No Weddings and a Funeral: A Palestinian Love Story Cut Short

Issa al-Qatari postponed his wedding this summer because he was in mourning for his cousin, who was killed by IDF soldiers. A month later, they killed him too - just before the ceremony.

Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
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Issa al-Qatari’s parents, Zahiya and Khaled, and his fiancée, Samah, under a poster of him.
Issa al-Qatari’s parents, Zahiya and Khaled, and his fiancée, Samah, under a poster of him.Credit: Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

Mohammed al-Qatari, a promising young Palestinian soccer player, was killed on August 8 by one round of live ammunition fired into his chest by an Israel Defense Forces sharpshooter. A month later, on September 10, his cousin, Issa al-Qatari, was killed in a reprise of that event: An IDF soldier’s bullet struck him in the heart. Issa was supposed to have been married in August, but postponed the wedding because of the death of Mohammed. He was killed a week before the rescheduled date.

Cruelly, two small flickering hopes in the Al-Amari refugee camp, outside Ramallah, were snuffed out: the hope of the soccer player, for whom Joseph Blatter, the president of FIFA, the international soccer federation, predicted a professional future; and the hope of the prospective groom and bride, preparing for their wedding.

When we visited the camp to document the circumstances of Mohammed’s death (August 29), we could not have imagined that we’d be back so soon, after the pointless death of another young man, his cousin.

Everything was set for the wedding: the text for the invitations, handwritten by Issa; the new apartment, built on the third floor of his parents’ house; the bride’s gold jewelry, now on sad display in a scarlet box; the bridal gown and the groom’s suit, in which Issa had already been photographed.

Pictures of Issa cover the walls of the living room in his parents’ home – one of them depicts the two cousins, Mohammad and Issa for all eternity. The back wall is draped with a huge poster, showing Issa on the right and Yasser Arafat on the left. The living room is narrow and dark, the effect intensified by the pall of gloom that hangs over everything. The parents, Zahiya and Khaled, are inconsolable. The young fiancée, Samah Tomala, sits close between them, as though she were their daughter.

Issa was a 22-year-old furniture painter who fell in love with Samah, his first cousin. Three years ago, when their two – who are sisters – went to Mecca, Issa urged his mother to use the occasion to ask Samah’s mother, his aunt, for her daughter’s hand in marriage. Zahiya relates that her son called her every day in Saudi Arabia to ask whether she had already broached the matter.

Samah, 16 at the time, says she felt from the way Issa looked at her that he was in love; he plied her with gifts and called her every day or two. They also met once or twice a week after deciding to get married, a few months ago.

Their final meeting took place on the last night of Issa’s life. After working late in the carpentry shop – he’d been doing overtime to save money – Issa went to his gym to work out. He then went home, showered and ate dinner with his parents, his aunt and his future bride. He later escorted her home and before parting, she asked when they would next meet; Issa said he’d come the next day. On the way home he bought four popsicles – two for his parents, one for himself and one that he put in the freezer for Samah. They show it to us, a coffee-and-peanut butter confection made in Nablus.

Khaled went to sleep and was certain his son had done the same. At 3:30 A.M., he awoke to what seemed to sound like distant explosions. He hurried to the bedroom of his younger son, Radwan, who works late in the KFC restaurant in Ramallah, to see whether he’d returned home. Seeing that Radwan was sleeping, and certain that Issa too was in his room, Khaled went back to bed. But the melee below did not abate. He opened his window to see what was going on.

It turned out that a large number of soldiers had entered the camp in order to arrest a wanted man in his home on the main street. Shortly afterward, Khaled’s daughter arrived, distraught, and told him Issa had been wounded. Khaled was certain that it was a different Issa from the family, as his son was asleep in his room. But then a cousin called, reporting that Issa had been taken to the hospital.

Khaled discovered that Issa was not in his room. Frightened and agitated, he rushed to the government hospital in Ramallah, where he was told his son was in the intensive care unit. Soon afterward he was informed that Issa was dead.

The postmortem report, signed by Dr. Yusuf Abdullah and Dr. Mohammed Hunhen, states that Issa was killed by a single round of live ammunition that struck his heart and lungs, and exited via his back. Apparently Issa went out into the street when he heard there were soldiers in the camp. “Someone who is getting ready for his wedding doesn’t think about getting involved in anything,” his bereaved father says.

Issa was standing next to the local mosque with another four young men. The soldiers up the street, about 100 meters away. According to testimonies collected by Iyad Hadad, a field researcher for the B’Tselem human rights organization, the soldiers were just leaving when something made one of their vehicles turn around and reenter the camp.

Hadad, who reached the scene shortly after the soldiers left, says he found no signs on the street to suggest that stones or Molotov cocktails were thrown. But at one point a soldier aimed his rifle and fired a single shot, which hit Issa – who was standing at a distance, down the street – in the heart.

Issa shouted for help and tried to make a run for it with his friends in an alley, but collapsed to the ground after about 40 meters. He was taken into a house and then driven to the hospital in a private car.

In reply to a query by Haaretz, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated this week: “During operational activity, a violent disturbance developed involving about 50 Palestinians, in which stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown and a burning tire was rolled at the force. During the disturbance, a terrorist was spotted trying to throw an explosive device about 15 meters from the force. The force opened fire, killing the terrorist. The event is being investigated by the Military Police, and upon conclusion of the investigation the findings will be conveyed for the perusal and opinion of the Military Advocate General’s unit.”

While all this was transpiring, Issa’s fiancée was asleep at home. She was awakened at 6 A.M. by her mother and aunt, both of them crying profusely. They asked her if she believed in God. The house was quiet; Samah was certain something bad had happened to her father. But the two women told her, “You have missed the chance to marry Issa. Issa is dead.”

Samah was dumbstruck. She said she wanted to go back to sleep. The news was too much for her to take in. But her family asked her to get up and go to the home of her future/past in-laws.

Now, Samah, a public-health student, is wearing a speckled head covering and a black mourning dress. From her pocket she takes out a piece of paper that was torn from an office calendar, on which Issa wrote the text of the wedding invitation.

In the wake of Mohammed’s death, the couple thought at first that they would have to postpone their nuptials for a few months. But because they had been dreaming about the wedding for three years, they decided that Issa would go to Mohammed’s parents and ask their permission to hold the wedding after the 40-day mourning period. The date set was September 17; the venue: a Ramallah banquet hall.

Zahiya, Issa’s mother, is crying again. Samah says they had even already chosen names for their first three children: Khaled, Udai and Rama – two boys and a girl. That was their dream. The tile floor in their new and empty home glistens. The bedroom furniture and kitchen cupboards were almost ready, but the order has been canceled. On her right hand Samah wears a gilded wedding ring, given to her by Issa the day they were engaged. Traditionally, she would have switched it to her left hand at her wedding, but the ring remains on her right hand.