Is Deadly Gunfire the Only Way to Stop a Palestinian Girl With a Knife?

The youngest of the knife-wielders to date, 13, was a fourth-grade dropout who milked sheep. Last Saturday she walked, with a dagger, toward a settlement and tried to stab a guard, who shot her to death.

Eid Abu Eid, Ruqayya's father. 'She never said she wanted to be a martyr. I have no explanation for her decision. They could have arrested her.'
Alex Levac

We will never know what really happened in the dimness of last Saturday morning – what Ruqayya was thinking when she picked up a knife and made her way, distraught, toward the iron gate of a nearby settlement, Anatot. The security cameras tell only what happened from that point on. Her blurred figure is seen chasing another blurred figure – the security guard – brandishing the knife. They are a few meters apart. The moment at which he fires a single bullet straight into her heart and she falls to the ground, dead, is not seen on the video footage released for public viewing. Why did he shoot her? Did he have no alternative, even though she never got close to him, according to the video?

Why did she do what she did? Did she quarrel with her sister and then go to her death, as her mother says? Was it the conditions of her life under the occupation that drove her to try to stab the guard at the gate of the settlement, as her father suggests? Above all, what difference does it make? For the cruel and irrevocable bottom line is that Ruqayya Abu Eid, not yet 14, was shot to death, as dozens were shot before her, when the action that could – and should – have been taken was to overcome her by force, shoot her in the leg or stop her by other nonlethal means.

A girl with a knife – but a girl.

With appalling insensitivity, TV broadcasters and news editors in Israel immediately dubbed her a “13-year-old girl terrorist.” Most of these media people probably have children of their own and know what a girl her age looks like and how an adolescent behaves. They also know that experienced security guards are supposed to be able to stop a girl that age without killing her, even if she runs at them with a knife. They know, too, that what made it possible for the guard to shoot her to death so easily is the carte blanche people think they have to kill Palestinians. By branding her a “13-year-old girl terrorist,” the media effectively aborted a discussion that never really got underway about the killing of the girl with the knife on Saturday morning, at the gate of the settlement located outside Jerusalem.

The scene of the shooting was a kilometer and a half from the tent in which Ruqayya’s family lives, on the edge of the Palestinian village of Anata. It’s here that she spent most of her short life. Her family is observing the days of mourning far away from there, in the remote village of Karmel in the south Hebron hills, where they originally come from. The family’s life is led between Anata and Karmel, in the wake of their flock of sheep; Ruqayya herself lived mostly in Anata.

Her 14th birthday would have been on February 13, but she probably would not have celebrated it even had she lived, this poor shepherd’s daughter who left school in the fourth grade, when she was 10. All her father says about her now is that Ruqayya spent most of her time helping her mother with chores in the tent and milking the family’s sheep. She was a good girl and was very good at milking, he says.

It was stormy on the way to Karmel, with dense fog on the road that leads to Hebron and a snow squall as we approached. An ancient Palestinian village situated below the town of Yatta, Karmel has a spectacular old cistern that was recently turned into a swimming pool, and ruins of ancient dwellings that should be preserved.

The mourners are sitting in a large open space in the village’s center, dozens of grim-faced men, their heads covered with kaffiyehs of various kinds, trying to ward off the bitter cold with the heat of coals whispering on scorched hibachis and a few old electric-coil heaters. From time to time the arrival of a guest or of a delegation of mourners is announced, among them the governor of Hebron in the Palestinian Authority, Kamal Hmeid.

Occasionally, someone says a few words in praise of the deceased and in favor of the struggle: The mayor of Yatta promises to name a street after the shahida, a martyr for the cause. Now and then a march blares out of the noisy sound system. The drums roll thunderously: “We promise God that we will never leave. Though we starve, we will never leave.”

Fog outside, dimness within, dried dates and bitter coffee, the standard fare for people who console mourners. Large photographs of the dead girl on posters adorn the gray-plaster walls. It’s a powerful scene. This is a place of men in mourning, simmering with anger, of sun-scorched hands and faces, and the pungent aroma of cheap cigarettes.

The children do not believe that we are Israeli Jews. The men’s gazes are full of fury. The bereaved father, Eid Abu Eid, initially refuses to talk to us, declaring, “What do I have to talk about with Israelis who killed my daughter?”

He’s 45, married to two women and the father of 11 children, one of them now dead. He wears a checkered black-and-white kaffiyeh and a tattered windbreaker. His face is stubbled, his voice sepulchral, hoarse and cracked. He’s a shepherd who also works as a laborer and a guard on a farm in Anata, where he works in the cowshed. Last Friday he did a night shift as a guard, so the last time he saw his daughter was before he left for work that evening.

On Saturday, a little before 8 A.M., one of Abu Eid’s sons came to the farm, which is about a kilometer and a half from the family tent, and asked him if he’d seen Ruqayya. She’d left home; the family thought she was on the way to him.

Ruqayya’s mother later told the website Walla, “I got up to bake bread and she was still sleeping. I told her to get up and go to her brothers. She got up and took potatoes and started to make a meal. I went to bake, she quarreled with her sister. After that I didn’t find her, and I didn’t know where she had gone. I thought she had gone to her father, to the field.”

At about that same time, Ruqayya’s father heard a single gunshot from the direction of the settlement, which is not far from the farm where he works. Abu Eid rushed over.

His daughter lay on the ground, bleeding. Abu Eid identified himself as her father; he was immediately hustled into a police vehicle and forced to remain there, all the while seeing his daughter lying there and bleeding, through the window. He was then taken to the police station in the city-settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim for questioning. The interrogation went on until late at night. His interrogators wanted to know what had motivated his daughter and who had sent her to die. Finally he was released to confront his tragedy.

In the interim, an army ambulance had removed Ruqayya’s body from the scene of the incident; a Palestinian ambulance later took it to Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron for an autopsy. On Sunday she was buried in Karmel.

“If she decided to die, could I have told her not to die?” her father asks now. “I did not want my daughter to die, but there is nothing I would have been able to say to her. Maybe she wanted to die because of what she saw around her. Is there a child who has not seen the crimes of the occupation? Is there a little girl who has not seen them? Israel is continuing with its crimes, and that fires up the children. Every small child.”

“In Israel,” I tell him, “the word is that she went to die because of an argument with her sister. Her mother also said so.”

“In Israel,” he replies, “they can say what they like. She didn’t say anything, so I don’t know what her intentions were. She never said she wanted to be a martyr. I have no explanation for her decision. She was a little girl, I just wanted to bring her home. They could have arrested her. They could have shot her in the legs. There were two guards there, and they could have overcome her. A little girl. They are trained and armed, you know, so how is it they could not arrest a little girl of 13? Was a girl of 13 a threat to them? Whatever she planned to do, they could still have arrested her.”

Ruqayya’s uncle, Khalil Da’ajana, adds, “We are sad about her death, but also proud of her. We grieve for everyone who has been killed and for everyone who lives in these conditions. Those with work permits for Israel, what they go through every day at the checkpoints! And those who tend sheep, what they also go through. Everyone suffers. The young and the old, Israel is abusing all of us.”

Adds Abu Eid: “The people who killed my daughter are criminals. Everyone who has killed children is a criminal.”

Another delegation of mourners arrives. He must get up to greet them with handshakes and kisses.