Opinion

Palestinian's Penalty for Air Pollution: 20 Bullets Fired by Israeli Police

A Palestinian scrap metal collector was returning to his West Bank town after burning wires when Israeli Border Police apparently signaled him to stop. When he continued to drive, they sprayed his car with bullets

Umar Awwad's family.
\ Alex Levac

Why did they kill Umar Awwad by shooting 20 bullets at his vehicle? Six bullets penetrated his body from behind, killing him on the spot. Why was it necessary to shoot him to death, when further along on the dirt road more Border Policemen were stationed, who could have easily arrested him? Why does the logic of the occupation dictate that lethal fire with live ammunition must be the first, frighteningly easy response to everything the occupier deems disorderly conduct?

Yes, Awwad was indeed engaging in work that’s harmful to the environment – there’s nothing like the occupation regime when it comes to protecting the environment in the territories, as if they were Greenpeace activists – and yes, he did not stop when they apparently signaled him to do so. But are those sufficient grounds for executing him? Twenty bullets fired at his departing Mitsubishi pick-up truck, six of them entering his body, hardly gave him a chance. And all for the sin of burning electrical wires, which pollutes the air of the moshavim of Amatzia and Lachish on the western side of the separation barrier.

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He was 22 years old at the time of his death, a young man who had grown up without a father, and who supported himself and his mother, with whom he shared a bare apartment, primarily by collecting old electrical wires from junk heaps. From these, he extracted strands of copper, which he would then resell.

Idhna, a town in the southern part of the West Bank that is home to some 30,000 residents, spreads out to the west of Hebron, not far from the security barrier, most of which is a high concrete wall in this area. The Awwads’ home is not far from the center of town, which during the afternoon is crowded with vehicles, some stolen from Israel, which can barely pass each other on the narrow, neglected roads.

“Are you Gideon? Gideon Levy?” asks one of the bereaved brothers in Hebrew, as he approaches us, his expression tough and threatening, on the stairs of the two-story family home. “You were in the television show ‘Hakodkhim’ [The Drillers]?” he asks, his face lighting up for a moment with a slight smile.

“Hakodkhim?” The question stuns us. A forgotten docu-reality series broadcast in the summer of 2015 on the HOT cable network, mentioned in a house of mourning in a remote Palestinian town. The bereaved brother, Mohammed, continues: “I love to listen to [talk-show hosts] Yoram Sheftel and Natan Zahavi on the 103 radio station. I remember Haim Yavin’s series ‘Land of the Settlers.’”

Mohammed Awwad, Umar's brother (left).
\ Alex Levac

Mohammed, 31, an older brother of the deceased Umar – they have two other brothers and two sisters – lives on the first floor of the house together with his wife and two small children, who are now running around in tracksuits. Until he lost his brother, about two weeks ago, he had spent most of his years working in Israel, as did his three brothers. They had never been detained or implicated in anything.

“We are regular people. Never ‘anti.’ We have no past, we’re not connected to any organization. Normal. We’ve been everywhere, from Be’er Sheva to Kiryat Shmona. We’ve worked everywhere,” Mohammed testifies. For several years, he worked for the Kibbutz Gezer-owned Walnut storage-units company, assembling sheds. Once he even assembled some units for settlers in the Givat Ha’avot neighborhood of Hebron, he says.

Residents of a border town, the Awwads had Jewish friends in whose homes they slept occasionally. Umar was single, and he wasn’t engaged.

“This is a child who grew up without his father, who died 14 years ago,” continues Mohammed. “You can do the math and figure out how old he was when his father died – 7 or 8. He stayed with his mother to support her.”

The mother, Aisha, 58, enters the room with heavy steps and barely utters a word. The guest room where we now sit had also been Umar’s bedroom.

But work in Israel wasn’t paying off for Umar – to get a permit to work there, you need to pay 2,500 shekels ($663) a month to a macher with connections – and so he returned a few months ago to his father’s old job: collecting scrap metal in the West Bank and selling the valuable bits to merchants. He would find or buy old electrical wires and go out into Idhna’s fields to burn their plastic casings and extract the copper, the price of which has fallen in recent years.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago, on December 11, the brothers were at work: Mohammed was in Kiryat Gat, Ibrahim was in Ashdod (both work in construction), Imad, the eldest brother, was at Idhna’s grade school, where he serves as vice principal, and Umar headed to burn wires. That day, Mohammed couldn't find work and was looking for temporary jobs not far from Ashkelon, when a young Palestinian worker like himself approached him to say that someone had been killed in Idhna.

It was late morning. Mohammed says now that he didn’t take any special interest in the report about the fatality because Idhna is a big town. But the youth pressed him and put him in phone contact with someone in the town, who informed Mohammed that the young man who had been killed was burning electrical wires. Now Mohammed became panicky, as “the penny dropped,” as he put it. He checked for information on Facebook: “I was afraid that I would find his name there. Maybe it was Umar. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it.” Then Mohammed called his brother Imad, who confirmed the bitter news.

“We were stunned. Someone burning copper – for that they kill us? Let’s say that he broke the law. But they don’t even execute murderers.” Mohammed says that he hitched a ride to Hebron, where he went straight to the city’s Al-Ahli Hospital. The body there was his brother’s.

We are heading to the site of the killing, a few kilometers from the family’s house, on the western edge of Idhna, near the security barrier. The road in disrepair that leads out of town turns into a dirt road in even worse condition, forcing one to drive slowly. It was around 10 A.M., on that fateful Tuesday, when Umar was meant to return to Idhna, apparently after burning electrical wires just outside town.

A Citröen Berlingo van belonging to the Civil Administration was standing at the spot where two dirt roads intersected, between a dairy barn and a sheep pen. Maybe it was on a stakeout. It’s not clear how fast Awwad was driving. He was alone in his pick-up truck. Eyewitnesses say that the Berlingo’s front license plate was Palestinian (white), and the rear plate was Israeli (yellow). Perhaps this is why Umar didn’t stop, because of the Palestinian plate on the front. There are no witnesses who can confirm that the people in the Berlingo called for him to stop. Maybe they signaled to him, or maybe the vehicle was positioned so that he would be forced to stop. In any event, Umar’s brothers admit that there is no doubt that he was trying to evade a fine of thousands of shekels. They say the Civil Administration vehicle, accompanied by a Border Police escort, was looking for people burning cables that same day.

A few hundred meters from where the Berlingo was parked, a surprise Border Police roadblock had been erected. It would have been easy to detain him there, say eyewitnesses. Umar apparently kept going, passing the van, continuing on toward town, which is when the Border Policemen opened fire on the fleeing vehicle, spraying it with some 20 bullets. Umar’s van somehow continued another 400 meters until it struck a boulder by the side of the road.

A donkey now nibbles on some deeply green grass in the field abutting the road. Amana Jawwi, who lives very close to Idhna’s entrance, across from where the incident occurred, recalls that she heard noise, came out of her house and saw a woman and a man in uniform kneeling and shooting at Awwad’s vehicle. Eyewitness Husam Jawwi, comes out now, declaring angrily, “What this was, was murder. They killed him in cold blood.”

After the van came to a stop, the Border Police removed Mohammed’s body out and a Palestinian ambulance that had been summoned took the body to the hospital. Afterward, the policemen threw the gear out of Mohammed’s van – work gloves and pliers. Another neighbor gathered them up and took a photograph. In Idhna they think the police threw out the gear in order to hide the fact that Umar was simply on his way from work. Afterward, the troops confiscated the vehicle.

Asked for comment, the Israel Police issued the following statement to Haaretz this week: An investigation conducted in the wake of the incident makes clear that an attempt was made to injure members of the security forces who were present carrying out law-enforcement duties.

According to the findings, the suspect, after crashing into the Civil Administration vehicle, began driving toward a Border Policeman, in an attempt to run him over. The Border Policeman fired several rounds in the air, and when the suspect did not stop, he shot at his vehicle. The suspect died from his wounds after being evacuated for medical treatment.

Needless to say, according to the rules of engagement, any fighter who is in a situation in which he feels his life is in danger from someone who threatens to hurt or kill him, is permitted and even required to shoot so as to neutralize the threat and to save both civilian life and his own.

Now the brothers’ permits to work in Israel have been rescinded, as is routine for family members after an incident in which a Palestinian is killed, lest they be inclined to avenge the death. Thus the calamity is doubled and tripled. Here is Umar Awwad’s last picture: a muscular young man wearing a tight gray T-shirt, highlighting his strong body, taken at a local photography studio. And here is another, from three months ago. Umar stands on a boulder with a friend at the beach in Ashkelon, a smile on his face.