'It Was Nothing Personal,' Bereaved Palestinian Father Told

'I am the law here, I am the sovereign,' continued the IDF commander, whose soldiers killed 14-year-old Yusef a-Shawamreh last month.

Alex Levac

We went to the breach in the fence where his son was killed. We walked along the dirt trail that descends to the separation fence, which cuts off the family’s land from the village. The hole is very wide – both the barbed-wire fence and the concertina wire behind it are torn – and according to the villagers, it has been this way for a long time.

The boy, Yusef a-Shawamreh, did not, apparently, sabotage the fence. His father, Sami, is insistent about this – as though, if the 14-year-old boy had actually damaged it, his death would have been justified.

The camouflaged soldiers were hiding in their lethal ambush on the hillock opposite the breach, on the other side of the security road and its safety railing. There was no way the three youths – who were picking akub (Arabic for “gundelia”), a thistle-like edible plant, as they do daily in this season – could have seen the soldiers.

The trio walked the same trail we did this week, alongside olive trees, wheat fields and a peach grove. The soldiers spotted them from a long way off; the whole area is exposed. It is also rife with security cameras. But the soldiers waited until the three went through the barriers and started to walk toward the field on the other side, which belongs to the dead boy’s family. Then they started shooting – using live ammunition, it must be emphasized.

Yusef ran for his life. A bullet struck him in the back of the thigh as he tried to get over the safety railing. He collapsed, bleeding badly. It took a long time – about half an hour – for a military ambulance to evacuate him, according to an investigation by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.

The two others were handcuffed and forced to lie down on the floor of an army jeep, with a soldier pressing down their heads with his boot, according to their testimony, before being interrogated for several hours and then released. One of the youths related that a soldier brandished his rifle, threatening: “Be quiet, or I’ll kill you, too.”

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman stated after the March 19 incident:

“A force from the 77th Armored Battalion was in an ambush at night adjacent to Deir al-Asal. Three Palestinians approached the fence and started to cut it. The force executed the procedure for arresting a suspect, and according to its report first fired in the air and only afterward fired at the Palestinian [sic]. One of the Palestinians was hit by a bullet in his hip and later died of his wounds. The circumstances of the event are being examined.”

Asked Thursday whether there is anything new in regard to the investigation of the boy’s killing, the spokesman's office sent the following reply: “An investigation by the Military Police is underway. Upon its conclusion the findings will be passed on to the military advocate general’s office for examination.”

After arriving on the scene, we too went through the hole in the fence, like the three youths. Sami, the bereaved father, showed us how and where his son was shot, as Yusef’s two survivor friends had explained to him. (The two are Muntassar Beallah a-Dardun, 18, and Zahi Shawamreh, 13, who was the dead boy’s classmate.) The bloodstains left by Yusef have since faded and disappeared.

No warning apparently preceded the shooting – certainly the boys didn’t hear anything of the sort. Two or three shots were fired from an ambush at an unarmed boy who was not endangering anyone. No attempt was made to apprehend the three youths, no use was made of nonlethal means – only live fire. These details are important if one is to grasp the scale of the criminality that informs the killing of this boy.

Minutes after we crawled through the fence – which even now, two weeks after the killing, no one has bothered to repair – three IDF jeeps charged at us. They had spotted us with the security cameras.

“Capt. Or,” who introduced himself as the local commander – a good-looking, soft-spoken, all-Israeli young man, the boy next door – asked why we had crossed the fence. “I am the commander here. This is my turf,” he said when the father tried to explain that the fields belong to his family.

“You murdered the boy,” Ezra Nawi, the dedicated activist at Ta’ayush (an Arab-Jewish organization) who was with us, told the officer. “Shoot me. After all, that’s the way you behave here.”

“Talk to me with respect. You are presenting this in a romantic light. You weren’t here and you don’t know what happened,” the captain said. “This is mine, I am the law here, I am the sovereign.”

I tried to explain to Capt. Or that the man in the keffiyeh next to us was the bereaved father.

“There’s nothing personal here,” the captain said, leaving a bit later with his troops after we had returned to the village, on the other side of the fence. The officer did not have a word of regret to offer, and his sleep no doubt remains untroubled.

Parting shot

Deir al-Asal al-Foqa is a large, ancient village on the slopes of southern Mount Hebron, opposite Israel’s Lachish district. The entire population belongs to the Shawamreh clan. The compound of the bereaved family consists of two 2-story houses, an animal pen and a courtyard. Posters of the dead boy have been hung everywhere. One particularly meaningful photo shows Yusef, a small boy, blue-eyed, next to the fence on one of his plant-picking excursions. It was taken a few days before his death at the very spot at which he was killed.

Sami, the bereaved father, who is known as Abu Walid in the village and whose real name is Naaf (only his ID card says Sami) is 56 and speaks fluent Hebrew, which he picked up during his long years of working in Israel. He has fathered 18 children from two wives. Yusef was the third youngest.

After having killed his son, Israel has now also revoked the entry permits he and his other sons had so that they could work there. “Your permit is canceled,” Walid, the eldest, was told this week at the checkpoint when he tried to enter Israel, where he worked in construction. His father’s permit was canceled too.

Israel always behaves this way with the families of those it kills, lest they take revenge. Thus it inflicts a double punishment: killing and taking possession.

When we went to the fence, Sami said drily, “First they took my land, then they took my son and now they have taken my work. They have taken everything.”

He shows me his documents of ownership of the land across the fence, where Yusef was killed, and his sons’ entry permits, signed by Capt. Haim Ben Haim from the Tarqumiya office of the Civil Administration. Yusef did not have a permit, because he was too young (though not too young to be killed). On that Wednesday, he had decided to play hooky.

“God sent him to die on that day,” his father says with characteristic acceptance.

Yusef left the house about 6:30 that morning without telling his father where he was going. He met up with his two friends, who are still shell-shocked from the incident; together they went down toward the fence, to pick akub, as young people do in February-March, selling it to a local merchant at 3.50 shekels ($1) a kilo. Only the heart of the plant is picked, for cooking. The three brought scissors to do the work; here they are, old and rusting.

Usually they would do the picking after school, but on that bitter day they decided, for some reason, to skip class. Soldiers had never shot at them before, at most they had stopped the youths, sometimes confiscating their meager harvest.

Shortly after 7 A.M., Sami heard two or three shots from the direction of the fence. He had no idea what had happened. At 8:30 he received a phone call from an Israeli Bedouin acquaintance at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva. He asked Sami if he knew Yusef a-Shawamreh. “He is my son. What happened?” the father asked. “He was wounded and taken to Soroka.”

Sami rushed to the Meitar checkpoint but was not allowed through, only told that his son had indeed been taken to the hospital. He waited at the checkpoint until 3:30 P.M. His distraught sons, who joined him, were beaten by the security guards, he says. Finally, Yusef’s body arrived, in the private jeep of the Bedouin acquaintance. No one bothered to tell him what had happened.

The body was taken to Al-Alia Hospital in Hebron. Yusef was buried in the village at dusk.

“If I were a judge in Israel and saw what was done to the boy, I would send the soldiers to life in prison,” the bereaved father says now. “There is nothing left for me to say to you.”

Someone has scrawled the inscription “Yusef a-Shawamreh Trail” in red on a rock on the way to the fence. It’s the improvised, new name of this path of death, a memorial to the boy who skipped school to pick plants.