Fawziya is lying in bed, covered with a few brown blankets to ward off the cold. A photograph of her son is pasted on the wall next to her. From this bed she was roused on Tuesday of last week, when Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed her only son before her eyes in a hail of gunfire. Then, as her son’s body lay on the floor near the front door, the troops locked her in her small room for a few hours, until they left the house. Now she lies here, a bereaved mother mourning for her only son, Mohammed Salhi, who was 32 at the time of his death. Her daughter Rana, her only other child, lives in Nablus. A genetic illness caused several of Fawziya’s children to be stillborn. Only Mohammed and Rana survived. Their father died of cancer a year and a half ago.
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As for Mohammed, he spent three years in an Israeli prison, from 2005 to 2007.
Al-Fara refugee camp, located between Nablus and Tubas, on the way to the Jordan Valley, is one of the West Bank’s poorest and most isolated camps. The Salhis’ house, which is reached by a narrow concrete path, is small and stark. It is surrounded on all sides by a jumble of unfinished houses, whose construction will probably never be completed. A withered vine straggles limply in the yard. Fawziya, whose house lacks even a television set, is 67, and suffers from a variety of ailments. She spends most of her time in bed. It was Mohammed who looked after her. A peddler, he was often seen next to the local school, selling schoolchildren corn on the cob for pennies.
They went to sleep as usual that Tuesday evening, she in her bed, Mohammed on the bench adjacent to it. The following day, Mohammed was supposed to meet his intended bride, for the first time. His mother had already visited the prospective in-laws in their village near Jenin, and now Mohammed had only to agree to the match. Before going to sleep, he promised his mother that he would soon be married.
Earlier that evening, he’d bought two chocolate Krembo confections, sunflower seeds and potato chips for the two of them. He also brought for her the coconut cookie she likes. Fawziya tells us now that the cookie reminded her of his childhood, when she used to buy him the same treat. He cajoled her to eat it and they went to bed. Fawziya didn’t feel well and couldn’t fall asleep. She was concerned that her diabetes and high blood pressure were acting up. He prepared a folk remedy for her – a herbal drink.
Together they read verses from the Koran, a regular nightly ritual. He tried to calm her: “Don’t worry, you’ll be alright. You’re not going to die. You’ll be at my wedding.” She remembers him lifting his hands heavenward and saying, “God, please let my mother not die and please let her take part in my wedding.”
Fawziya recalls all this now, on Monday of this week, without tears. They finally drifted off after 9 o’clock. She tossed and turned. At about 2:30 A.M. she heard the sound of footsteps on the asbestos roof of the house next door, and then heard voices from their small vestibule. The front door wasn’t locked – they never lock it; there’s nothing here to steal.
In the meantime, Mohammed had also woken up. He thought there were burglars in the house. His mother told him to stay in bed. She opened the door and saw soldiers, some of them masked. At first she thought they were from the Palestinian Authority. She stood in the doorway, Mohammed behind her. She tried to protect her son bodily, she relates, “like a bird that protects its chicks.”
“What do you want?” she asked. Mohammed told her they were Israeli soldiers. The hand of the soldier who was standing opposite her was shaking, she says. He made her go inside and sit on a plastic chair.
Words were exchanged between her son and the soldiers. At one point he called out, “Allahu akbar” – “God is great.” Mohammed often used that expression, his mother says, but for the soldier it was probably what sealed her son’s fate. Fawziya recalls seeing a flash of red light from the soldier’s rifle, and then the shooting began. One bullet in her son’s leg from zero range, another volley aimed at the torso, and finally a bullet to the back of the neck.
Initial reports said Mohammed had been struck by six rounds, but his mother says she was told that, according to the report of the Palestinian coroner (which she doesn’t have), he was shot 11 times. In any event, Mohammed fell to the floor, bleeding profusely, next to the front door.
The floor is still stained with traces of blood.
“Imagine what you would feel like if soldiers entered your house and killed your son before your eyes. You wake up and see that your son is gone. What law allows soldiers to kill our children in our homes? What would you do in my place?” Fawziya asks, continuing to recount the story of that night with dry eyes. Rana is weeping silently. She was home in Nablus at the time, and when the phone rang before dawn she didn’t answer at first. Then she thought that something bad had happened to her mother, and she picked up the phone. Her aunt was on the line. “Your brother was killed,” she told her.
Fawziya thinks that all the shooting was done by one soldier. The army maintained afterward that Mohammed was holding a knife, and also distributed a photograph intended to back up that claim.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued the following statement this week about the incident: “A preliminary investigation has concluded that on Tuesday, January 10, during an operation to arrest wanted individuals in the Al-Fara refugee camp, a terrorist brandishing a knife and shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ ran toward the force in an attempt to stab them. In response, the soldiers undertook the standard procedure for arresting a suspect, during which they fired a few shots at the terrorist. The terrorist was shot in the yard of the house, and was declared dead a short time later. During the course of the operation, shots were fired and explosive devices were hurled at the force.”
Rana and her mother are distraught over the allegation that Mohammed brandished a knife. The photograph released by the IDF shows a knife that they don’t have in their house, they say, and also the wall in the background is not theirs. Fawziya is adamant that her son did not attack the soldiers. “How can they say he attacked them? They were the ones who came to attack us.” And later, “And let’s say he did have a knife in his hand, after he heard voices in the house. Does that give them the right to kill him?”
Fawziya adds, “I want to ask that soldier’s mother: Would you want this to be done to your son? Are you proud of what your son did?” Mohammed, she says, fell to the floor “like an angel.”
She went over to him and took his face in her hands, turning it from side to side until she grasped that he was dead. A soldier lowered Mohammed’s pants. An army paramedic listened to Mohammed’s chest with a stethoscope and pronounced him dead. Another soldier asked her if this was her husband. “He is my son,” she replied and added, pointing to her chest, “I nursed him from these breasts.”
She started to shout at them to get out, cursing them. They moved her into the room and locked the door. She adds that the soldier who killed her son threatened that if she did not stay quiet, he would kill her, too. She remained locked in the room for about two hours, she estimates, as her son lay dead on the other side of the door, with the soldiers.
Fawziya learned later that the troops had invaded the house in order to get to the neighbor in the adjacent house, Mahmoud Jabarin, and arrest him. Three more young people were also arrested that same night in this forsaken camp.
After killing her son, the soldiers took his ID card, which hasn’t been returned. They apparently didn’t know whom they’d killed. After they left, a Palestinian ambulance removed Mohammed’s body. Dawn was about to break over the camp.