'Dying for Nothing': Palestinian Authorities at a Loss Trying to Stop Youths From Attacking Israelis

Mohammad Saba’neh is one of six students from the village of Qabatiyah to die while allegedly carrying out a knife attack since October. 'The entire motherland isn’t worth one child,' his father says.

Mohammad Saba’neh's parents with a picture of their son.
Amira Hass

Mohammad Saba’neh, 23, would have been a fascinating research subject for the Israel Defense Forces officers and coordinator of government activities in the territories who, as reported by Haaretz (January 15), recently quizzed jailed Palestinians about what caused them to join the recent wave of lone-wolf attacks.

The officers could have learned a lot from Saba’neh, who was in the midst of finishing his BA in Medical Laboratory Sciences at the Arab American University of Jenin, and had already traveled to Jordan to inquire into the possibility of an MA. “If you want to defeat your enemy, beat him in education and science,” he would tell his proud parents.

But the military officers didn’t benefit from Saba’neh’s wisdom. Israeli soldiers didn’t suffice with wounding and arresting the young man from Qabatiyah and his younger cousin, Noor A-Din, after the two attacked soldiers with knives. Instead, they killed them.

“He would look at me, sitting in my wheelchair, and say, ‘You’re crazy. We will only overcome the enemy with our brains,’” Mohammad’s father, Rafiq, recalled last Sunday.

In November 1991, toward the end of the first intifada, soldiers shot Rafiq Saba’neh in the back as he was standing on the roof of his house. He has been paralyzed ever since. Mohammad was born only a few months after his father was wounded.

Rafiq’s sentences are short, the words emerging slowly, and his eyes pierce the room with a distant anger. Up until 1990, he was a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Then he joined the Palestinian Democratic Union – a faction led by Yasser Abed Rabbo, who supported the negotiations with Israel in Madrid and then the Oslo talks. Rafiq opposed the actions of his brother and nephew: they joined the armed factions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, respectively, and were killed by soldiers in 1994 and 1995. Large photographs of them hang in the living room, but this week Rafiq said his son showed no interest in them. “The entire motherland isn’t worth one child,” he added emphatically, a sentence at odds with the prevailing narrative.

He still refuses to believe that Mohammad armed himself with a knife and went off to commit suicide by stabbing a soldier: “They tell us a lie and we start to believe it. We believe the Shin Bet security service when it says our children murdered.”

On Sunday, December 27, a security camera at a cell phone shop in Hawara, south of Nablus, documented two young men approaching an IDF soldier as he stood on the sidewalk. They stand in front of him for a few moments and then jump on him.

Later, Israeli media reported that two soldiers sustained light to moderate injuries; one was wounded by a gunshot fired by a fellow soldier. The silent footage from the security camera shows the legs of one of the attackers as he falls. A video clip that circulated online showed two soldiers treating an injured comrade lying on the sidewalk. Less than a meter away lay two bodies: those of Noor and Mohammad.

Some 31,000 people live in Qabatiyah, half of them under the age of 24. Since last October, six young residents have been killed by soldiers and security officers while trying to carry out stabbings or while brandishing a knife. Three of them were high school students. Mohammad Saba’neh was the oldest and most educated of the six, which only makes the mystery of his actions even more difficult for his parents to comprehend. According to a Fatah official, two other youths from Qabatiyah have been arrested, while others were prevented from carrying out attacks by Palestinian security forces. According to the IDF spokesman, since October 2015 until the middle of last week, “131 Palestinians tried to carry out acts of terror in the West Bank. Eighty-eight terrorists were killed and 40 terrorists were handed over to the security forces; three have yet to be caught.”

Fatah members aren’t admitting it openly, but they know they’re losing the younger generation. They don’t need the conclusions of Israeli military officers to know that the actions of the youths killed were borne from alienation of any form of authority. After it became clear that all six youngsters went to the same high school in Qabatiyah, officials from the Palestinian security forces – together with the Fatah-run municipality, the Education Ministry and Fatah itself – held a number of meetings with its students.

Dying for nothing

A Fatah member told Haaretz it was an attempt to understand the pupils’ feelings and dissuade them from joining the wave of stabbings. “We are convinced the students’ real struggle should be with their studies, and that is what we told them – that we are against them carrying knives,” he said.

“During these meetings, the students told us the killing of their friends is affecting them and pushing them to follow suit. We responded that we don’t like to lose our children like that – for nothing.” In a circular distributed by the Palestinian Education Ministry, the minister instructed teachers in West Bank schools to talk with their students and tell them they want them to live, and that education is their form of struggle.

At Fatah’s initiative, local representatives of the Religious Affairs (Waqf) Ministry in Qabatiyah were asked not to use local mosques to voice what the Fatah member called incitement that could spur stabbing attacks. The extent of this initiative’s success can be gauged by what Qabatiyah mosques announced last Sunday afternoon: the funeral of the “hero martyr” Wissam Qasrawi, 21, from the nearby village of Mesilyeh. According to Israeli reports, a number of hours beforehand he had tried to stab an Israeli soldier at the Hawara checkpoint, and was shot and killed. To label someone killed while allegedly attempting an attack a “hero” can be construed by kids and youngsters as encouragement and support of his act. However, not calling it that betrays the duty of sharing in the family’s mourning and conferring significance onto their loss.

Mohammad Saba’neh’s mother, Omaya, wells up when talking about her son: “He was kind and good to his brothers, very successful at school, and loved to play,” she said, choking on tears. Mohammad’s last hours at home failed to indicate what would happen next. He woke up, drank coffee and left, his father recalled. “That’s why I’m telling you I don’t believe [what they say]. Anyone who goes to die leaves some hint [of his intentions]. And we can’t find anything. Not on Facebook, not in anything he said. His cell phone is with them [the Shin Bet and IDF]. If there’s even a single image of a bullet on his phone, I’ll retract everything. But his phone is full of photos from two trips to Jordan – that’s where he saw the beach for the first time; he had never seen the Mediterranean. Everything they’re saying in the street about the reasons for his actions is incorrect. They say he and Noor wanted to please us, the fathers. But that’s not true. They say they were affected by their friends’ deaths, especially Ahmed Abu Rub [a 17-year-old who was killed by security personnel at the Jalama checkpoint on November 2]. But we’re parents; we would have noticed if he was being affected. We went through his books, his clothes, we asked his friends. We found no indication of anything that would link him to it.”

Mohammad Saba’neh had no need of IDF research to know that the financial situation at home wasn’t bad – so it wasn’t financial distress that pushed the boy. Rafiq was the owner of a successful carpentry shop when he was wounded in 1991, after which he could no longer work there. Now the family makes a good living from farming and herding. (“Good,” a Qabatiyah resident explained, “means they have no debt.”) One of the other children works as a cabdriver. Two of the younger boys are still in school. On weekends and holidays, Mohammad would work as a cashier at the local public park.

The family learned of their son’s death through relatives in Jordan: The relatives had heard and seen a report, and called Qabatiyah to see if it was the same Mohammad Saba’neh. Rafiq recalled he then “received a phone call from Captain Yaish – he said he was in charge of Qabatiyah for the Shin Bet. He called to say ‘We’ve killed your son,’ and invited me to Jalama [where the Civil Administration’s office is]. I went, I have no problem. The next day, the Shin Bet and IDF came here to my house. They were here for an hour, an hour and a half, and checked every corner of the house. A Shin Bet officer told me, ‘Here is your son [on mourning posters distributed by Fatah], they’re writing that he was a great martyr hero.’ But he is not Fatah, he is not connected to any organization. If he’d completed his MA, I’d have called him a hero. What have I gained from his death?”