – exposes the Palestinians to an additional source of insecurity.

The Israeli army and police operate nonstop across the West Bank (including in Area A, which is under Palestinian policing authority) to find weapons and arrest anyone possessing them. This time, however, even though it was easy to locate the source of the gunfire and there are photos of the armed men, and even though the incidents occurred in Area B, under Israeli security authority, the Israeli police and army haven’t tried to find the weapons or the suspects.

The Palestinian police could not investigate the shooting and the alleged shooters, not only because the incidents occurred in Area B, where they’re not allowed to operate freely, but for the same reason they didn’t try to arrest the suspect in Ahmed Bkheis’ murder. Ahmed’s brother Mohammed has an Israeli ID card, and so do his children. As Israelis, Palestinian security forces can’t touch them.

In 1994, just before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammed Bkheis and his wife and children moved to Israel. The move and the issuance of Israeli ID cards to all of them was done as part of a Defense Ministry program for collaborators with the Shin Bet security service who have earned particular recognition and are seen as especially important to the agency.

Nader Bkheis, 46, remembers as a boy seeing his eldest brother carrying a gun. That was before the Oslo Accords of the ‘90s, when the whole West Bank was under direct Israeli military rule. Nader doesn’t know, doesn’t want to know or doesn’t want to say what he knows about what his eldest brother did as a collaborator with the Shin Bet. But at his home in Samua about two weeks ago, Nader said their father, Musa, was very ashamed of his eldest son.

The family is originally from Yatta, north of Samua. In the ‘90s, the extended family still lived there. Nader recounts that after Mohammed moved to Israel, he would still occasionally come to the house in Yatta. But in 1997, Yatta was transferred from part of Area B, under Israeli security authority, to Area A, under Palestinian policing authority. He stopped coming.

Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority is barred from putting on trial Shin Bet collaborators and those suspected of collaboration – especially not someone who is an Israeli citizen or resident. But acts of revenge are easier to carry out in Area A, which is under Palestinian civil and security control. This is probably the reason Mohammed stopped coming to his hometown.

Mohammed Bkheis’ sons, on the other hand, continued to freely move between their homes in Israel and Yatta and live in both places, Nader says. Nothing untoward has happened to them.

The wadi in the southern West Bank were 48-year-old Ahmed Bkheis was killed; his 64-year-old brother is the suspect, December 2019. Credit: Amira Hass

An earlier killing

In 2001, a Yatta resident of another family was murdered. It was said that the killing was over a young woman. It was also said that the suspect was a son of Mohammed Bkheis who also has an Israeli ID. As far as is known, he wasn’t arrested or tried.

In any case, in an effort to head off a bloody series of revenge incidents between two large families, the extended Bkheis family had to leave Yatta – not just the suspect in the murder, but also his uncles and their families, who are Palestinian residents.

Nader’s family moved to Imneizil, one of the small villages on the outskirts of Yatta. The Israeli Civil Administration demolished the house that they built there without a permit, because the village is in Area C, where Israel maintains full planning and security authority. In other words, it’s a place where the Israeli Civil Administration doesn’t plan and doesn’t approve construction for Palestinians.

In 2007, Ahmed and his brother Nader (and a third brother, Samer) and their families moved to the outskirts of Samua. There, on the western edge of town, they inherited land that their father had bought many years before. On an off, they built their homes there.

To their dismay, a year later, Mohammed Bkheis and his family (and another brother who also has an Israeli ID) also built homes nearby. They continued living periodically in Israel (in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom near Be’er Sheva, according to the indictment) as well as in Samua. Relations between the two brothers who became Israelis and the three who were Palestinian residents remained tense, Nader says.

On the morning of October 21, a Monday, Ahmed set out to graze his flock in the wadi that slopes down to the east, a short distance from the families’ homes. The wadi also has several agricultural plots. Ahmed’s brother Mohammed came to the site with a tractor and driver. Nader says he could see his two brothers from a distance – and from the way they were waving their arms, he gathered they were arguing.

Ahmed’s three sons (who are in their 20s) work in construction in Israel. But that particular day was the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah, so they used the day off to do a renovation job near Samua.

After being shot that day, Ahmed managed to call his eldest son and tell him that Uncle Mohammed had shot him. According to the indictment against the brother, the bullet was fired into the left side of Ahmed’s chest – his lower left lung, splenic vein and lower left kidney. One of the daughters from the family says she saw the suspect walking toward his house brandishing a gun and threatening to harm anyone who got near him.

Nader and Ahmed’s sons managed to reach Ahmed while he was still alive. They called an ambulance but he died about an hour later at the hospital in Hebron. Before midnight the suspect was apprehended at the Meitar checkpoint on his way into Israel.

About 10 days later, Ahmed’s three sons sought to return to work in Israel. “At the checkpoint, we discovered that our work permits had been canceled,” the eldest son, Mohammed, told Haaretz about two weeks ago. Israeli security agencies automatically withdraw the entry permits of Palestinians who have a relative killed by a soldier or police officer, regardless of the circumstances. But Ahmed wasn’t killed by either. And indeed, on Thursday, the brothers told Haaretz that they had been assured that their work permits would be reinstated the following week.

Gunfire at night

About two weeks after the murder, they don’t remember exactly when, the members of Nader’s family were awakened by the sound of gunfire and shattering glass. The entire family, which includes small children, ran to find a place to hide.

The following night, they were again awakened by gunfire, which also hit the home of Ahmed, the murder victim. Bullets put holes in armchairs and walls and hit the solar water heater and water tank on the roof. According to the family, the flashes and noise from the guns came from the homes of two of the sons of Mohammed Bkheis, the murder suspect.

As Nader recounts it, the following day or a few days later, he doesn’t remember exactly, two of his brother’s sons were seen nearby and were armed – one with a rifle and the other a handgun. At the Samua police station, Nader was told that the local police’s hands were tied because the case involved Israeli citizens, so the police were barred from searching their homes, questioning them or arresting them. That was also the response they received from other Palestinian security officials.

Nader filed a complaint with the Israel Police in the settlement of Kiryat Arba and followed up several times by phone. He also complained to the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Office, but as far as is known, Israeli security forces haven’t visited the houses where the gunfire is suspected of coming from and haven’t searched for weapons there. Since then, the three brothers and their families have been living in fear.

In the meantime, dignitaries from the leading families in the area have mediated an agreement to calm the situation; the sons of the murder suspect, Mohammed Bkheis, have reportedly agreed not to return to their home in Samua for a year. But that hasn’t comforted Nader and his family. “They don’t respect governments [laws]; how could we expect them to respect the agreement?” Nader says.

Ahmed Bkheis’ children and Nader’s family say their Israeli relatives are roaming freely in the area. Now the Palestinian members of the Bkheis family are considering selling their houses and moving “as far away as possible.” As Nader puts it, “We have no protection from anyone, neither the Palestinian security agencies nor the Israeli security agencies.”

Haaretz asked the Israel Police, the army and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to comment on the conclusion that Israeli security agencies are playing down the threat to the members of the Bkheis family who aren’t residents of Israel because the suspects are relatives of a collaborator with Israeli security authorities.

COGAT, a unit of the Defense Ministry, replied that to comment it needs Mohammed Bkheis’ Israeli ID number, which Haaretz does not have. The police said Bkheis’ arrest is proof of their quick intervention. As to why no search for additional weapons was carried out and why no suspects were arrested after the shootings at the homes, the police said: “In connection with the other issues, the relevant officials should be contacted” – meaning the Defense Ministry and the army.

The army placed responsibility on the police, saying: “Security responsibility in the territories of Judea and Samaria is with Israeli army forces. Nevertheless, we stress that law enforcement regarding criminal matters in the region is the responsibility of the Israel Police in cooperation with the army.”