Palestinian Family Grapples With Siblings' Deaths as Israel Refuses to Release Bodies, Video

The bereaved father of Maram Ismail and Ibrahim Taha is convinced that their slayings at the Qalandiyah checkpoint could have been avoided; Maram's two small daughters still await for her promised return.

Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
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Maram Abu Ismayil, 23, and brother Ibrahim Salah Tahah, 16, shot after attempted stabbing at Qalandia checkpoint in West Bank. April 28, 2016
Maram Abu Ismayil, 23, and brother Ibrahim Salah Tahah, 16, shot after attempted stabbing at Qalandia checkpoint in West Bank. April 28, 2016Credit: Reuters, Mohamad Torokman
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

Two little girls with braids, wearing identical brown tracksuits on which an image of the Eiffel Tower glitters. For the past few days, a photograph of the two has been drawing attention in Israel and worldwide in the media and on the social networks.

Sara,5, and four-year-old Rimas, daughters of Maram Abu Ismayil, 26, who was killed along with her brother, 16-year-old Ibrahim Taha, on April 27 at the Qalandiyah checkpoint in north Jerusalem. Security officials have said they were shot by private security guards.

The girls’ grandfather, Salah Taha, tells us that the two don’t yet know their mother is dead, that they are waiting for her to return and bring them sweets, as she promised before she left the house that day. But Salah is almost certainly mistaken: The two little girls are wandering around in a daze in a home that is not theirs, they won’t answer questions about their mother and are hardly talking at all. Their faces reflect deep anguish and consternation. They are being looked after by their grandmother. Their father is not around, either.

Two weeks ago, Maram and her daughters moved back to her parents’ home in the village of Katana. She left home in the wake of a dispute with her husband, Rauf, 27, the girls’ father, who works in a factory in the Atarot industrial zone north of Jerusalem. He has remained in their home in the nearby village of Beit Surik even during the mourning period. (Both villages are in the Ramallah area.)

According to Salah, Maram was supposed to return to her home and her husband at the end of this week. She had suffered a hand injury under unclear circumstances – her father says she was cut in the kitchen – and had also complained of leg pains, caused by blocked blood vessels.

Last Wednesday, she planned to visit Muqassed Hospital in East Jerusalem to have her leg treated. Her intention, her father says, was to pass through the Qalandiyah checkpoint on the strength of medical documents she received from a hospital in Ramallah, where she had gone on March 17. Contrary to earlier reports, she did not have an entry permit to Israel.

It’s difficult to get her father to answer the question of whether it’s possible that his daughter set out to perpetrate a knifing attack at the checkpoint in the wake of the crisis in her personal life. In any event, Salah is convinced that it was both wrong and totally unnecessary for his children to have been killed by the Israeli security people.

“Even if she had a knife, she was far away from them,” he says. “Let’s say she had a cannon – it would have been possible to shoot at her legs and certainly not to shoot Ibrahim, who only tried to evacuate her from the checkpoint.”

The two were apparently 10 to 15 meters from the security people, and Ibrahim was not holding a knife. Couldn’t the many policemen and the guards at the site have overpowered a woman and a teenager without killing them? A serious and disturbing doubt surfaces and becomes even more acute in light of the refusal by the Israel Police to make public the video footage that should shed light on what really happened.

Scene of attempted stabbing at Qalandia checkpoint in West Bank, as seen from Palestinian eyewitnesses. April 28, 2016
Scene of attempted stabbing at Qalandia checkpoint in West Bank, as seen from Palestinian eyewitnesses. April 28, 2016Credit: Courtesy

Now doubly bereaved, Salah Tahah tries to maintain composure that shows he is capable of dealing with this pain. He’s a 61-year-old shared-taxi driver who plies the route between his village and Ramallah, for 7 shekels ($1.85) each way. He speaks fluent Hebrew, which he picked up during the period when he worked at a poultry slaughterhouse in Beit Shemesh, driving ritual slaughterers and kashrut inspectors to and from Bnei Brak. His brother worked for 25 years as a janitor in Kibbutz Tzova. The people in this house recall fondly the many guests from Israel who visited them in other times.

Maram had been married for six years. Her father says she was waiting for the results of a pregnancy test. Last Wednesday morning, she told her mother, Fatma, that she was going to the East Jerusalem hospital. Her mother insisted that her younger brother accompany Maram. “We do not let our women go about alone,” her father explains.

Ibrahim, a student in the 11th grade, had been late for school that day and was sent home by his teacher. His fate was sealed: to accompany his sister on her death outing, which became his death outing, too.

They left after 8:30 A.M., taking a shared taxi toward Ramallah and then another one to the Qalandiyah checkpoint. There they started to walk toward the checkpoint in the lane reserved for cars. Salah says his daughter had never been to Qalandiyah and did not know where she was supposed to go.

Before leaving, Maram told her daughters that she would be back around midday and would bring them sweets. Her father, who was driving his taxi at the time, was told by his wife that Ibrahim had been sent home and that Maram had set out for Jerusalem with him.

Last November, the family mourned Yehya Tahah, a cousin of Maram and Ibrahim, who was shot in the head by soldiers while trying to get to work in a neighboring town; there had been a curfew at the time on his village. A photograph of Yehya, who was 20 at the time of his death, now hangs on the living room wall in this house of mourning. His father Yusuf has come to be with his brother as he grieves for his double loss.

Another uncle, Tahah Ksis, the one who worked in Kibbutz Tzova, says that during the tenure of Prime Minister Rabin, none of this would have happened. “It’s all because of Netanyahu. Netanyahu and the Shin Bet,” he says, referring to Israel’s security service.

What, then, happened at the checkpoint? The fact that the police are refusing to release the footage taken by the security cameras there has provoked strong suspicions. In other cases, where publicizing such footage served its interests, the police were quick to do so.

According to a report this week, Border Policemen called out to the sister and brother to stop, and when they kept going, fired into the air. Afterward, Maram apparently threw her bag onto the ground, and possibly also a knife, and was shot and killed by private security guards from a distance of 10 to 15 meters. That was as close as Maram got to them. Ibrahim, who, according to eyewitnesses tried to remove his sister’s body from the site, was also shot to death.

The two lay on the ground, in an embrace, dead or dying – no one bothered to check their condition – for about an hour and a half before being taken from the scene.

Kareem Jubran, field research director for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, took the testimony of the Red Crescent ambulance driver, who arrived on the scene about 10 minutes after the shootings, at 10:50. The driver told Jubran that he was not allowed to approach the two until 12:20, that he was driven off with threats and that no one went to check the siblings as they lay bleeding on the road. Finally, personnel from Zaka, an Israeli emergency response organization, arrived, placed the bodies in plastic bags and removed them.

“They killed them, they killed them,” says Yusuf Tahah, the father’s brother, “but at least give us the bodies. Tell us where to go and we will bring the bodies. We can’t go on with our lives before burying them.”

The pain at Israel’s confiscation of the bodies is almost as searing here as the pain at the loss of the sister and brother.

Of the three knives the police displayed in a photograph – they were quick enough to make that image public: the knives are apparently not considered “investigation material” – Salah Taha recognizes only his son’s folded pocket knife. It has a screwdriver and a bottle opener, he says, and his son used to keep it in his pocket. The knife remains folded even in the police photo. The father does not recognize the other two knives, which are new and identical to each other.

Salah was driving his taxi and had no idea of what had happened, when his brother came toward him, made him stop and told him the appalling news. He let the passengers out and rushed home.

“The Lord gave, the Lord took,” the bereaved father says now in the Hebrew he learned from his days at the Beit Shemesh slaughterhouse. He does not add, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

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