Cyberbullying: The Shin Bet's New Pastime in Palestine

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The family of  Amjad Abu Sultan
The family of Amjad Abu SultanCredit: Noam Revkin-Fenton
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

“Disgusting boy,” “little kid,” “you don’t interest me,” “failed child.” These are instant messages received by Amjad, a 14-year-old Palestinian from Bethlehem. His father, Osama Abu Sultan, saw the messages several days after the teen was shot dead by the Israeli army. When he was shot, Amjad was holding a Molotov cocktail that he was about to ignite.

The father, a 47-year-old graduate of a military academy in Algiers who is now employed by the Palestinian security forces (the navy in Gaza and now national security in the West Bank), is convinced that there’s a connection between the text messages sent on Facebook Messenger and his son’s violent death.

The childish and even infantile messages wouldn’t have outraged Osama Abu Sultan if it had not been for the heading showing who had sent them: Captain Wissam Abu Ayoub, Israeli [Shin Bet] intelligence agency, city of Bethlehem. Like many other Shin Bet officers, he too has a personal social media page to which others are invited to respond.

Shin Bet coordinators began getting personal Facebook pages around the middle of 2018, and started to maintain a public social media presence in the first half of 2020, as historian Hillel Cohen reported in Haaretz last year.

On January 23, 2019, the so-called Abu Ayoub wrote his first post: “Welcome, residents of the city of Bethlehem. I am the new person responsible in your area.” On October 31 of this year, two weeks after Amjad’s death, he took his leave: “Dear residents of Bethlehem. After three years [on the job] as the person responsible for security in the city, I am moving on to another position and wish you success and prosperity, health and security. Be well.” In one of 25 comments to the post, one person wrote: “Hahahaha, what, did they fire you?” Palestinians are accustomed to Shin Bet officers serving in their positions for more than two years and nine months.

Amjad Abu Sultan.

The Shin Bet spokesperson’s office confirmed to Haaretz that “the described Facebook profile is indeed managed by an intelligence officer in the Shin Bet, and the fact that he is one is public and known.” A review of Abu Ayoub’s posts since July 2020 reveals that Amjad didn’t post his first comment until May 12 of this year, when he wrote: “Your liberation is soon, dear ones,” in response to a report by Captain Abu Ayoub of the arrest of three young men “for their activity in Islamic Jihad.”

Amjad wrote a similar comment on August 12 in response to another arrest. Between these two dates, Amjad also wrote two other comments. On July 2, in response to a post with Friday greetings from the Shin Bet officer, he chided: “Sheikh, come pray for us next time.”

“My son is always joking. He never sits quietly. His brothers and sister are serious, and he’s always clowning around, bantering, always combining mischief with a laugh that’s immediately conciliatory,” the father says, still speaking of his son in the present tense.

In Messenger correspondences that Abu Sultan showed Haaretz, the conversation seems nearly one-sided, with messages from the Shin Bet member that read like responses to messages that, if written, have since been deleted. The conversation began on August 13, a day after Amjad’s friend Adham was arrested.

The Shin Bet officer wrote: “Don’t get angry. Adham was playing with fire, and he deserves to be arrested.” The record shows a “like” that Amjad sent, followed by this from the coordinator: “He did a lot, and you don’t interest me.”

The next message, also from the captain, is dated August 31: “Hamas wears a shirt, kid” – perhaps in response to a shirtless photo posted by Amjad. “You’re a little kid. Go pave the sea,” a reference to a futile venture for which there is no prospect of success. If Amjad wrote something immediately prior to that, it no longer appears, although laughing emojis and a “like” remain.

On September 1, the captain wrote: “You really scared me,” perhaps in reply to a message that was later deleted. It was followed by: “Hello, failed child. Don’t send me [messages].” About nine hours later the captain wrote: “Disgusting boy. Bye. Don’t send.”

The following day the captain sent a like. On September 19, perhaps as part of an exchange that had been deleted, Amjad wrote: “Listen, I want to tell you something from half of my heart,” and then swore at him. And on October 7, a week before he was killed, he posted a picture of Al-Aqsa Mosque and a green Islamic flag.

Amjad’s three final messages on Messenger were attached to a public post the captain uploaded on October 15, that refers to the child's death: “The martyr (sic) Amjad Abu Sultan threatened the state’s security and cursed it. Look after your children, far away from Satan, so that they may build their future.”

The captain pasted in this post five more messages which Amjad presumably wrote, the first of which was from August 15. Their language is blunter – the Shin Bet's media office complained about it in its response to this article: “As part of his messages to the captain, Amjad swore at the Shin Bet officer, and made sharp expressions against the State of Israel.”

Osama Abu Sultan.Credit: Noam Revkin-Fenton

Curses at Shin Bet officers and the occupying state are common, as a look at the Shin Bet officers’ Facebook pages shows. Hillel Cohen also mentioned this in his article. But according to the Shin Bet spokesman, Amjad also “noted that he intended to carry out terror attacks. For example, Amjad wrote on September 2, 2021 that he plans to go to the tunnels [Highway 60] to throw Molotov cocktails, and on that date, two Molotov cocktails were in fact thrown at Highway 60.”

The spokesman adds that on an earlier occasion, “Amjad wrote that ‘Palestine is a volcano of revenge. If it erupts, Palestine will be liberated. I am a native son of Gaza, I’ve lived in war and have never been frightened of anything. Now I’m in Bethlehem and we’ll liberate the homeland.’ The intelligence officer, in his responses, wanted to cut off the conversation with Amjad, which is why he responded curtly and asked Amjad to stop messaging him.“

“In response to another message from Amjad, in which he complained about the arrest of his friend Adham, noting he himself had carried out the acts attributed to Adham and cursed the Shin Bet officer, the officer replied ‘don’t be angry.’ As mentioned above and contrary to your claim, you can see that all the messages were from Amjad. No conversation was initiated by the officer, and in addition, the intelligence officer wanted to end the conversation at every opportunity...The intelligence coordinator sent no personal messages to Amjad. Generally, no direct messages are sent to minors via this channel.”

The father says he was not familiar with these messages, and did not find them or others attributed to his son. Going by the Messenger account, he concludes that the Shin Ben officer had initiated the personal correspondence. “And even if he didn’t initiate it, what adult writes things like ‘you’re a failure, disgusting’ to a child, and actually tells him that, unlike his friend in jail, he’s unsuccessful?” Abu Sultan asks.

Three underage friends of Amjad’s told Haaretz that the man called Abu Ayoub had contacted them. He reached out to two of them on Messenger and the third on Whatsapp. Sometimes he sent messages from an unlisted number, sometimes from the number that appears on his Facebook page. This was also the number from which he called Osama Abu Sultan to tell him the army had killed his son.

A road near the West Bank town of Beit Jala.Credit: Noam Revkin-Fentonhttp

Abu Ayoub suggested that one of the minors become a collaborator, according to the youths’ testimony. The Shin Bet media officers who denies that minors are approached directly added “in any case, they are not asked to collaborate.”

One of the three no longer uses his cell phone. Another – his mother found out, shouted at him and made him promise to stop. The third responded to Abu Ayoub several times, but says he finds no reason to be agitated. He says he saw Abu Ayoub escorting soldiers who were breaking into homes and arresting people in his neighborhood. “When Abu Ayoub is around, the soldiers don’t beat people up,” he said.

‘He wanted to be arrested, to be with his friends’

Amjad’s parents knew their son and his friends were taking part in demonstrations and throwing stones at the fortified military posts in the separation barrier that imprisons and blocks Bethlehem from the north, near Rachel’s Tomb. The provocative presence of the huge wall, the guard posts and the armed soldiers who sometimes come out of them to patrol the street make it difficult for the parents to look after their children. On the one hand, they are terrified for them; on the other, they don’t want to tie them down and add to the feeling of suffocation and imprisonment they are subjected to in the enclave.

Palestinian parents know that unlike most adults, who suppress their rage, their children see restraint as betrayal. Amjad’s parents even predicted that he would be arrested, like many of his friends from the Dahaisha refugee camp and Bethlehem’s Old City.

The Shin Bet, in the preface of their response to this article, mistakenly wrote: “Amjad Abu Sultan (sic)...was killed...as a result of IDF fire at people throwing Molotov cocktails at IDF soldiers near Rachel’s Tomb, among them Amjad.” But Amjad had been killed west of Beit Jala.

At about 8 P.M. on Thursday, October 14, Amjad and another boy of his age went down the dark wadi separating the last row of Beit Jala’s houses from Highway 60. They climbed up the hill approaching the separation barrier along the road, planning to throw a Molotov cocktail. We don’t know if they had more than one firebomb. As far as is known, Amjad didn’t carry any bag with him and he was the only one holding the Molotov cocktail. He also lit the way with his phone.

It was later alleged that he had left a Hamas flag at the scene, though it’s not clear where he could have planted it. The IDF's response to Haaretz for this article does not mention a flag. The two stood on the slope of a hill, a few meters away from the wall, behind which, on the Western side, stretch a security road and a new road built for a yet unopened tunnel.

One of the residents of this Beit Jala neighborhood told the father that for about a month he noticed a few children sitting above the wadi looking at the wall and the road to Jerusalem built on Beit Jala land, and banned to Palestinians.

Abu Sultan assumes his son was one of them, and that they had seen the surveillance cameras. Perhaps they also noticed the distant pillbox in Gilo, in which soldiers hadn’t been seen for several years.

Amjad’s mother, Ghada, outside the hospital in the West Bank town of Beit Jala.Credit: Noam Revkin-Fenton

“I ask myself,” said Abu Sultan, opposite the place where his son was killed, “if my son wanted to hurt someone, why stand in a spot from which there is no chance of hitting anyone?”

His answer is, “my son didn’t mean to hurt. He wanted to be arrested, to be with his friends, who have been imprisoned in recent weeks.”

Much has been written about the desire of Palestinian children to be arrested in order to belong, to feel part of the struggle. Much has also been written about their anger at the adults, who aren’t doing anything, in their opinion, against the Israeli occupier. The Abu Sultan family are veteran Fatah members, who returned with Yasser Arafat to Gaza in 1994.

“My mother was one of the four women who founded Fatah,” Abu Sultan said. “Once when he was in nursery, Amjad came home reciting a slogan that the Palestinian Authority was a collaborator. I silenced him and said, what’s the matter with you? Am I a collaborator? I’m in the [Palestinian] Authority and a member of the Fatah movement.”

Reliving the death

In a bid to relive his son’s last moments with him, Abu Sultan retells again and again how he imagines Amjad: lighting the lighter, bringing it to the bottle, then getting shot. The testimonies show that the soldiers were sent to an ambush. This was also written hours later in Israeli news sites. The IDF spokesman told Haaretz that “two suspects had thrown a firebomb toward Highway 60.” The response does not mention they were teenagers.

From their hiding place, the soldiers could see the two teens going down the dark wadi. The boys stopped a few meters in front of them. Very close to them. Residents heard the shots and looked toward the wall. They also heard shouts.

“Amjad didn’t die immediately. He shouted and bled to death,” his father concludes.

The military spokesman said an IDF force "treated the wounded suspect and later declared him dead." Residents said that a fire had broken out in the place and died out on its own. Their conclusion is that the firebomb had not been thrown. They saw the soldiers dragging someone on the ground toward the door in the lit wall. The father was told that a laser beam came out of the distant pillbox, which had been out of use for a long time.

“That’s where the situation room of the whole ambush was,” concludes Abu Sultan.

The beam focused on the second boy’s chest. One of the soldiers grabbed him from behind and knocked him to the ground. He was arrested and released after five days with a 500 shekel fine.

A few residents said they noticed soldiers near the ambush spot, early that morning, for the first time in a long while. One resident said that two weeks before the incident he saw soldiers patrolling the eastern side of the wall. After Amjad’s killing, on that night and the following morning, soldiers were seen searching the area for something. His father surmises they were searching for Amjad’s phone.

“The Shin Bet and soldiers had plenty of opportunities to arrest my son and not kill him,” he says. “If my son had written two months before he was killed that he wants to throw a gasoline bomb, why didn’t Abu Ayoub order to arrest him immediately? On October 4, they arrested a neighbor of ours. Dozens of soldiers surrounded the house. From my window I saw them aiming their guns. They could have arrested my son too at the time, if he is such a threat to Israel.”

And he continued “the soldiers could have caught him in time. They saw that it was a child. Why kill him?”

Abu Sultan has no doubt that the Shin Bet coordinator provoked his son deliberately, calling him a good for nothing – unlike his friends. “Those men in the Shin Bet are guided by psychological consultants, who advise them on children’s vulnerability,” he says. “He knew well how words like you’re a failure, you’re worth nothing, would affect a child.”

Amjad’s body wasn’t immediately returned to the family. It became number 89 on the list of Palestinians who were shot and killed by IDF soldiers in recent years on suspicion of attacking or intending to attack an Israeli, and whose bodies Israel is keeping in deep freeze.

In Amjad’s case, legal intervention helped, and the army dropped its objection to releasing the body. Last Friday, Osama Abu Sultan traveled to the a checkpoint to receive it. When he removed the cover and saw the altered, frozen face, he didn’t think it wasn’t his son. “I only thought how much the face changes when frozen,” he says. He noticed the teeth had also changed and that astonished him. He still hadn’t realized the 39-year-old John Doe wasn’t his 14-year-old son.

“When I caught on at last, I was even glad. I still had a glimmer of hope that maybe my son hadn’t died. Maybe he was only wounded,” he says in tears.

The army spokesman said the IDF apologizes for the regrettable mistake in the identification and transfer process and that the mishap will be thoroughly investigated.

Amjad’s body was returned on Saturday. “Are you strong? Can you bear the sight?” he asked and held up a photo of his son’s ice-covered face. Since he’d asked for an autopsy, the body had been held until Thursday morning in Beit Jala’s state hospital morgue to thaw.

Amjad’s mother, Ghada, dressed in black, her eyes red, sat silently all day outside the morgue’s door, waiting for a chance to see her son. On Thursday, the couple drove to Nablus, where the body underwent an autopsy in the forensic institute. They returned home with their son.

“Three bullets that had been fired in an upward angle, at very close range. Two three meters,” Abu Sultan reported on Whatsapp.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments