The police arrested Mahmoud Qatusa at his place of work, a school in a large West Bank settlement, on the morning of May 1. Qatusa works for an Israeli cleaning company. He supervises 80 other Palestinians, sending them out to jobs at various schools in the settlement.
Everyone present was shocked by his arrest, said M.S., who works under Qatusa. I met M.S. when he left work on Wednesday.
“We asked around about what happened, what’s the reason, and we heard from the settlers that ‘there’s a girl who’s afraid of him,’” he said.
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M.S. didn’t utter the words “suspected of raping a child,” but he repeatedly said that the company’s owners and other residents of the settlement “don’t believe the accusations against Qatusa.” One of them is undoubtedly the person who told Haaretz’s Roy Arad the important detail that a lawyer from the right-wing group Honenu originally represented the girl’s family and thus influenced the investigation by the local police.
A relative who works with Qatusa called his wife, Nisreen, on the afternoon of the day he was arrested. “He began hemming and hawing and asked if Mahmoud had called me,” Nisreen said Wednesday, speaking at her home.
That afternoon, starting at 3 P.M., a military court was grappling with the flaws in the investigation that led to her husband’s arrest and indictment.
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“I was scared,” Nisreen recalled. “I was afraid he was sick and was taken to the hospital. I told [the relative] to get to the point. He told me Mahmoud had been arrested. I relaxed once I realized it was just an arrest. I wasn’t worried because I was sure this was some mistake that would be sorted out quickly.”
But again and again the court decided to keep Mahmoud in jail. That made it clear to Nisreen that “something unnatural was happening here. That there’s some plot against him.”
The police summoned her for questioning at a compound at the Maccabim checkpoint, built on land belonging to the village of Na’alin. A policeman “asked me about Mahmoud, about our children – a son and three daughters, the youngest of whom is 7. Then he asked about my relationship with my husband. I said there is love, trust and understanding between us and everything is fine.”
A few days later, the police summoned Nisreen again. This time, she was shown an aerial photo of their village, Deir Qadis, on a computer and asked to point out their house.
“I was puzzled,” she said. “After all, they know Deir Qadis, they know all the houses. What did they need me for?”
That was on the Thursday of the second week of Ramadan. She had a permit to go to Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa.
“When I left the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they called me from home and told me the police had come to the house, asked my son Qusai questions about his father and searched the apartment,” she said. But they didn’t examine the computer and didn’t confiscate anything.
“Gradually, we figured out that they suspected him of bringing a Jewish girl to our house,” she said. Then, pointing to the nearby houses, she added, “Everyone lives close by, the brothers and cousins, one house next to the other. It’s impossible to enter the house without everyone knowing who entered and when. Later, they retracted that accusation.”
But Qatusa remained in detention. “After about 20 days, we realized they were trying to indict him by any means possible,” Nisreen said. She realized that their lives would never be the same.
She saw her husband three times at hearings for extending his detention. “I tried to seem strong so he wouldn’t worry. We mainly communicated through looks; we could only say a few words to each other,” Nisreen said.
“I wanted him to know I believe in him and in his innocence even if the entire world says otherwise. But when I left the courtroom, I cried. Only once did I fail to restrain myself and cry in his presence.
“I’m not afraid that he’s guilty, I know he isn’t. I’m afraid for my children’s psychological health. This is a psychological war against us.”
Their eldest daughter, a high school student studying for her matriculation certificate in science, was sent to the home of a relative in a different neighborhood so she could concentrate. But it’s hard for her to concentrate. The youngest girl, struggling hard with her longing to her father, joined her there.
Until seven years ago, Qatusa was an English teacher at a school run by UNRWA, the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees, at the Deir Ammar refugee camp. During the summers, he would look for other work.
Through friends, he heard about janitorial work in the settlement. To the dismay of his schoolteacher wife, he left teaching. He advanced quickly to his current position.
“Mahmoud usually left for work at 7 or 8 A.M. and returned at 7:30 P.M.,” Nisreen said. “Even when he returned, he didn’t stop working. He arranged his workers’ placements for the next day and gave them instructions. He spoke by phone with the owner of the company about the supplies that had to be brought over. On Fridays, which are short workdays, he’d leave the house at about 4 A.M.”
Palestinians are forbidden to enter settlements with their cars. So they park on the outskirts of their villages, as Qatusa did, and enter the settlement by bus or foot. “So what car could he have dragged the girl to?” M.S. asked, contesting one of the popular charges in the media.
About 20 women from the family spent Wednesday with Nisreen in her home as the military court was holding this week’s hearing. Amid the media reports on the flawed investigation, Nisreen expected the judge to order the release of her husband; he’d be home in a few hours, she hoped.
On the sidewalk next to the family’s grocery store sat about a dozen men waiting for the return of Mahmoud’s brother Anwar and son Qusai from the military court in Ofer. From Monday this week, the village has been on alert because of incitement by right-wingers.
On the Deir Qadis Facebook page, residents were asked to show caution when approaching the village and for children not to stay out late. Supporters of the far-right group Lehava called for demonstrations next to Qatusa’s home, so residents of Deir Qadis and nearby villages stood at the village’s western entrance and were ready to push back any invasion or attack.
It’s easy for Israelis to enter Deir Qadis, via the road to the settlement of Modi’in Ilit that, after Deir Qadis, runs further north to the settlement of Nili. Not a single dunam of Deir Qadis’ land was defined in the Oslo negotiations as Area A – the pockets of the West Bank where the Palestinians have full policing and administrative authority. Some 620 dunams (155 acres), mostly the village’s built-up area, were put in Area B – where the Palestinian police aren’t allowed to operate but the Palestinian Authority maintains administrative authority.
The rest of the land, about 7,400 dunams, is Area C, where Israel has full administrative and security control. About half of this has been expropriated or declared state land for the settlements of Modi’in Ilit, Nili and Matityahu, and for the bypass roads for Jews and the separation barrier.
The village’s internal road, which runs east-west, has become a road of garages where nearby settlers bring their cars to be fixed. For their convenience, the garages’ names are written in Hebrew. Through this familiar road the right-wing activists could enter the village.
Fares Nasser, who headed the local council until 2017, was among the protesters standing at the village’s western entrance. He approached the soldiers deployed there and told them that none of the villagers would leave as long as the right-wing inciters weren’t moved away and there was still the danger they would enter the village.
“The soldiers acted okay,” Nasser said. “They moved them away toward the checkpoint.”
In the village, people began to understand the nature of the bad tidings about a week after the arrest. “We all agree that it’s a crime that has to be severely punished, but only if there’s evidence,” Nasser said.
The main media outlets in Ramallah didn’t report on the indictment, but on Palestinian social media, some people had already convicted Qasuta. “Someone wrote that he should be executed,” Nasser said. “I wrote to him and explained that first we have to be against executions in principle. But I also explained to him that the accusations are ridiculous.”
On their own initiative, Qatusa’s former students pushed back against accusations that were written against him on Palestinian social media, Nisreen Qatusa said.
‘Your father didn’t do anything’
At about 10 P.M. Wednesday, Qatusa’s brother and son returned from court encouraged. “An extended detention of six days is a lot,” Nisreen said with restrained disappointment.
Ya’akov, one of the owners of the cleaning company, phoned and asked for an update. “The company is with us, including the principals of the other schools where the company operates,” Nisreen said.
Attorney Darwish Nashef was brought into the picture only at the beginning of the week, when the repeated extensions of Qatusa’s detention turned into an indictment.
“Mahmoud heard about Nashef from prisoners in the jail and asked that we only go to him,” Nisreen said. Nashef was hesitant at first because he doesn’t like taking on sex-crime files, he said by telephone. “But I sat and read the file Monday evening, and after four pages I called his son and said: Your father didn’t do anything.”
He spoke with his client twice, briefly, at the jail and before the hearing Wednesday. “When I saw him for the first time he looked frightened that it was possible to pin such a thing on him,” Nashef said. “But at the hearing he recovered thanks to the media reports on the flawed investigation – which also influenced the attitude of the prisoners and guards toward him.”
He said the case “has exculpatory evidence but the investigating unit ignored it because it was very convenient for its narrative that an Arab man in a school raped a 7-year-old ultra-Orthodox girl. That’s the story they want to hear.”
Nashef was encouraged when he left the hearing Wednesday evening, “but the next day I woke up and realized that it was unjustified euphoria. Because even with all the flaws and the contradictory information that came up in the hearing, Mahmoud Qatusa is still under arrest.”