The car was set afire by young people in the Jalazun refugee camp after the body was removed and the wounded extricated. It’s not clear whether they were venting their anger or wanted to prevent the Israel Defense Forces from confiscating the vehicle. The burned-out wreck now lies on a hill at the far end of the neighboring village of Jifna.
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The scorched remains of the Peugeot 206, which has yellow (Israeli) license plates and was probably stolen, tells an important part of the story. The chassis is perforated like a sieve. The soldiers fired at least 10 rounds into the car and the bullet holes are still visible, even after the torching. They are of different sizes – some exceptionally large – and all are on the right-hand side of the vehicle and what remains of its seats.
Was it necessary to shoot so many bullets at the car, even if one of its occupants apparently threw a Molotov cocktail – which hurt no one and caused no damage? What exactly happened at around 8:30 P.M. last Thursday, adjacent to the back entrance of the Beit El settlement, whose iron gate was locked and shuttered at the time of the incident?
The result is unquestionable, for sure. None of the five teenagers in the car emerged unscathed. Muhammad Mahmoud Ibrahim al-Hattab, 17, was killed by a bullet to the chest; Jassem Nakhle, 18, is hospitalized in critical condition, struck by a bullet to the head that apparently caused brain death; Ahmed Zayad, 15, suffered a serious chest wound with damage to his left lung; Moussa Nakhle, 18, is in serious condition after being shot in the chest and stomach; and the driver, M., 17, was lightly wounded by shrapnel.
The three seriously injured youngsters are in Ramallah Government Hospital. The driver returned to his home in the refugee camp, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, where all five live. Some of them are cousins and all are neighbors.
Muhammad was the only son of Mahmoud Hattab, who is employed in the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as liaison to the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Ramallah. The teen’s dream was to be a pilot. His father often took him to work with him, as seen in the family photos. One shows 10-year-old Muhammad in the Muqata (the seat of the Palestinian government in Ramallah) with the pilot of a helicopter sent by Jordan’s King Abdullah to fly Abbas to Amman. And here’s a shot of little Muhammad with President Abbas, who rests his hand on the shoulder of the boy whose dreams have now been terminated. It’s said that Abbas liked the boy.
Last Thursday evening, the old, toothless farmer Ahmed Nakhle was sitting with his family on the balcony of their home in the Yasmin neighborhood of El Bireh, a small city adjacent to Ramallah. The balcony overlooks the old Route 60, from before the settlers’ bypass road was built. Nakhle’s house is some 200 meters (about 660 feet) from the highway, opposite the back entrance to Beit El, which is now used only by Palestinian laborers. The gate was sealed. Nakhle relates that he suddenly heard bursts of gunfire. He saw a car standing by the side of the road and someone getting out of it. Traffic on the road continued as usual. The shooting went on for a short time. Then he saw the same person get back into the car, which sped off northward toward Jalazun, a few minutes’ drive away.
The aged farmer saw no more. Later he learned from the media what had transpired there, not far from his home.
According to M. – who doesn’t want to give his full name for fear of being arrested – the five teens went to Ramallah to eat. On the way back, their car stalled and they pulled over next to Beit El.
M. told Iyad Hadad, the Ramallah area field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, that the shooting began when he got out of the vehicle in order to try to push it, apparently after it stalled. He was hit by a bullet in the arm, he says, and got back into the car fast. Muhammad was sitting next to him. The wounded youths fell on him one after the other, thereby protected him from the gunfire, he says.
M. says the initial shooting, when his arm was hurt, came from the watchtower located next to the settlement gate, but subsequent shooting was the work of two soldiers. One was positioned opposite the car behind a concrete block; the other fired from an open area next to the road. They fired from short range, just a few meters.
The car somehow managed to start and M. sped toward the refugee camp. At the entrance, he lost consciousness and slumped over the wheel. Camp residents took the dead youth and the wounded to the hospital in Ramallah. That is M.’s account as he told it to B’Tselem’s Hadad and also to Muhammad’s father and grandfather.
The Hattab home, in the rear of the camp, is accessed through narrow alleys. The house is wrapped in flags and photographs of Muhammad. Mahmoud, the father, is 42; he and his wife also have two daughters. About a week before the incident, Mahmoud went to Mecca to bring home his 68-year-old mother, who had suffered a heart attack there while on a hajj.
As soon as they got back, last Thursday, Mahmoud went to pay a condolence call to relatives in Beit Rima (a village about 25 kilometers northwest of Ramallah). He phoned his son, who told him he was studying for the matriculation exams at a friend’s place and that afterward he and some friends planned to go to Ramallah to have something to eat – as they did every Thursday evening during the exam period.
In Beit Rima, Mahmoud learned that his son had been wounded. When he arrived at the Ramallah hospital, where it seemed like half the refugee camp was already milling around, he was told that Muhammad was upstairs. He thought that meant he’d been hospitalized, but then discovered, to his horror, that “upstairs” meant the morgue.
Late one night three months ago, Mahmoud relates now, he drove past the spot where his son was later killed, when he suddenly came under fire for no reason. He managed to get away. He’s convinced that the teens’ car broke down. The burden of proof that one of them threw a firebomb at the soldiers rests with those who shot and killed him, he says.
Mahmoud found a photograph of a burnt bottle lying on the road that was posted on Facebook by Maj. Avichai Adraee, head of the Arabic media department in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, as proof that an incendiary device had been thrown. But Mahmoud asserts now that it doesn’t prove a thing – it’s impossible to know when and where the photo was taken. Similarly, a photograph of his son with a rifle slung over his shoulder, which Adraee posted as additional proof, is no more than a vacation photo with a plastic rifle, adds Mahmoud.
“What is the reason for such violent behavior by the soldiers and for such heavy firing at the car?” he asks. “After all, there are rules even in war, and this is not a war but shooting at unarmed civilians. We ask Israeli society: Do we pose a danger to you? Are our sons a threat to you? Jassem and Moussa live in the house opposite ours; they are our cousins. What kind of threat are they to Israel? And if they are a threat, why weren’t they arrested? Why kill them? We as a family say to the Israeli public: Our children were murdered in cold blood.”
The bereaved grandfather, Ibrahim Hattab, notes that the scene of the incident is covered with security cameras. “Show us that they threw a Molotov [cocktail],” he says. To which the uncle, Adnan, adds, “And if one threw a Molotov, you attack five?”
In his Facebook post, Adraee wrote, “The terrorist arrived with a group of Palestinians in a car,” adding that three of them got out of the car and threw a firebomb at homes in the settlement. Adnan points out that the settlement homes are hundreds of meters from the place where the car was standing. “Do you believe they were capable of throwing a bottle from that distance that would endanger the houses in the settlement?” he asks. “Did they have a machine gun?”
Is it possible that the soldiers shot them for no reason?
Adnan: “Yes. Because of their fears and concern for their security, they are capable of shooting at any time and in any situation. They have to prove to us that they were in true danger. This is not a defense army. It is a killing army.”
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz this week: “On the evening of March 23, 2017, four Palestinians threw firebombs at citizens near the community of Beit El. IDF forces in an ambush in the area responded by opening fire. We stress that the throwing of firebombs is a recurring phenomenon and in recent months they have been thrown a number of times at this locale. As a result of the incident in question, the Military Police has launched an investigation, and its findings will be passed on to the Military Advocate General’s office.”
Muhammad wanted to go to Germany and study to be a pilot when he was old enough. He’d heard that the level of instruction there is high. He knew his nation doesn’t have an air force and that he would not be able to fly anything. But he believed that as a pilot he would get an important job in the Palestinian Authority, his father tells us.
Mahmoud says he taught his son that the only way to fight the occupation is through international organizations and the international community. Did Muhammad heed his father’s words? It’s hard to know. In the photograph with the Jordanian pilot, little Muhammad is wearing quasi-military training pants. In the shot with President Abbas, he’s in jeans.