An American Boy: From New Orleans to the Grave, via the West Bank

Orwa Hammad’s father is a used-car dealer in New Orleans. The son grew up in the West Bank. Last Friday an Israeli army sharpshooter killed him, because he was apparently holding a Molotov cocktail.

Alex Levac

Elegantly attired, in a dark-blue jacket with gold buttons, his face set off by a well-groomed, coal-dark beard, the bereaved father entered the room in the back of the village’s large mosque. Speaking soft, fluent American English, which seemed somehow at odds with his religiously observant Islamic appearance, he related the story of his dead son’s life.

Only once did he break down and burst into tears. That happened when he recounted the last telephone conversation he had with his son, between New Orleans and Silwad, last Friday – morning in New Orleans, afternoon in Silwad – about half an hour before an Israel Defense Forces sharpshooter fired one live round at the boy and killed him.

He says he warned his son to stay away from the road below the village. Repeatedly the father mentions Highway 90, although his son was killed on Route 60. The mix-up stems from the fact that his used-car lot in New Orleans is on U.S. Route 90.

There’s no mistaking the scene when you enter Silwad: war. A militant village. Both roads leading into the village were this week strewn with dozens of stones and the remnants of scorched tires. Vehicles entering or leaving had to carve a tricky slalom. It was here, in this West Bank village, north of Ramallah, that Hamas chief Khaled Meshal was born. It abuts the flagship settlement of Ofra, most of whose homes stand on private land that was expropriated from the inhabitants of Silwad and from a neighboring village, Ein Yabrud (58 percent of the built-up area in Ofra is on plundered private land). That could well account for the militancy.

But it wasn’t just the stones and tires that suggested an intifada in Silwad this week. It was also the fact that no one wanted Israeli visitors, not even if they were journalists seeking to document the killing of a village son. The dead boy’s father barely agreed to talk to us, and refused outright to have his picture taken. He sat with us in the community center that’s attached to the mosque, where the dead boy is being mourned.

Alex Levac

The father occasionally exchanged whispered words with a friend. The atmosphere was palpably tense. We were urged to finish our business and leave, before people in the village discovered that we were Israelis.

Orwa Hammad was not yet 15 when he was killed. His father, Abd al-Wahhab Hammad, was born in the village 48 years ago, but has spent most of his life in the United States, to which his own father – Orwa’s grandfather – immigrated in 1970. Abd al-Wahhab has lived in both Denver and New Orleans, and has used-car businesses in both cities. The family returned to Silwad in 1999. The father didn’t want to raise his son in America.

“I wanted a quiet, safe place, where my son could get a less dissolute education than in the United States, and have a more tranquil, less stressful life than in New Orleans. But you never know what God has in store for you,” he says.

He continued to manage his overseas car lots, dividing his time between America and his homeland. With an American passport and no ID card from the territories, his entries to the country via Ben-Gurion airport went more smoothly than most. His wife, Akhla, also a Silwad native, has a green card; all their children hold American citizenship.

Orwa, who was born in the West Bank, visited the United States frequently, though he never managed to get the hang of its language. His two sisters attend Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah. Orwa liked to swim in the local pool, go horseback riding – a hobby he picked up in America – and practice kickboxing.

Orwa’s older brother, Mohammed, 16, has been detained by soldiers a number of times for stone throwing. He was convicted in court and served long months in prison. His most recent detention ended on September 21, when he was released on bail of 4,000 shekels (just over $1,000).

On Fridays, local youths throw stones and burn tires on Route 60, in protest of the theft of their land and the suffocation of their village by the settlement across the way. Last Friday was no different.

Abd al-Wahhab says that when he was abroad, he spoke often with his children in Palestine, “maybe 10 times a day.” In almost every call, he says, and especially on Fridays, he cautioned Orwa not to go to the road and throw stones. “Look what happened to your brother Mohammed,” he told him repeatedly.

“That was my red line, and I forbade Orwa to cross it,” he says now. “It’s not that I am against the resistance – it is our natural right to resist – but we must not fall into the trap that the soldiers and the government behind them set for our children every week.”

Orwa did not heed him, certainly not last Friday.

Somewhere between 8 and 9 A.M. his time, Abd al-Wahhab called Orwa. “I spoke to him about his studies and told him how much I love him, and he told me how much he loves me,” the father says, trying in vain to fight back tears. “I can’t take it,” he apologizes.

It was already afternoon in Silwad. Mohammed was with Orwa in the house, when the younger brother suddenly left, without saying where he was going. Shortly afterward, their sister called their father in America to say that there were disturbances on the road, and that Orwa wasn’t answering his cell phone. They kept calling, but there was no answer. For a time they didn’t know where Orwa was, until Mohammed found his brother lying dead on the road, surrounded by soldiers.

Orwa had gone to Route 60 with a group of other young people. They threw stones and burned tires. Soldiers lie in ambush here for the youngsters. The IDF maintains that Orwa was poised to throw a Molotov cocktail onto the road – which does not, of course, legitimize firing at him with live ammunition in order to kill him – but Abd al-Wahhab doesn’t believe his son was holding a firebomb. The bullet struck Orwa in the neck and exited through his back, leaving a large hole. According to his father, Orwa lay bleeding on the road for half an hour before an ambulance arrived. In any case, he probably died instantly.

We went to the site of the incident. Orwa was felled beneath a tree, a short distance from the road, on the other side of which is Ofra. The road that leads to Route 60 is black from burned tires and covered with stones.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, asked for comment by Haaretz, issued this statement: “During the incident in question, a Palestinian was identified who was about to throw a Molotov cocktail, near the village of Silwad. A sharpshooter unit that was waiting in ambush responded by shooting, and killed the terrorist. The shots were fired in order to thwart any immediate danger to citizens moving about in the area. In the wake of incident the Military Police, launched an investigation. With its conclusion, the findings will be passed on to the Military Advocate General’s Office.”

Abd al-Wahhab was at his used-car lot in New Orleans when he received the dreadful news. He caught the first plane available, and within half a day was in his village, to take part in his son’s funeral.