Gideon Levy

Palestinian Shot Dead When Israeli Troops Mistake His Towel for a Firebomb

Omar al-Badawi stepped outside to douse a small fire that started when a Molotov cocktail accidentally struck the wall of his house. At that very moment, Israeli soldiers shot him dead

At the home of Omar Badawi's parents, this week.
Alex Levac

He was killed because he was holding a towel. The soldiers thought it was an incendiary device and shot him to death, on his doorstep.

A video of the incident leaves no room for doubt: A young man steps out from his front door, with a towel, and shouts to a neighbor to bring water fast to help him put out the flames that are licking at the wall of his house – which was ignited by a Molotov cocktail that teenagers had thrown at soldiers, and that had missed its mark. A soldier standing down the lane immediately opens fire at the young man, who collapses and tries in vain to get up. He dies a short time later.

Thus ended, so senselessly, the short life of Omar al-Badawi, 22, from the Al-Arroub refugee camp, located on the main road between Bethlehem and Hebron.

The incident took place on November 11, the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death, which each year is a day of unrest in the occupied territories in general and in Al-Arroub in particular. On November 11, 2014, Mohammed Jawabreh, 19, was killed there – shot in his home with live ammunition by Israel Defense Forces soldiers standing on the roof of a nearby house. The IDF claimed at the time that the troops thought Jawabra was holding a weapon and felt they were in danger, but an investigation by B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, ruled out that possibility. This time around, the soldiers thought their victim was holding a Molotov cocktail – which was actually a towel.

Also on November 11, the year following Jawabreh’s killing, Ibrahim Dawad, a 16-year-old, from the village of Deir Ghasana, north of Ramallah, was shot dead by Border Police.

It’s a narrow alley, just wide enough to walk through, in the upper part of the Al-Arroub camp, and not far from its entrance. Garbage bags are piled in front of the house; a huge memorial poster of the deceased covers the top floor, placed there by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. House abuts house here, window is next to window – this is the camp’s most densely populated area. From the door of this house Badawi emerged briefly, during what turned out to be the last moments of his life.

The lane leading up to the house is steep. The soldier who shot Badawi – one bullet, to the upper body – stood lower down, with about 20 meters as the crow flies separating him and his victim. Badawi fell on his back onto the steps leading to his home, before rolling down into the street.

It was a little after noon. The soldiers tried to drive the stone throwers – a few dozen high-school pupils – from Highway 60 back into the camp, chasing them and firing tear-gas grenades whose fumes wafted into the houses. Badawi was at home, renovating his parents’ bathroom. When tear gas began drifting in, he hurried outside together with his sister Maram, 23, his 16-year-old brother Basal, and two cousins, Hamza, 14, and Yazen, 12. He shouted to the neighbor across the way, a relative named Tareq Badawi, 25, to open the door, and the five young people rushed in, seeking shelter from the thick smoke.

A few minutes later, Omar noticed that the outer, unplastered wall of his own house was on fire, along with a climbing plant outside Tareq’s house and curtains, inside. The young demonstrators were now tossing Molotov cocktails at the soldiers. Badawi rushed out, a towel in hand, to douse the flames, and shouted at the neighbors to bring water. At that moment he was shot.

Now the wall of his house is blackened with soot, and Tareq’s curtains and climbing plant are scorched.

Video clips recorded the sequence of events. One was taken by the Palestinian press photographer Muad Amarna, who was wearing a bullet-proof vest with the label “Press” on it; four days later he lost an eye after being shot by IDF troops in the village of Surif, near Hebron. Footage taken by another local journalist, Abdul Rahman Hassan, shows Badawi emerging from the house with the towel and walking down the steps. Two press photographers are seen standing across the way, another is behind him, all of them covering the protests and trying to evade the tear gas.

The moment Badawi asks for water to help him put out the fire, he is shot. Anguished cries and curses are heard. Badawi is placed in a private car, which takes him to the local clinic of UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency.

In a second clip taken by Amarna, when he still had two eyes, three soldiers are seen firing three shots in the air, and walking back and forth – and then another shot is heard, but not fired by them. Badawi is then seen collapsing. This time the video is taken from the front, from the alleyway. Badawi was not shot by the soldiers standing nearby, rather by a soldier in ambush, who aimed and fired, from the bottom of the road.

Wearing flip-flops, jeans and a purple T-shirt, Badawi is seen gripping his bleeding stomach and stumbling. Hysterical cries are soon heard as his friends carry him to the neighbor’s car.

Haitham Badawi is the bereaved father now grieving over the death of his son. He’s 55, an employee of Al-Arroub’s local “popular committee,” and has three daughters and two surviving sons. The living room is small. Omar, his father says, served in the Palestinian police until he left the force after being transferred to a job in intelligence. Lately he had been working with his uncle doing renovations in the camp and had started to build his own apartment on the second floor of his parents’ home, where he hoped to raise his own family. As far as is known, there was no intended bride. The bereaved mother, Hajar, joins the conversation. The parents were not home when their son was killed, we are told: He was at work, she was at the clinic, where she was having her blood pressure checked.

Omar awoke that morning exceptionally early, at about 6:15. It was cold in the house, and his mother urged him to go back to bed. Omar’s uncle Nur Badawi lives in the adjacent house. He is a janitor at a local college and came home earlier than usual. School ends early on the memorial day for Arafat. Nur was standing a meter and a half away from Omar when he was shot. He first drew back in a panic and then rushed to help evacuate his dying nephew. As they carried Omar to the car the soldiers threw stun grenades before leaving. The family was afraid the soldiers would kidnap the wounded Omar. He managed to say to Tareq, who rushed to him: “My back hurts.” Those were his last words.

Some time after he was brought to the UNRWA clinic, a Palestinian ambulance arrived and took Badawi to the Al Ahli Hospital in Hebron. Highway 60 was closed because of the unrest and it took the ambulance 20 minutes to get there, via back roads. He was still breathing when he arrived at Al Ahli, but at 1:30 P.M., 40 minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

During our visit, the phone in the family’s home rings. The headquarters of the District Coordination and Liaison Office requests that they come to give testimony to the Military Police investigators who are looking into the incident. Omar’s parents aren’t sure how they can get to the DCL building, in Hebron.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz this week: “The incident in question is under investigation, following which the findings will be forwarded to the military advocate general. Naturally, details cannot be provided at present concerning an ongoing investigation.”

An Israeli flag flies provocatively above the fortified IDF watchtower that looms over the entrance to Al-Arroub, on the main road. That flag is in the face of anyone who opens a window or a door in the camp.

The bathroom Badawi was renovating on the last day of his life is totally bare. He’d managed to remove tiles from the old wall and the floor, but hadn’t yet replaced them. The bag of old tile shards lies mutely at the entrance to the house.