The two appalled parents stood on either side of the checkpoint, a body lying between them on the road, without being able to see or know for certain that the body was in fact that of their daughter.
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Sawsan Mansour bled to death. In a harrowing coincidence, her father, Ali, had arrived at the Israeli side of the checkpoint on his way home from work as a gardener in a Jerusalem suburb, just minutes after Sawsan was shot. Her mother, Najah, hurried to the Palestinian side of the checkpoint after hearing that there had been a lethal incident there and that the victim might be Sawsan. No playwright could conceive of a grimmer, more dramatic scene: parents on the two sides of a barrier, their child’s body strewn between them.
The parents were not allowed to approach. The corpse was placed in a black body bag and removed from the scene. Only a bloodstain remained on the road when the father was finally allowed to enter the area. A member of the Israeli security forces showed him a photograph of the dead girl’s face on his cellphone. Now all doubt was dispelled: It was Sawsan. Ali lost consciousness, he recalls later. Najah was then allowed in, too.
The incident occurred shortly after 2:30 P.M. on May 23, at the Beit Iksa checkpoint, which controls access to an enclave of 12 villages trapped behind the separation barrier near Ramallah. Use of this checkpoint is restricted to residents of Beit Iksa and Palestinians over 50, so the traffic here is very sparse. The Border Policemen there spend most of their time behind bullet-proof glass or a wire fence, as we saw this week during a visit to site. The checkpoint barrier is raised and lowered for each vehicle, after it is checked.
At the time of the incident involving Sawsan, the Israeli forces were about 10 meters from her, based on the bloodstain her father saw. The only witnesses were the Border Policemen.
It is possible that Sawsan wanted to commit suicide. In the midst of her high school matriculation exams, she was in a state of great tension. Maybe there had also been a quarrel at home, maybe some other problem. According to her uncle, Mohammed Badwan, who came from the United States for her funeral together with his mother, Sawsan’s grandmother, Sawsan had planned to move to Syracuse, New York, where he and his mother have lived for years, to continue her schooling. The paperwork was almost complete. Sawsan wanted to study law.
The truth is that no one knows for certain why a smiling 18-year-old, a gifted student, the daughter of a law-abiding family that has nothing to do with politics or terrorism, with a father who is a retired teacher, who has been working in Mevasseret Zion for 15 years and has many Israeli friends – why this young woman approached a checkpoint with a knife. Perhaps she was driven to put an end to her life, like many other adolescent girls, by a fleeting mood. Maybe she was out to perpetrate a terrorist attack, though that’s very unlikely, given her background.
Her parents say they have no idea why she acted as she did. In any event, they see her killing as an act of cold-blooded murder, as she could have been stopped without being shot to death.
“When someone goes to a rooftop and threatens to kill himself, security people everywhere do all they can to save him,” says Iyad Hadad, the local field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. “But here the Border Policemen are doing the opposite: They are assisting these girls to commit suicide instead of saving them.”
Indeed, the killing of Sawsan Mansour has all the trappings of an execution. It is extremely unlikely that she posed a mortal danger to the policemen, who fired at her, pumping three bullets into a teenager waving a knife at them. It hardly stands to reason that there was no other way to stop her. But there is no doubt that no one will stand trial for this act. It’s all part of the routine, you know.
A pall of deep mourning hangs over her home in the village of Biddu, northeast of Jerusalem. Her father speaks broken Hebrew, his words punctuated by tears that he quickly wipes away with a paper towel. Occasionally, he also mumbles something to himself before replying to a question. Najah, the mother, seems to be stronger. The couple has four sons and two daughters. Sawsan was the youngest, a high-school senior.
She was still sleeping on May 23 when Ali left for his job in Mevasseret Zion. He passed through the Beit Iksa checkpoint, as usual. When he returned, in the afternoon, a passerby told him the checkpoint was closed. Ali waited in a shared taxi with his brother, Razi, who also works in Israel. That same day Israel had returned the bodies of a sister and brother from the nearby village of Katana, and Ali was sure that disturbances had erupted ahead of their funeral. The taxi waited about 300 meters from the checkpoint. People started to mill about, but no one knew what was going on.
“Suddenly I had a feeling,” Ali says now, closing his eyes and again mumbling to himself.
The taxi driver then showed him an Internet photo of a girl who had been shot at the checkpoint. Her face was covered, but he recognized the dress. He remembered that Sawsan had worn it the evening before, when she’d gone to visit her sister. Fear seized him. He called his wife: “Is Sawsan home?”
Najah told him that not long before, she had seen the teen on the balcony, studying, before going off to make sandwiches for her nephews, who were visiting. Maybe she went to her grandfather’s place, Najah suggested, to study in quiet.
But now Sawsan’s mother became worried, too, and she went outside with two of her sons. When their search proved fruitless, they headed for the checkpoint, about three kilometers from the house.
At the checkpoint, Najah’s wrenching screams, after she was assaulted by the bitter truth, were heard by Ali on the other side. The security man who showed Ali the cellphone image of his dead daughter tried to comfort him.
Ali was told to go to Ofer military base to identify the body, and was stunned by the thorough body search he was forced to undergo before being allowed to see Sawsan. He was then questioned about her possible motives. He told the interrogator he had no idea.
“An 18-year-old girl who weighs 45 kilos [99 pounds] is not a danger to soldiers’ lives,” he told the interrogator, adding, “They could have arrested her instead of killing her.” Ali knows the procedures at the checkpoint, which he passes through every day, and he is certain there was no way his daughter could have posed a threat to the forces there.
Sawsan’s parents only saw a photograph of the knife – they say it is not from their house. They also have no idea how she got to the checkpoint, apparently in a car.
The body was returned to the family four days later, and the burial took place that same day.
The road between the checkpoint and the village is now scorched from the tires that were set ablaze here after the funeral. Sawsan’s parents objected to an autopsy being performed on the body, so the physicians at the hospital in Ramallah, where the body was taken, made do with X-rays. Najah tries to say something about Sawsan’s death being a result of the oppression, and Ali hushes her. “She’s dead and there is nothing more to add.”
A Border Police spokesman stated, in response to a query from Haaretz: “In complete contrast to the allegations that were raised, during the incident in question a terrorist who was walking toward a Border Police post aroused the fighters’ suspicions. They called to her to stop, and when she did not, they implemented the arrest-of-suspect procedure. The terrorist ignored the calls, which included warnings in Arabic and in Hebrew, and continued to approach the fighters, who refrained throughout from opening fire as long as there was no clear and present danger to their lives.
“When the terrorist drew near, she took out a knife and brandished it with the aim of stabbing one of the fighters. The fighters, who felt concrete and immediate mortal danger, fired with precision and neutralized the terrorist. It should be emphasized that an investigation of the incident shows that the fighters acted according to proper procedures, and that their vigilance apparently saved lives.”
And Ali says, in his workman’s Hebrew, “These are not human beings. What they did to her like that – not human beings.” He informed his employers in Mevasseret Zion that he had problems at home and would not be able to come to work the following week.