'Anyone Who Talks About the Murder Will Be Killed'

Gideon Levy first met Tha'ar Lala in 2000. This week he visited the mourners' tent, after Lala was shot dead in Tel Aviv.

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I met Tha’ar Lala, who was gunned down opposite a popular Tel Aviv beachfront site last Friday, when he was a boy. He grew up amid abject poverty and severe violence, torn between his sick mother in Jaffa and his father in Ramallah.

At the time, Tha’ar Lala was 13, a handsome boy with a sad, angry look. His sister Renin was a girl of 9, who loved cuddling up with her mother. The firstborn, Ra’ad, 18 at the time, was working in a garage. Y. was a toddler of 3, who slept in a narrow bed with his mother, Samar Rafidi, in their unspeakably meager apartment on the margins of Tel Aviv.

Here’s what I wrote at that time: “A double bed for mother and little Y. in the half-room, a stack of mattresses in the other room … There is no sofa, no armchair. I didn't see a table on which the children can do their homework.

In the late afternoon, when the children say they are hungry, Samar looked for a few coins to give them and sent them to buy a box of breakfast cereal. That was their lunch.”

Those words are from the summer of 2000. When I rang the doorbell repeatedly back then, Samar was just recovering from another of the epileptic attacks from which she suffered, and her Tajik neighbor, the only person in the world who looked after her, had brought the family a stray dog she had found as a pet.

Samar’s has been a hardscrabble life: She was a chronically sick Palestinian woman living in a one-and-a-half-room apartment in south Tel Aviv, and hiding in terror from the two violent men in her life – her husband and her lover – and from the frightening authorities. A woman who was raising five children from two fathers, and had lost a girl as a baby and another by abortion. A woman who was ill with epilepsy, had a husband who beat her and then disappeared, and a junkie-lover from whom she had fled to this hovel on the edge of the big city. Samar’s greatest fear was that in an epileptic fit, she would fall on one of the children and hurt them.

Last Saturday, almost 14 years after our meeting, Tha’ar Lala, the sad boy from that article, was murdered in the middle of the day. Two men on a motorcycle sprayed him with bullets. His brother Ra’ad, now 31, is in jail awaiting trial for drug offenses. The police did not allow him to leave the jail for even a few hours to attend the funeral, or later to visit the mourners’ tent, claiming that it would be dangerous.

Y., the toddler from the article, paced edgily and very aggressively back and forth in the tent, erected on the edges of Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa, near the family’s home. Renin, now a charming woman, hugged her baby. She’s married to a young man from Ramallah and works as a hostess in the Tel Aviv Sheraton – torn, like her mother, between the two cities.

Samar was hunched over in the mourning room inside and did not come out to the tent.

The victim’s father, Jamal, the owner of a small workers’ restaurant in the Ramallah produce market, managed to sneak into Israel for his son’s funeral, together with two of his other sons, Tha’ar’s step-brothers, without permits.

The torn and battered family buried its son this week. Not long after we left the tent, one of the family members we’d met, a minor, was arrested along with two others; a loaded, cocked pistol was found in their car. The police suspect that they were on the way to avenge Tha’ar’s death.

The mourners’ tent was empty when we arrived. Y., the boy who had once slept in his mother’s bed, was angry at his father, Jamal, for talking to us, and made us erase names we’d written down. No one in Jaffa is talking about the slaying. “Anyone who talks will be murdered,” a friend of the family told us.

That’s Jaffa. But this family is torn between Jaffa and Ramallah, between Israel and the territories. They deny with pent-up rage a report in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper claiming that they are a family of collaborators with Israel. “If only we were collaborators,” the bereaved father says. “We would have a blue ID card and permits to be here.”

Jamal hadn’t visited his wife and children in Jaffa for nine years, other than attending Tha’ar’s wedding some eight months ago, which was held in the Gallery Palace banquet hall on the border of Holon; then, too, he had to sneak in for just a few hours.

Here’s a photo for remembrance: Jamal in suit and tie, beaming with pleasure, his son Tha’ar by his side, a fine-looking young man, head shaven, wearing a black shirt and tie.

Immediately afterward, Tha’ar and his Jaffa-born wife left for a honeymoon in Turkey. They enjoyed themselves very much, the angry young brother, Y., now 17, recalls. The last time Jamal saw Tha’ar in Ramallah was two weeks ago, when the son visited his father in the restaurant. Jamal didn’t notice any signs of fear or nervousness, he says about his son now.

Everyone says that Tha’ar was a good boy, one that “every parent would wish for.” Only Renin, his sister, intimated to us that Tha’ar had been living in great fear lately. When he came home, he would call from his old BMW – the car he was murdered in – to ask that the front door be opened for him so he could enter the house quickly. Sometimes he disappeared from home. Last Saturday afternoon, he left the house without saying a word – never to return.

On March 9, he was scheduled to report to the Nitzan detention center in Ramle to begin serving another jail term. He was convicted on January 21 in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court of conspiring to commit a crime, and breaking and entering; in a plea bargain he was sentenced to nine months in prison, along with another six months from a previous suspended sentence.

It was the seventh criminal conviction of the sad boy from the article. If the start of the prison term hadn’t been delayed, he might be alive today. The word in the mourners’ tent is that his only sin was to get involved with the wrong gang. Of course, no one here would dare say who murdered him.

Jamal is affable in conversation. At 60, his face reflects the ordeals of his life. He speaks in a soft voice, his Hebrew fluent after all the years in which he lived and worked in Israel. He has 11 children from two wives – five from Samar, in Israel, and another six from his first wife, who lives in Ramallah. Since being arrested in 2005 for being in Israel without a permit, he has been largely cut off from his children. They visit him in Ramallah every few weeks.

Tha’ar was born 26 years ago in a private hospital run by a Dr. Dajani in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, and moved with his mother to south Tel Aviv. They lived in a series of shabby apartments, in which Samar did her best to raise her children. For the past few years, they’ve been living in a public-housing apartment on the ground floor of a dilapidated building on Jerusalem Boulevard – Samar, Tha’ar and his new bride, Y. and another single sister.

Tha’ar attended vocational schools in Jaffa and Acre. When he was in high school, he was arrested for the first time. “An unruly boy,” his father says.

Tha’ar was a metalworker and also repaired motorcycles, but ran increasingly foul of the law. He also became religiously observant, never missing a service.

Last Saturday, when he left his home on the way to his death, he didn’t tell anyone where he was going. His father got a call at 1:30 P.M. saying his son had been wounded. Then he was informed that he had died.

Jamal dropped everything and made his way to Jaffa, partly on foot. Two of his sons from Ramallah tried their luck at two checkpoints, trying to explain that their brother had been killed, but were peremptorily turned back, before they finally also snuck in. It took them six hours to get to Jaffa. Jamal got there in time to see his son’s body. It was perforated by bullets all along the left side, he says.

One step-brother, Khaled, also came to Jaffa; he lives in Salem, a village in the Jezreel Valley. Khaled got the news in a phone call from Ramallah. “Everyone who lives in Jaffa will get into trouble,” he says. “It’s the atmosphere and the neglect. I stayed out of trouble because I am a different person, I have children and I moved to the north. It’s safer for me in the north, safer to raise my children. But here in Jaffa, the neglect starts in school.

“Visit an Arab school in Jaffa and you will see what I mean. The police know who murdered Tha’ar, but don’t want to make an arrest. They want this cycle of blood to go on. It’s convenient for them ... They knew he was going to be murdered and didn’t do a thing. You can’t imagine the kind of undercover work they do in Jaffa.”

Two months ago, Jamal says, he got a call from Samar. She told him the police had told her Tha’ar was going to be murdered. “Take care of your son,” they told her, leaving her gripped by fear.

For his part, Khaled says the family has no idea who murdered his brother. “Here in Jaffa no one talks. They see the murder with their eyes but don’t talk. Anyone who tells you what happened can expect the same fate. Y. is a minor [hence his full name does not appear here], Dad is in Ramallah, I am in the north – and we don’t know. Ra’ad’s friends know, but are keeping mum. That’s how the murders spread. That’s part of the problem.”

A group of friends, faces grim, wearing dark sweat suits and garage overalls, are sitting on the sidewalk outside the tent, silent. They apparently know what happened.

I reread the article from back then, from the period when these seeds of misfortune were sown: “Tha’ar was born 13 years ago, her second son, the first by the second (though truly first) man in her life.”

That’s what I wrote then.

The scene of Saturday’s shooting in Tel Aviv, Feb. 15, 2014.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Tha’ar Lala and his mother Samar in 2000.Credit: Miki Kratzman